Karla Montalvan, a world traveler, and Cuban turned American immigrant is a columnist for People en Español’s vertical Chica. She is also the Strategy and Editorial Director at Tamdem Studio, a creative agency she co-founded in 2019 after 10 years of working in non-profit management, fundraising, donor relations, and international communications. She is a graduate of Miami Dade College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in coaching.
In this episode, Karla talks to host Tivi Jones advocating for women of color, asking for help, self-care, having more fun, and creating a life that inspires you.
For 10 years, Karla worked in the international nonprofit sector, writing grants. “My mom always told me that I can be a writer but I have to make it lucrative,” Karla says. In 2019, at the age of 25, she experienced burnout and wanted to change her career to something that involved a storytelling component. She quit her job and started interning at digital marketing companies. Her friends were surprised and skeptical of this switch and didn’t understand why she would quit a job with benefits for internships during the day and waitressing at night.
“When I left my job at 25, I got very depressed because I lost a lot of friends and had to get to know myself again. But I also connected with a side of me that had nothing else to lose, so I was like what do you really want?” Karla remembers.
She worked for Durham Catering and would run into former coworkers and bosses at big events who would ask her–“What are you doing waiting tables?” And she’d respond with “Give me a few years.”
“But after I left those events, I was a mess. I was like what have I done? I should have stayed at my job. I lost one of my best friends who told me I did this to myself by giving up these opportunities,” Karla says.
Now, that this stage of her life has passed, Karla encourages her younger cousins to follow their paths. “You could say ‘this job doesn’t fulfill me but doing this other this is hard.’ But then imagine at 35 you get cancer. Someone fills up your job position and you’re done. And then what? Your life is gone!”
Karla ended up moving to the Dominican Republic for a year, where she met her partner, Omar de Moya. They both had complementing experiences–Omar in design and Karla in editorial strategy. So the pair came up with an idea for a creative studio, which they named Tamdem. Tamdem focuses on uplifting bilingual and Hispanic people who want to launch their own brands.
The studio has grown tremendously in the past year and a half, Karla says because they really connected with clients who needed a Hispanic strategy.
"Latinos are not a monolith. We look different, we come from 22 different countries, we eat different foods, and the way we talk is also different depending on the regions that we come from,” Karla says.
Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the U.S. and Karla’s goal is to represent her community and help as many professionals as possible.
Karla’s courage to quit her 9-5 job and embark on a journey to find a career that fulfills her has paid off. But being an entrepreneur can feel lonely, too.
“One thing that we don’t talk about enough in entrepreneurship is the mental and emotional strain,” Tivi says. “It’s very lonely to be an entrepreneur. People tell me ‘you’re killing it,’ ‘you’re doing such a good job’ but they didn’t see me struggling for the last 10 years. That’s why I’m glad I can have a conversation with women like you who are so open and honest,” she says.
TRAVELING AS A DIGITAL ENTREPRENEUR
Karla doesn’t know if she’d ever come back to working in a traditional setting. She loves having the flexibility of working from anywhere in the world and finding a community in different places. She says what resonates with her the most–no matter where she lives–is that people have fundamental things in common: everybody wants to feel like they belong, and they want to be loved and cared for.
“It is very enriching for me as an entrepreneur to be able to go to a new place, still give back to my community back home in the States, but at the same time learn and grow from different people in different areas and live different realities,” Karla says.
"It's very enriching for me as an entrepreneur to be able to go to a new place, still give back to my community back home in the States, but at the same time learn and grow from different people in different areas and live different realities,” Karla says.
When she was a child, Karla left Cuba with her family for the U.S. because of political issues. Before she briefly moved to the Dominican Republic as an adult, she thought she’d feel like an island girl again, but the experience was different. “There are a lot of things that are similar in the Dominican Republic. We are similar in food, we love to dance, and we are very hospitable, but we are definitely very different culturally and we hold different values. And that for me was a huge learning experience,” she says.
As a business owner, Karla works with people from different areas of the world. On her team, she has two Venezuelans, four Dominicans, one Honduran, one person from El Salvador, one from Spain, and she is from Cuba. Karla has to adapt her leadership style depending on the cultural background of each person.
Karla says because she doesn’t look like what “Latinos” are supposed to look like and yet doesn’t sound that American, people have trouble placing her in a box. “I just want to continue opening it up so that we don’t have to fit in a box–we all belong. We can make it whatever we want and entrepreneurship is a collaborative space,” she says.
A lot of people have perceived Karla as White and not Latina. She says when she was in college, some girls would bad-mouth other Latinas in the classroom next to her, thinking she was not a Latina. People also usually get confused when they meet her family–both of Karla’s parents have Black hair and skin darker than hers. She recalls sometimes people coming up to her mom and saying–“You adopted this child. There’s no way this child is yours.”
Karla noticed that happening in many Latino communities where they perceive non-Hispanic Black people differently than Afro-Latinos and yet fail to recognize how much African roots have influenced their community. “You can be active in both communities,” Karla says. “You could still be an Afro-Latina and identify as Black. The Afro-Latino community in the U.S. is huge because we have such a high number of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Brazilians. Our culture is heavily influenced by our African roots.”
She says they have influences from Portuguese, Spanish, and French colonizers but that the richness of the cultures in Latin America and in the U.S. comes from African heritage.
"The food that we eat, the dances, the music that we all love, the drums-- all come from African influences,” Karla says.
As a leader, it’s difficult for Karla to listen to ignorant comments and not try to educate that person about their own history.
BEING AN ALLY
Tivi, who works with Karla and her team on some Spanish projects at Hey Awesome Girl, says that many groups in America are oppressed, and the system in which we live likes to pit them against each other.
“It’s like ‘oppression Olympics’ and that’s not a thing,” Tivi says.
She says most people who are Black, Indigenous, or of color are not set up to succeed. But what matters the most is that we all benefit when we are allies for each other. “I think that’s the whole point behind Black Lives Matter. The house is on fire right now and we need to put out that fire before we can handle all the other things going on,” Tivi says.
Karla remembers when at the height of George Floyd protests, people came up with the “All Lives Matter” slogan and how she consistently had to correct her peers who claimed you can’t only say “Black Lives Matter”– “Of course all lives matter, but with Black Lives Matter we are highlighting an issue that has been going on and no one has been looking at it. So when something like that happens, you need to pay attention because you weren’t paying attention before.”
She continues, “So how many times does it have to be peaceful? How many times does it have to be gentle? If those things are not working, then something has to be done and attention has to be paid. No one is saying that all cops are bad. No one is generalizing. But how many times has the media generalized the people of color?”
Karla points out how the media always covers a white woman’s disappearance. On the other hand, she highlights that Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic women are killed at almost double the rate and they don’t get nearly as much coverage. “So if we are not allies to each other, then who’s going to be our ally?” she says. “I hear these debates about how Polish and the Italians were in the U.S. first and no, they weren’t. Native Americans were here first! Also, all of the slaves were brought here against their will,” Karla says.
The tensions in the U.S. have become a topic of conversation at many family dinners and thus have strained some relationships. Karla’s mom asks her to keep the conversations “light” at family dinners and to not spark a debate with someone over race, LGBTQ+ rights, abortion, etc. “And sometimes I try, but I swear to you, over the last two years, I have not been able to succeed in ‘keeping it light’. It’s like you’re either onboard or, I’m sorry,I don’t respect you,” Karla shares.
Tivi points out that Hey Awesome Girl’s mission is to be an ally.
“Me being an ally for the LGBTQ+ community is my business. Me supporting women's reproductive rights is my business. And this is another reason why I love working with you, Karla, because we align in a lot of ways. We are both fighting the good fight and doing it for our communities and doing it in tandem with each other.”
THE JOURNEY TO PEOPLE EN ESPAÑOL
Karla’s friend referred her to People en Español about a year ago… There was an opening for a writer who is a Hispanic woman, who speaks English and is passionate about women’s empowerment. Karla emailed the publication with her resume and writing samples and then never heard back. A few months later, her friend called and asked if she ever received a callback. Apparently, Karla’s resume had gotten lost in a pool of other resumes. Her friend followed up with the connection at the magazine and the next day Karla received a call from an editor. She was interviewed and asked to do a writing test.
“The last time I wrote for a publication, I was in college. So I was sweating. I called a friend of mine who works at NBC San Diego and said ‘I don’t think I can do this.” But her friend encouraged her and she ended up passing the test. She got hired in July 2021.
Karla’s editor wanted her to bring a new perspective to what a diverse population of Latin American women need, including BIPOC women, Afro-Latinas, members of the LGBTQ+ community, transgender, and Native American Latinas. Karla started asking all her Latina friends what they’d like to read in her column Chica. She started doing live talks not only with celebrities but also with business owners, doctors, and sexologists discussing topics that were taboo in their community.
She was disturbed by Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst taking her own life and decided to write about suicide in the Latino community.
"Suicide is an issue for women of color and it affects us disproportionally because we have ten times more pressure to succeed than white women do. She’s not being criticized for something dumb she said, she’s being criticized because her hair is too curly and her body is too muscular and she’s aging. When you read about all these criticisms that Miss USA was receiving, you see that these are the issues that we deal with,” Karla says.
Karla asked many Latina celebrities about the pressures that they feel to have a successful career and yet be depicted as they are. “Because who’s writing the roles for women of color on TV, radio, music industry? Are we really being represented as who we are or how somebody thinks we are?”
She just published her first cover for People Chica for Mach 2022 featuring Danna Paola, the famous Mexican actress, and singer. Paola, like other celebrities, highlighted taking care of your mental health as a priority.
Outside of work, Karla had a conversation with someone and his words have really stuck with her: “It’s hard to create opportunities for yourself and then, once you have them, to figure out how to delegate those opportunities with your mental health”
She says when she asks celebrities about mental health, they always tell her it’s about “finding that sweet spot where you’re not going insane.”
Karla compares success to a bag of popcorn. “Success sometimes is a very difficult mask to keep up. For the spectator, your success is never enough. How long is it gonna take you to get to the next level and then the next level? Creating opportunities for yourself, and creating that inertia is difficult. And then once things finally get rolling, it’s like a bag of popcorn. One pops and the other one pops. And then suddenly the whole bag pops. So when the whole bag is popping, there comes a time when you really just need to chill,” she says.
Here are some of the self-care tips that celebrities have shared with Karla:
- Find time to journal.
- Create a morning routine or a nighttime routine that works for you.
- Find time for quiet.
- Turn off your phone and your computer.
- Ask for help.
- Have someone to listen to you.
When Karla has a difficult day, she just wants to call her mom and have her listen. “Mothers of color tell you that you gotta be a bad-ass and you can’t cry. They say ‘when I was your age, I had three kids, and four husbands, and three dogs and I did it.,’” she says. “And that’s very admirable, but sometimes I just have to say ‘mommy, I need you to listen to me cry on the phone and then tell me it’s gonna be okay.”
ADVICE TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF
“I’d tell my younger self to have more fun!” Karla says.
She was carrying the responsibility of being the first generation in her family to graduate from college and honoring her family’s sacrifice for her education and well-being. In college, all she did was study to not disappoint her family.
“I come from a low-mid income family. And I knew early on that I didn't have the privilege of failing a class or not wanting to go to school. I knew that if I didn't take advantage of the opportunities that were served to me, I wouldn’t be able to get an education,” Karla says.
A couple of years after Karla graduated, she realized that she had a fear of failure and missed out on having fun. “I was 23 and had already done all those things that people told me would make me happy–buy furniture, have a credit line, a car, a job, and I realized that I was not fulfilled.”
THE NEAR FUTURE
One thing that Karla is looking forward to this year is vacation. “As a Capricorn, I have not taken a vacation since I was 25,” she says. “I’m studying for my Master’s in coaching this year and don’t have weekends.”
Her biggest goal in 2022 is to scale her business by taking care of herself first. “There’s just something about taking care of yourself that trickles into every area of your life. And in 2021, I realized I didn't take time to rest, to sit back, disconnect, and delegate.”
Karla has established a morning routine for herself. She writes in her “Capricorn” journal, does affirmations and visualizations, and exercises. One day she goes to a park with her dog and brings her journal, another day she goes to the gym.
“It’s just about creating a life that inspires you,” she says.
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Tell us on social media – how are you creating a life that inspires you?
Suicide prevention resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Hotline
Suicide Prevention Resource Center
SAMHSA Treatment Referral Hotline (Substance Abuse)
Crisis Text Line
24/7: Text TALK to 741-741 to text with a trained crisis counselor for free
Demi Vitkute is a Media Editorial Manager at Hey Awesome Girl and Director of Hey Awesome Girl with Tivi Jones show. She’s a passionate storyteller, fashion aficionado + crazy cat mom trying to change the world. She’s a journalist, editor, and media consultant. Demi is the founder of The Urban Watch Magazine and has written for The Washington Post, Inside Hook, and Promo Magazine, among others. You can follow her on IG and Twitter @demiivit.