Adela Cepeda

Adela Cepeda started A.C. Advisory Inc. in a borrowed office. The firm now has a suite of offices in a Wacker Drive high-rise. (Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune / November 15, 2012)

Recognizing that she wields influence as one of the city's few Latina finance heads, Cepeda co-founded Nuestro Futuro, or Our Future, an affiliate of The Chicago Community Trust, with longtime friend Maria Bechily.

Their goal is to raise $5 million for a donor-advised endowment fund to benefit Latino community programs throughout the Chicago area. They have about $3 million to go.

Terry Mazany, president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, where Cepeda served for 10 years on the executive committee, called Cepeda "an exemplar for what great civic leadership means. She represents that transition of leadership from a predominantly white male corporate leadership to a very diverse — in terms of gender and race and ethnicity — business leadership, which is all to the good to Chicago's prospects as a global city."

Coming to America

In 1964, when Cepeda was 6, she moved with her parents from her birth city of Barranquilla, Colombia, to New York. The oldest of five, Cepeda spoke hardly any English — "just a song about how pollo is chicken and cielo is sky." 

She adapted quickly. She remembers vaulting from the slowest-learning group to the most advanced. In high school, she joined the school paper and student government. Though athletics were "a real hardship for me," she tagged along with the high school football and lacrosse teams, becoming the teams' statistician.

In 1980, Cepeda graduated from Harvard University with a degree in economics. She had been accepted by Harvard Business School, with the expectation that she would matriculate after two years of work experience. 

She recalled a meeting with school staff during which she was told that "women had trouble with quantitative aspects of the program," and to prepare, she should take the most quantitative job opportunity available.

"I wasn't like, 'This is sexist,'" she said. "I just figured that those were the facts. I thought that women had a hard time with the math over there. I wanted to get in."

Upon graduating, Cepeda started as a corporate finance analyst for Smith Barney's New York office, dating Albert Maule all the while.

Cepeda had first run into Maule in Harvard Yard, deciding on first sight she didn't like him.

"His Afro was too big," she remembered. His clothes looked messy. "I said, 'Oh, no.' I remember thinking that I cannot bring him to my parents."

Months later, they attended an event for Harvard's Institute of Politics, and Maule offered Cepeda his seat next to the keynote speaker.

"I thought that was so generous," she said, her brown eyes beaming, "and it kind of disarmed me."

They dated for two years before marrying in 1981.

By then, Maule had begun as a Chicago-based lawyer with Hopkins & Sutter (it merged with Foley & Lardner in 2001) and wanted to stay in the city to be with his maternal grandparents. So Cepeda started at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, rather than Harvard, while continuing with Smith Barney.

She remembers standing out as a Latina, and as a result, works to diversify her firm and her philanthropic boards.

"One time, a client told me that he collected 'colored art' — all the signs that were common in the South that said 'Coloreds only'. And he said, 'You would have been considered colored,' and I said, 'OK.'"

Of the startling reactions to her heritage, she said: "I think they didn't know what to do with it."

After finishing a flurry of cross-country business teleconferences and philanthropic duties on a recent evening, Cepeda strolled through the three-story home where she and Maule anchored their family and where she later raised their girls alone. She hopes that, as adults, they appreciate "the power and privilege of giving."

Her BlackBerry silent for a few moments, she inspected the photos depicting the landscape of her life, some with her husband, others with her grown daughters, and she smiled at each one.

Adela Cepeda

Owner and president of A.C. Advisory Inc.

Age: 54

Lives in: The Kenwood neighborhood, midtown Manhattan, N.Y., and Lakeside, Mich.

Education: Bachelor's in economics from Harvard University; master's of business administration from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business

Family: Daughters Alexis, 26, Alicia, 24, and Laura, 21. Husband Albert Maule died in 1995.

Favorite music: Cumbia. "It's Colombian. When I hear it, I want to dance."

Management style: "Very hands-off so that my employees can be creative and advance their ideas and methods. However, I'm fairly strict about deadlines and become quite antsy when things fall behind or I'm not sensing momentum. In those instances, I dive in and try to micromanage."

Admires: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. "And not because of her glamour, but because she was a widow at a young age, like I was, unfortunately, and was devoted to her children. She also sought to have a successful career despite the family and social obligations. I think there was a lot of substance to her that most people do not give her credit for."