Sometimes just a few words can shape our lives forever. For Norah Prida Bay, that happened at a childhood Christmas dinner in her home in Mexico City. The entire family was gathered around the table. It was a male-dominated table in a male-dominated world. Her grandfather had four sons and all of those sons had sons, except her dad, who had three girls, including Prida Bay.
Her father—never too old for a little Christmas dinner rivalry—had just boasted to Prida Bay’s grandfather that she currently had won an award for highest grade average in her primary school. Her grandfather, who Prida Bay describes as a “serious, highly successful, and self-made man” responded, “Yes, Norah is my brightest grandchild. It’s a pity she was born a woman.” Not exactly the response one would expect from a loving family patriarch.
“There was complete silence and everyone’s eyes came towards me and it was the first time in my life I felt incredibly humiliated,” Prida Bay recalls. “And I was angry for many reasons. No one there said anything back to him. I didn’t say anything back to him. And I remember thinking, I’m going to so prove him wrong and that I can do anything.”
According to Prida Bay, the comment implied she would never take over her grandfather’s customs brokerage—simply because she was a woman. But that grandfather wasn’t the only strong influence in her life. Her father taught her she had no limits. “There was never anything I couldn’t do because I was a woman,” she says. “I always did everything men did—even riding motorcycles.”
AN EARLY START TO BUSINESS EDUCATION
Her maternal grandfather also taught her nothing was impossible. “I did tiny businesses with him all my life,” Prida Bay explains. They would leave Mexico City for rural markets where he would purchase different products and set up blankets for Prida Bay to try re-selling them.
“He would tell me, ‘I’m going to leave you here and I’m going to return in 30 minutes and you have to make sure you have sold each and every spoon,’” Priday Bay recalls. “He would pretend to go and I remember feeling so anxious and scared but that got me into selling and then I sold the equivalent of lemonade all the time.”
The harsh words of one grandfather and devoted support of another set Prida Bay on a lifelong pursuit of business and assuredly played a large role in how she got to her place today and our meeting on a late July morning in the lobby of a swanky hotel in San Francisco’s Financial District. Prida Bay’s strong accent, frequent laughter, and openness—she is, after all, the product of a Latin American culture—make you feel as though you were her best friend immediately.
‘I WANTED TO PROVE EVERYONE WRONG’
Prida Bay attended the Universidad Anáhuac México Norte where she majored in international business. She was the first woman in her family to gain a college degree, then went straight for the MBA.
“I was on a mission,” she says. “I wanted to prove everyone wrong. I started working. I left home and started living by myself. But all of these things were an outrage in Mexico. I wanted to prove a point.”
For a woman raised in a traditional and conservative Catholic Mexican family, the life she was living was bold, unusual, and slightly rebellious. She earned her MBA in 2002 from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and immediately went to work at Mexican bank, Banamex, which had recently been acquired by Citi.
‘I WAS VERY YOUNG AND ARROGANT AND STUPID’
Soon after, Prida Bay met her husband, Jorge Rubio Nava, who at the time was a relationship manager with Citi in Mexico City. In 2005, his work in microfinance led him and Priday Bay to London where in 2006, he earned the Financial Times Sustainable Business Deal of the Year Award for structuring the first local investment grade capital market transactions in the microfinance industry. Then in 2007, he was awarded the Financial Times Sustainable Bankers of the Year award for his work in microfinance.
Prida Bay continued her work as a banker, but she and Rubio Nava decided they wanted to share their successes with their home country. They moved back to Mexico. Rubio Nava created a new educational model for low-income families and Prida Bay began working on a beauty salon venture that would employ women.
Unfortunately, Prida Bay soon learned being a successful banker did not equate to running a successful beauty startup. “I took all of my money from eight years as an investment banker and took a European beauty brand into Mexican territory,” she says. “And the thing was, I was very young and arrogant and stupid. And I thought because I had been really successful as a banker, I’d be really successful as an entrepreneur and I don’t know why I thought that.”
Prida Bay spent a year and a half with her family in Mexico struggling to get the business established. “Unfortunately, there’s just not a nice way to put it,” she says. “I failed completely. I literally lost every penny.” And if there’s any question how Prida Bay feels about the failed business, it can be put to rest by the sudden tone change in her voice and a quick glance at her LinkedIn profile. Every other job she has held has long and thoughtful descriptions. The entry for Lunia Beauty Lounge? One vague line.
“Expertise plays a role. And knowing the industry you’re in, plays a role,” Priday Bay explains. “I had no knowledge of that industry. And I had no network in that industry.
“I had huge office space and started too big,” she says. “I learned to prove that the concept works first and then start scaling up.”
One last lesson on a failed venture?
“Never do it with your own money,” she says, laughing. “I mean, why the hell would you do that?”