Paola Murillo: Latin legacy

Paola Murillo, the force behind Carnaval del Sol, is focused on helping B.C. cash in on Latin American business opportunities

Paola Murillo, executive director of ExpoPlaza Latina: “I just knocked on every single door. I believed that I had something and I went and said, ‘Hey, do you know the Latin American market?’”

When Colombian-born entrepreneur Paola Murillo decided Vancouver was the wrong place to sell sexy Colombian lingerie, she abandoned that project and dreamed up another: bringing together Vancouver’s Latin American community.

Murillo is the founder of cultural and business organization Latincouver and the force behind Vancouver’s popular Carnaval del Sol summer festival. In 2011, the Canadian Hispanic Business Association named Murillo one of the organization’s 10 most influential Hispanic Canadians.

But Murillo said that her work in “bringing Latin America to Vancouver” is far from done. Having used the region’s culture as a rallying point, she’s now focused on her true goal: building business links between B.C. and Latin America.

This week, Murillo launches the inaugural ExpoPlaza Latina, which is billed as “Vancouver’s first Latin American trade conference.” She said the February 7 event will present business opportunities in Latin America and create a forum to connect local companies with locally based Latin American professionals.

While ExpoPlaza’s success remains to be seen, Murillo’s track record bodes well for the event and her broader plan to forge local business links with Latin America. Born into a business family in Bogotá, Murillo’s entrepreneurial ambitions started early.

By age nine, she’d discovered that, by stretching a rope across the street in front of her house, she could halt cars and sell candies to her captive clientele.

By her early teens, Murillo was making and selling 50 sandwiches a day to her school classmates, to the chagrin of her competition: the school authorities. Toward the end of high school, she’d added another line of business to her repertoire: selling pens to classmates.

Alongside her early business ventures, Murillo honed her networking and event-planning skills, volunteering to organize school dances and other events.

Murillo remembers hosting a party in her mid-teens and having 250 people show up at her house – to the consternation of her father.

“My dad closed down the party. He said, ‘If you ever do a party, it has to be in the street – never in my house again.’”

Murillo took his words to heart – and her events to larger forums.

In 1999, Murillo was living in the U.S., studying business and marketing at the University of Kentucky, when an earthquake struck Colombia. The fundraising event she subsequently organized for her distant homeland attracted 2,000 attendees.

After her undergraduate degree, Murillo moved to France to complete an MBA in international marketing at Grenoble Graduate School of Business, all the while dreaming up potential business ideas.

In 2005, she moved to Montreal with a business plan: she would import and sell fine Colombian lingerie to the city’s stylish residents.

However, Montreal’s lingerie consumers never got their Colombian knickers: a few months into her research, Murillo’s Vancouver-dwelling brother convinced her to visit – and then move to – the West Coast.

In Vancouver, Murillo reluctantly decided that the Lululemon-wearing locals didn’t have Montreal’s appetite for exotic unmentionables, and she started looking for an alternative plan.

In 2007, after taking some courses in sustainability, Murillo launched Mirrai International, a marketing and communications company with a green twist.

But Murillo was also pursuing another idea: forging links between B.C. and Latin America, while simultaneously helping Latino newcomers integrate and find good jobs. The result was Latincouver, a website and organization geared at everything from helping Latino newcomers to promoting a regional “Latin American” identity through cultural and business events.

From the start, Murillo was determined to build an organization with a professional tone.

To that end, when Murillo planned Latincouver’s launch event – and the inaugural Carnaval del Sol – in 2009, she invited a local who’s who of guests, including Latin American consuls and then-premier Gordon Campbell. Murillo said the event attracted 500 attendees and gave the new organization profile, credibility and momentum.

With Murillo at the helm, Latincouver has since organized more than 300 events – many of them networking breakfasts to connect Latino and non-Latino locals. Murillo said she’s financed the organization’s activities by landing sponsors.

“I just knocked on every single door,” she said. “I believed that I had something and I went and said, ‘Hey, do you know the Latin American market? Let me introduce you to them.’”

Murillo’s efforts have propelled the organization into the limelight, with events such as the Carneval del Sol, which surged to 50,000 attendees in 2011, and was set to eclipse that in 2012, before bad weather cooled demand.

Murillo said that, with Latincouver now on the map, the time is right for an identity shift, and events such as ExpoPlaza Latina.

“Carneval del Sol has brought a lot of fun and sun to the city, but now we’re changing the image a little bit to make it more professional,” she said.

She added that Latincouver’s business-oriented events have already improved business results for the organization’s members, and she’s excited to see more of that.

“This is why I wake up every morning – seeing that we’re making changes, that we’re creating something,” she said.

As she’s developed Latincouver, Murillo has refocused her Mirrai consulting company into a marketing agency for Latin America.

She said as Latincouver becomes stronger, she’ll play a smaller role with the organization and spend more time consulting.

For Murillo, chasing her passions and a knack for finding the right people and empowering them have been key to her success.

“In Latincouver, I always give people space to do what they like,” she said. “[I say], ‘What do you like? What do you want to be? Don’t be scared.’”

Antonio Arreaga, the Vancouver-based honorary consul of Costa Rica, agreed that Murillo is good at surrounding herself with capable people, and getting them energized and involved. But beyond that, he said, Murillo’s achievements are the result of her hard work and dedication.

“She has perseverance, not just vision,” he said. “I think that for her, every obstacle is an opportunity.” •

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