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SUSAN JARAMILLO SHARES HER SECRET TO SUCCESS



For Susan Jaramillo, ’77, co-owner of Rainbow Broadcasting Co. Inc. and station manager of WRBW-TV in Orlando, Florida, there’s only one way to climb a corporate ladder: build your own ladder and find a comfortable perch at the top.

“My dad always said when I was younger, ‘You’re smart, but you’re a woman, and in this world you’re handicapped in terms of being successful. You should either have your own profession, like a lawyer or doctor, or have your own business. Don’t go to work for anybody else,’” Jaramillo says. “I guess this was in my head, so except for taking a job to learn the business so I could figure out how to do something on my own with it, I never really considered doing anything else.”

After graduating from high school at 16 in the freewheeling ’60s, Jaramillo struck out on her own and headed for Europe. She settled into life in Madrid, where she quickly realized that there was money to be made by filling a niche for visiting foreigners. Pensiones were the only available housing for travelers on a budget, but most disliked the strict house rules imposed by the older women who ran them. Spotting opportunity, Jaramillo rented a 12-bedroom house and opened a westernized pension.

While in Spain, she also made her first foray into the entertainment business as an extra in films. But with directors hungry for the blond, blue-eyed “American look,” the dark-haired Jaramillo didn’t find herself overwhelmed with work. Instead she found herself with a pension full of American friends who often ran out of money and became freeloading guests. She again seized opportunity, dropping out of the film extra business only to put her friends in it–and earning half their pay as commission. Her rooms were now full of paying guests, and a businesswoman was born.

Although she had always assumed she would work for herself, Jaramillo had not considered business as a career. “I wanted to be an anthropologist. Or a writer. I was much more into the humanities. Business people were all those guys with wing tips and briefcases.” But with the success of her pension and her casting agency, “I started to realize I did have a little knack for
business,” she says.

Returning to the States at 18 wealthier than when she had left, Jaramillo spent the next several years developing her “little knack” through other business ventures. One of the first was a painting and decorating business she opened in Chicago in the early 1970s, when she and her employees became the first female members of a building and contracting union. “I figure my contribution to the women’s liberation movement was not to talk about it but to do it,” Jaramillo says. After an eventful few years–her car was once bombed in response to women joining the union–she then bought and managed a restaurant and discotheque in Puerto Rico.

“After that, I decided that instead of getting into these things willy-nilly, I’d go back to school and focus,” she says.

The GSB was her school of choice, though with no undergraduate degree, she had to work hard to gain admission. Initially rejected by the campus program, she began taking five classes at a time in the part-time program until the administration, realizing the absurdity of the situation, admitted her as a full-time student.

Degree in hand, Jaramillo set her sights on owning a television station or production company, and she began looking for a job that would teach her the business of TV. She finally found it as a financial consultant with CBS, working at WBBM-TV in Chicago.“At the time they were just a terrific company,” she says. “When I looked at the backgrounds of people at the big studios, TV companies, even movie companies, at some point almost everybody had worked at WBBM-TV. And I thought well, you know, this might be a pretty good start.”

Working with all departments, from news to promotions, it was Jaramillo’s job to analyze projects before making recommendations on budget and expenditures. The position, she says, was “just perfect. There was no faster way I was going to learn operations.“I couldn’t pass up the job, even though they paid me half of what I had been offered [elsewhere]. But I didn’t care, I had a lot of confidence that I’d make a lot of money later.”

She later worked at the 20th Century Fox television division in Los Angeles to learn about independent stations and programming. After doing her homework there as marketing director, she took advice she had given CBS earlier: acquire a television station in Miami. Deciding to start a television station from scratch, Jaramillo applied for the license for an available UHF frequency. “It had been around for 10 years, and for some reason, nobody wanted it. CBS didn’t take my recommendation. But I did. I looked at Miami and saw that it was a terrific market.”

Miami had three affiliates and one VHF independent with signal problems–it could only reach half the market. “Usually a UHF didn’t want to be up against a VHF independent because they’d clobber them,” she says. But Jaramillo had three things on her side: a better signal, low program prices, and, perhaps most advantageous of all, a low profile.

“At that time, I was a young woman. I figured I’d sneak in there, and they wouldn’t pay any attention. That’s what I did, and we managed to get a lot good programming before they figured out that we did have a good signal,” she says.

Jaramillo formed Channel 39 Broadcasting Corporation and launched WDZL in 1982. After three successful years, she sold the station and retired at age 39. “I decided I’d rather retire when I could enjoy it and go back to work when I was older,” she says. Her mother had died a year earlier, and for the next eight years she spent time with her father, traveled, and learned to be a “pretty good tennis player,” Jaramillo says. “I had a pretty nice run there.”

In 1993, she went back to work, this time as co-owner, with her sister and a third partner, of WRBW, the UPN affiliate in Orlando. The trio has since signed a contract to sell the station to United Television, and Jaramillo is mulling her options while waiting for the deal to close.
Although she has yet to determine her next step in business, the future of her personal life looks certain: With plans to adopt one or two children, parenthood is on the horizon. A second retirement, however, is not.

“I already retired once. I don’t just want to stop and go play golf every day,” she said. “I haven’t figured out what life is about, but I don’t think it’s about playing golf or fishing every day of my life.”

Whatever business venture is next, Jaramillo already knows she’ll enjoy it. It’s all a matter of attitude, she says.

“When I was a little girl, I figured out that if you’re going to have to work, you might as well learn to like it,” Jaramillo says. “I never disliked work. I had a good attitude towards it. I try to think of everything as an adventure. I guess it’s a habit of mine.”

–C.N.


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