Universal Colors, a Peruvian family business manufacturing protective industrial and marine coatings, knows how to weather a storm.

Its founder, Juana Antonia Espinoza Reyes, became cognizant of an opportunity in the marine coatings industry around the turn of the millennium. When her brothers, whom she had previously worked with in a family business setting, baulked at the opportunity, she decided to pursue it on her own.

Later, Juana’s daughters, Erika and Lizbeth, joined her in business after earning their engineering degrees. Together, they have shown remarkable tenacity and entrepreneurial tack in rising to the top of their male-dominated industry despite Peru’s intermittently volatile economic conditions. Universal Colors is now one of Peru’s leading suppliers of marine coatings and paints.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Juana, Erika and Lizbeth to discuss the company’s origins, the family’s rebound from recession in the 1990s and demanding respect in a male-dominated industry.

Universal Colors: How a Mother and her Daughters became Leaders in an Unlikely Industry
Erika, Juana and Lizbeth, image courtesy of Universal Colors.

A female-founded and led industrial company is quite rare. How did this come about?

Juana: It is rare, but as I always say: my life is like a novel. When I was younger, I formed a company manufacturing electrical panels for industry, J&W CIA,  with my brothers. This year, we are celebrating 31 years in operation.

Through our involvement with various industries, I learned that every metal industrial part needs a high-performance coating. Around the year 2000, I suggested we form a paint and coating company that would cater to this market. As supportive as my brothers were, they were not prepared to take the risk associated with this new venture. So, I went ahead on my own; J&S Coatings Peru, Universal’s precursor, was born. Where there are great challenges, there are also great opportunities.

Universal Colors: How a Mother and her Daughters became Leaders in an Unlikely Industry
Image courtesy of Universal Colors.

I’ve always known that masculinity is not, as some may assume, a prerequisite to entrepreneurial success in heavy industry. Women are every bit as capable as men and more. This century belongs to women.

Is it more difficult to succeed in this industry as a woman? How to become a leader in a male-dominated industry?

Juana: I am my mother’s daughter – she was both a creative powerhouse and a tenacious fighter. She raised her with the belief that nothing is impossible. She instilled in us three fundamentals: don’t steal, don’t lie and avoid idleness at all costs.

I’ve always known that masculinity is not, as some may assume, a prerequisite to entrepreneurial success in heavy industry. Women are every bit as capable as men and more. This century belongs to women. I am 65 years old, and it gives me satisfaction to know my daughters will provide continuity and forge their own paths within the business. Our predecessors motivate us to take on challenges that may at first blush seem impossible.

Lizbeth: There are certain challenges that women in male-dominated industries face, but they are in no way insurmountable. When I went to university to study electrical engineering, there were 60 of us: 59 men and me. Initially, many of the men would ask if I was the assistant or the secretary. I would simply repeat that I was an electrical engineer. Soon enough, they came to respect my abilities; gender was no longer a factor. It was a real eye-opening experience for them.

Universal Colors: How a Mother and her Daughters became Leaders in an Unlikely Industry
Lizbeth Espinoza Espinoza, image courtesy of Universal Colors.

Erika and Lizbeth, was it always predetermined that you would join your mother in business?

Lizbeth: She always involved us, even when we were very young, asking questions and letting us know she valued our opinions. I was 20 when my mother started Universal Colors, and I remember saying to her, ‘It’s your dream. Go for it. Make it come true.’

I am an electrical engineer and part of the company, but I’m not working full-time. However, they always involve me in significant decisions. My mom and Erika are the main forces in the business.

I fell in love with the company. I became enamoured with family business in general. It’s incredibly special to work alongside your family towards achieving the dreams of the collective.

Erika: I am coming up on three years in the business and, at first, commitment was a challenge, as I had already built a career path externally. However, as an industrial engineer, I began to see areas in the family business where I knew I could help. Initially, I thought I’d just give my assistance for a year and then go somewhere else.

The business grew in ways I had not expected – it grew on me as well. A turning point came when we attended AEF Peru, the association of family businesses’ conference where we shared our story and listened to the stories of others. I realised how much we have in common with other family businesses across Latin America, and as a result, I fell in love with the company. I became enamoured with family business in general. It’s incredibly special to work alongside your family towards achieving the dreams of the collective.

Three years later, I am still in the company, and I’m still learning a lot about life and entrepreneurship.

Lizbeth: As members of a family firm, we are exposed to a completely different business culture. Our excitement when hiring a new team member is palpable: not only are we bringing him or her into the family, but we are also integrating their whole family into our family. It’s an incredible feeling.

Universal Colors: How a Mother and her Daughters became Leaders in an Unlikely Industry
Erika Tirado Espinoza, image courtesy of Universal Colors.