And to hear her tell it, achieving her ambitions has indeed been a walk in the park. Her first foray into business came as a teenager. At 16, she fled Cuba for Venezuela with her father, a musician, and her mother. Her father died soon after the move, and Fontanals-Cisneros took a job teaching English. She decided to supplement her income by offering her students water ballet lessons, and soon, she says, “I was making more money on the side than in my actual job. It was my first entrepreneurial thing.”
A sultry beauty whose photo often appeared in local magazines, Ella attracted the eye of Oswaldo Cisneros when she was barely out of her teens. She already had a failed marriage behind her and a toddler, but, she says, that didn’t keep the suitors away. “Fourteen people would call me to go out each night, and I’d say yes to them all, and then at seven o’clock I’d decide on one of them,” she recalls. “Oswaldo would call every day, and I kept telling him no. But then one night my date canceled, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m free tonight, only tonight.’” Despite her reservations—“Everyone was telling me he dresses horrible”—she was won over and the two married in 1968.
Still, although she had married into one of Latin America’s richest families, Fontanals-Cisneros had far too much energy to spend her days prepping for parties and sunning by the pool. She decided she wanted to be a boutique owner and, in 1966, wrangled capital from New York’s trendsetting Paraphernalia to open a branch of the store in Caracas. Soon after, she opened the country’s first Oscar de la Renta boutique next door. “No one knew him at the time,” she says proudly.
But within three years, she grew tired of fashion and sold both shops to open an art gallery, where she sold the work of Latin American artists. That, too, quickly grew old, and she traded selling art for selling books, opening a chain of stores. But within five years, she had given up on retail altogether. Shopkeeper’s hours weren’t sustainable for a woman who now had three children (one from her previous marriage, one from Oswaldo’s previous marriage whom Ella adopted and one that they had together), not to mention a workaholic husband. To spend more time with him, she began tagging along to meetings and was soon involved in the family business, running an export company in Miami that sold raw materials to other Cisneros-owned companies. “I moved myself and my kids here and did a man’s job,” she says. “In one year I saved him a million dollars and made nearly a million dollars of my own. The freedom of making your own money, to be a success not because you married a rich guy—for me, that was important.”