Jennifer Lopez Is Done With 'Happy to Be Here.' She Thinks Latina Entrepreneurs Are Undervalued, So She's Working to Give Them $14 Billion in Loans.
Gratitude has its limits, the superstar has learned. That's a lesson she hopes to impart to the 600,000 Latina entrepreneurs she's working to fund.
Jennifer Lopez remembers the moment, decades ago, when her first perfume passed the billion-dollar mark. Glow by JLo — with its curvy, frosted glass bottle, its namesake's initials dangling from delicate, layered chains — had become the best-selling fragrance in America, and was on track to making $2 billion. Her partners on the project were giddy. But when Lopez heard this news, the reality of her situation snapped into focus. She was being told the sky was the limit, but — "I'm thinking to myself, Wait a minute," Lopez says. "I didn't make but 0.01% of that."
She reflected on what got her to that point. She was certain her creative vision was what made the perfume popular. She'd decided how it would smell, how it would be marketed. And before any of that, she'd created the cultural platform that made the product possible at all: herself. "I'm here, building this brand on my back — doing these movies, singing these songs, defining myself by my style, by the things that I choose," she says.
It wasn't exactly like she'd been tricked, or taken advantage of. She'd welcomed the deal at the time. She'd been grateful for the opportunity, even. "When you start off as an artist, you're just happy to get whatever you can," Lopez says. "You can't believe your good fortune. I remember myself back then: I was like, 'Oh yeah, I'll do the perfume! Oh yes, I love fashion, I'll do a clothing line!' I'll do this, I'll do that. I was just so happy to be here."
This experience will be recognizable to many people: artists, athletes, immigrants, people without money, people without cultural currency — anyone who begins with little leverage. When someone who hasn't had many opportunities catches a break, they tend to work harder than everyone else. And whoever was savvy enough to offer the opportunity reaps the rewards. It's not an entirely bad situation, but there must come a moment when the power script flips.
"I realized, at a certain point, I'm still working my ass off, and everybody's collecting checks," Lopez says.
Now that she's the one collecting checks, Lopez is determined to help women like her flip the script. Sometimes that's easy: Just make your case and ask for more. But other times, whoever has the power advantage will resist. Subtly or overtly, they will make you feel as if you're still lucky to be there. That you should be grateful for what you've been given. And that — Lopez knows — can take a long time to unlearn.
To be clear, Jennifer Lopez is not complaining about how things have turned out. With a reported net worth of $400 million, she has sold over 80 million records globally, and her films have grossed over $3 billion. In the last three years alone, she produced and starred in the critically-acclaimed blockbuster Hustlers, performed at the Super Bowl, sang at Joe Biden's inauguration, was the subject of Netflix documentary Halftime, launched her long-time-coming skincare brand JLo Beauty, and triggered a cultural earthquake when she reunited with Ben Affleck 20 years after their first engagement — marrying him, at last, in July of this year. But at age 53, as one of the most celebrated women in the world, and arguably the most influential Hispanic celebrity, she's been reflecting on how themes from her own life speak to larger narratives — and how she can change those narratives for others.
In 2021, Lopez launched a philanthropic initiative called Limitless Labs, to raise funds and awareness for Latina entrepreneurs. Its first act was a partnership with Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses. At an event at a bookstore in the Bronx, Lopez praised the way financial institutions have rallied around Black women's businesses. But she questioned whether the same support had been given to Latina entrepreneurs. "In front of Goldman Sachs, I said, 'I know you've done this for African American women entrepreneurs. Now how about Latinas?'"
In June of this year, Lopez announced another partnership, this time with Grameen America — the fastest-growing microfinancing platform in the U.S. — serving low-income women entrepreneurs. As Grameen's national ambassador, Lopez will help Grameen disburse $14 billion in loans to 600,000 Latina entrepreneurs by 2030, along with 6 million hours of financial education.
Why this particular initiative? Lopez offers statistics. "Latino-owned businesses are the fastest-growing segment of all small businesses," she says. "In the past 10 years, Latino businesses grew 44%, compared to 4% in other [demographics], and yet, we remain, like, 60% less likely to receive loans from national banks. Women overall only receive 4% of loans from mainstream banks. We get, like, $1 out of every $23. And obviously, for women of color, it's even lower."
All of this is true, and according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, Hispanic women are the lowest-paid of all — 57 cents to every dollar earned by a white man.
Andrea Jung, the CEO of Grameen America, says that in conversations, Lopez expresses a kind of bewildered frustration at the slow pace of change. "She said to me, like, 'Why are my people housekeepers? Why can't we change this trajectory? Because we're now the leading community in the United States population-wise.'"
It's a compelling question, and worth turning right back to Lopez: Why does she think that as the Latino population has grown so significantly, and as different demographics have had their groundswell moments of support, support for the Latino community (and particularly Latino businesses) has remained so muted?
"I think, honestly, we just haven't had the opportunities that other people have had in this country," Lopez says. She pauses to think.
"But also," she continues, "I believe there's a little bit of the thinking I was talking about earlier — how I felt when I was coming up. It was like, I was just lucky to have whatever I had. I think there's a little bit of 'be grateful' in our culture. Be grateful for what you have instead of striving for more."
Gratitude is a funny thing. Tangled up with humility, it's a necessary posture for any striver to take — if they want anyone to help or cheer them on the way up, anyway. No one likes an "ingrate." But more than that, every spiritual leader in human history has taught that gratitude is an essential part of an enlightened, joyful existence — no matter if you're rich or poor, if the world worships or dumps on you.
And yet, these teachings emphasize gratitude as personal practice, not something to be enforced by others. Too often, people are kept "in check" by being told they're fortunate to have whatever they can get, because society views gratitude as a moral imperative. As children, the first thing we learn is to say "Thank you." So when someone says, "You should be grateful," it's natural to feel a bolt of shame — like you've been caught naked in your entitlement. But then, later, when the heat in your ears cools, you might start to question: What, exactly, am I being grateful for, again?
That's where Lopez believes the Latino community in America finds itself right now.
"I think this new generation is, like, Wait a minute," she says. "I'm a part of the fabric and wealth and growth of this country. I contribute in a really meaningful way."
Consider two young women you'll read about later in this issue — Jess Morales Rocketto and Stephanie Valencia, founders of Latino Media Network, one of the fastest-growing Spanish language radio networks in the U.S. "What I have learned," Valencia says, "is that despite how long our ancestors have been in this country — be it 15th generation or recently arrived in the United States — we all continue to live with the sense that we are a guest in someone else's house. Latinos are also Americans, and we've adopted this country and its traditions as our own. We care about the same things everyone else does. So when we are led by the common belief that we've earned a place in this country, there will be no stopping what we can accomplish."
Lopez is hopeful the tide is finally turning. "I think we are just kind of coming into our own right now," she says. "We are starting to believe."
When Lopez was growing up in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx — the middle child in a sandwich of three sisters — family dynamics revolved around one major concern.
"One of the first words I learned was bills," she says. "Having to pay the bills. That's what I heard my mom and dad talking about more than anything, the thing they worried about the most. So money — and not having enough of it — became kind of a central preoccupation in our household. My dad was working overtime, and my mom was a Tupperware lady, and then she became a kindergarten teacher and, you know, everybody was kind of working and working and working."
Lopez's parents were both born in Puerto Rico, and came to the continental U.S. when they were young. Lopez says that in certain ways, watching her parents struggle to make ends meet was a gift: It gave her the "work ethic" that made her famous. But there were also costs.
"My dad worked all night — you know, night shift," she says. "And my mom worked all day, and we never had both of them at the same time. It was always this grind to get ahead. It very much shaped me into a person who felt like I had to work hard all the time. Which I think became a theme in my life."
She says this matter-of-factly, like a person who's done her share of therapy — hacked away at a central limb in her life until she could see the shape of the bone that ached. She holds it out, turns it over, examines it objectively. As many of these self-discoveries are, the truth is hard-won but not unexpected.
"Money makes things easier for sure," she says. "But it definitely doesn't solve all your problems. You have to find that inside of yourself and find another way because wealth is not gonna do that."
So what is going to do that for Jennifer Lopez?
The documentary Halftime, which came out on Netflix this June, followed Lopez during an eventful stretch of her life in 2019 and early 2020. Lopez was asked to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show — a lifelong dream — and her film Hustlers premiered to critical acclaim. Hustlers follows the true story of a group of New York City strippers who, after the 2008 financial crash, begin to drug and steal money from Wall Street bros. Even though Lopez had starred in scores of blockbusters throughout her career — Marry Me, Maid in Manhattan, The Wedding Planner, Shall We Dance? — she'd been overlooked by the big awards shows since her 1997 breakout role in Selena. The dream, it was clear, was an Academy Awards nomination.
But as Halftime unfolds, we watch Lopez — turning 50, at the pinnacle of her fame and success — not get everything she wants. First, she's asked to split the Super Bowl stage with Shakira, the stinging implication being that just one Latina superstar isn't enough to hold America's attention. And then, after Hustlers is nominated by all the other big award shows — the Screen Actors Guild, Critics' Choice, Satellite, the Golden Globes, and so on — it gets snubbed by the Oscars. We watch Lopez in real time, grappling with the limits of gratitude. She was grateful to perform on the world's biggest stage; she was grateful to be nominated for a Golden Globe. And yet…
In 2018, before all of this came to pass, Lopez had done a song called "Limitless" for the movie Second Act. "When I did that song, I felt this real turning point in my life and the message that I wanted to get out there," she says.
The chorus of the song goes like this: I told myself I had to be a different someone in order to win at a war I had already won. I get it all from the saying, "I'll never give up," but look at me now. Look at me, I'm limitless…Nobody opened my doors. I am a woman saying I want more.
Lopez had loved the song when she recorded it, but in the years that followed, the message went from being aspirational to becoming a true mantra. "I hadn't really fully realized the idea to be true — that you are only limited by what you believe about yourself," Lopez says. But if pure, unmitigated affirmation from the powers that be would remain just out of reach, Lopez seemed to realize, maybe the game really was rigged. Maybe she should give up on being grateful for the opportunity to play a part. Maybe she should just play a different game.
At the end of Halftime — after the Oscars snub; after the Super Bowl, where she sang "Born in the USA" draped in a double-sided U.S. and Puerto Rican flag — we see Lopez turn her attention to empowering other Latinas to claim their piece of the pie. She starts Limitless Labs, goes home to the Bronx, sits in the local bookstore, tells Goldman Sachs executives they should give more money to Latina business owners.
"I love entrepreneurs because it's all about ideas," Lopez says now. "It's about being creative. It's about nurturing that spirit of limitlessness, and not putting yourself into one box your whole life."
These days, the "limitless" mindset has become a kind of litmus test for who Lopez will partner with. "If I look across the room at all the people that work with Jennifer," says Lisa Sequino, her JLo Beauty cofounder, "I see people who get things done, and people that can think with big impact. We love to talk about limitless opportunities."
Lopez says that this is not just a personal preference; it's smart business. "I like big thinkers. I don't like people who are scared," she says. "As they say in the streets, 'Scared money don't make money.' So don't worry about money. Don't worry about anything like that. I just want people who think, What's the biggest thing we can do? What is the biggest goal we can have? Because otherwise, why waste our time?"
So for all of these entrepreneurs Lopez is helping to fund, is the goal to think bigger than any financial concerns?
"No," Lopez says, yanking us back onto Reality Road. "No, no. That's not what I'm saying. That would be foolish. If I bring something to my team and they say, 'Jen, I know you love this, but here's our options. This is how much this is gonna cost, and we can get it done with this,' I'm not gonna be wasteful. You can't just not worry about money. That's not bright. But that's not something I think about when I'm creating or when I'm dreaming. You can't let that encumber you."
The loans that Grameen America offers its members — low-income women, many of them immigrants — are small: starting at $500. The average loan is $5,100. The women use these loans to restock the shelves of their convenience store, build a takeout menu at their restaurant, buy a sewing machine to start a tailoring business, or complete eyelash extension training so they can offer a new service in their salon. When the loans are repaid — and 99.8% of them are — the women are able to build credit scores, giving them entry into mainstream financial citizenship. The loans are like slivers of dreams, borrowed and paid back, lines of credit to bigger dreams — starting with the vacant storefront down the block, maybe.
But what Jennifer Lopez hopes to convey to these women, more than anything, is that while money matters — especially at the beginning, when there isn't much of it — the regard a woman has for herself is the interest that compounds into true success. And sure, it's easy to say all that when you're Jennifer Lopez, one of the most successful women in the world. But she believes, genuinely, that the principle applies just as much to women who are at the starting line. She doesn't want Latina entrepreneurs to feel grateful for every dollar. She wants them to see themselves as the lucrative investments they are.
"You have to be willing to fucking put in the work and do the research, or whatever it is you need to do," Lopez says. "But once you realize that you are the person with the ideas and the talent and the drive to do it — then it's about valuing yourself… This has been a journey for me. You've got to say, 'Wait a minute. You're fortunate to invest in what I'm doing here.'"
This story is part of Entrepreneur's 100 Women of Influence in 2022. Find the rest of the list here.
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