LOWER EAST SIDE — There were many challenges facing Sylvia Montero in her effort to get from a tiny plantation shack in Puerto Rico to the Lower East Side before making her way as a top Latina executive in one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.
To help other women overcome humble beginnings, she used her story and life lessons to write a new motivational memoir, "Make it Your Business, Dare to Climb Ladder of Leadership." The book traces her story — from the sugarcane plantation to when her family established themselves as immigrants in the neighborhood, before Montero climbed the ladder to senior vice president of human resources at Pfizer Inc.
"It has very personal stories of how I learned the lessons of what would help me go up the corporate ladder, and they are rooted in the stories of my childhood," said Montero, 63, who is now retired from Pfizer, but serves as president of the board at the local nonprofit Grand Street Settlement, where proceeds from the book are being donated.
"Being a woman in corporate America, the lessons I learned as a minority growing up on the Lower East Side were golden," she said.
In 1957, at the age of 7, Montero's family moved to the Lower East Side because her parents "believed they could better take care of our big family." The seven-member family bounced around small apartments, including a now-demolished tenement on Stanton Street and the Baruch Houses.
"Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge — going to the end and turning back — was a big outing for us because we didn't have any money at all," said Montero, who later landed a full scholarship to Columbia University's Barnard College.
One of the defining moments in Montero's Lower East Side life occurred at Seward Park High in her final year of school.
Her English teachers asked students if they thought their four-year grade average should be a B-plus or higher, and Montero — the only Latina in her class — confidently raised her hand.
"Out of all the kids that raised their hands, he looked at me and said, 'Are you sure?'" recalled Montero, wondering if racial prejudice led to the teacher's comment.
"I decided then that I would not let other people limit how far I would go," Montero said of the book, which is in both English and Spanish.
Fast forward a few decades later — including a divorce and a stint in Puerto Rico, where the single mother began working for small pharmaceutical company — and she said sexism threatened to hold her back again.
On one occasion, Montero remembered standing with a male colleague when another Pfizer staffer mistook her for an administrative assistant and asked to her to do photocopies.
"He assumed because I was a woman I was a secretary, but I was at the same level as the male colleague he was greeting," she said. "I just smiled and said I don't know how the copier works."
The blunder turned the employee "beet red" when he realized his error, according to Montero.
"I had a responsibility to handle situations like that in a positive way," she said.
While Montero now lives in New Jersey, her story and her role at Grand Street Settlement keeps her in the neighborhood often.
"This is where my struggle with self-confidence happened," she said, "and this is where it resolved itself."