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From Selling Sewing Kits at Age Ten in Venezuela to Managing Billions: Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg

Aaron Clamage

 (Aaron Clamage)

Fox News Latino features successful Hispanic entrepreneurs and corporate leaders.

Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg, started her business career at age 10, making and selling sewing kits in the neighborhood where she grew up in Venezuela. Today, the Founder and CEO of Strategic Investment Group manages billions of dollars for investors across the globe.

“Since I was very little I wanted to be financially independent. I didn’t want to feel frustrated like my mother for not being a professional,” Ochoa says.

She made her sewing kits with discarded fabrics a seamstress would give her. “I used those fabrics to make kind of long, rectangular sewing kits with twenty different threads inside,” which she sold as Christmas gifts. “ I made about two hundred of them and sold them for the equivalent of about five dollars each.”

Ochoa grew up in a middle-class family in Caracas. Her father was one of the first pilots in the Venezuelan air force and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. 

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Venezuela, at the time, was a country full of magic like many Latin American countries, where a young girl could imagine all the possible opportunities for herself, so it was a wonderful experience growing up there,” she says.

She earned a degree in economics from the Universidad Andres Bello in Caracas and when she was 27 years old she came to the United States to attend the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University on a Fullbright Fellowship.

Upon her return to Venezuela, she worked as an independent economic and financial consultant and then accepted a job at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. She left Venezuela at the peak of the country’s economic boom in the mid 1970s.

Ochoa, who holds a doctorate in business administration from the Harvard Business School, worked as Chief Investment Officer for the Pension Investment Division of the World Bank and as liability and asset advisor. After spending 12 years at the World Bank, she decided to further pursue the field of portfolio management and start her own company.

“I like the financial field because it is always different and challenging and forces you to connect all the dots, in terms of economic, political outlook and valuation,” Ochoa says.

In 1987 she founded Strategic Investment Group. Venturing on her own wasn’t easy. 

“I visited a number of potential investors and eventually I did find a group of European financial firms, who were interested in financing the company and becoming equity partners.”

Initially, she was able to secure $300 million dollars of assets to manage. Today her firm implements investment strategies for institutional and individual investors in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. By the end of 2010, her company and affiliates had more than 46 billion dollars of assets under management.

Named by Money magazine as one of the top 50 smartest women in business in the United States, Ochoa attributes her success to a bit of luck along the way. 

“One attracts luck by being well-prepared and by working hard all the time, and if you do that, you can hit a home run,” she says.

Her Virginia-based firm has faced difficult times in the recent economic downturn like many other companies in the field. 

“You face adversity in the investment management business, when the markets turn against your strategy,” she said. 

Ochoa has been able to gain the trust and respect from investors by “finding investment opportunities that surpass all the risks involved in any investment, by being honest and not selling products that offer unreal returns.”

Ochoa, 66, who also serves on the board of directors of McGraw-Hill Companies and General Mills and is the chairman of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, says she cannot imagine how her career would have progressed had she stayed in Venezuela. 

“I think I would have been a very unhappy person staying there. It has just declined into a terrible political system,” she says. “It is not longer a country where opportunity is rewarded; it is a country where your political connections are what lead you to be successful financially and personally.”

A mother of three, she has been married for more than 30 years. When her children were small, she had to multitask like many other working mothers and make some sacrifices, such as not being able to go to play groups with them.

But she made sure she was there for her kids’ first haircut. 

“For some reason that first haircut was a very emotional moment for me, that I would not want to miss,” adding that she decided to cut her own kids hair. “Since then, I always have a good pair of scissors at home.”

Her advice to working mothers: “You always find a way to turn sacrifice into an opportunity to interact with your children.”

Karla Palomo is a freelance multimedia correspondent and content producer in New York.

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