Realizing the American dream


There are some things Maria Velez de Berliner can’t tell you about her life — classified information she’s been privy to as part of her role with the U.S. Department of Defense and Homeland Security, and through her teaching on strategic and tactical intelligence with the U.S. Air Force’s Special Operations division.

But what she can tell you is utterly captivating.

“I was born in Colombia and left there when I was 16 years old. I left because my family was one of the founding families of Colombia and I was supposed to marry a diplomat, bear his children, tolerate his mistresses and be his eyes and ears. And I decided that that was not for me,” says Berliner, who was born Maria Helena Velez Restrepo. “I decided to come to the United States of America, because here I could be free.”  

Orphaned by a car crash that killed her parents when she was 9 months old, Berliner was raised by her maternal grandmother, educated by private tutors and taught things like how to walk down stairs without looking down. She wanted more out of life than hosting parties and marrying someone she didn’t choose. So she came to the U.S. on a green card and built a new life for herself.

Berliner, who already spoke French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, needed to spend a few years brushing up on her English before she scored a job as an administrative assistant for a businessman who was expanding into Latin America. Her business acumen and knowledge of Latin America scored her boss’s company new deals, and he quickly made her vice president of international operations for the company. “I was 21 years old,” she says with a laugh.

After several years in the business world, the young woman was determined to make her ultimate dream come true: To go to school. She was accepted at Lake Forest College in Chicago, where she received all A’s.

“Finally I was going to a classroom and I had professors and I was a student. That’s all I wanted to be in my life,” she says. “Those were the happiest days in my life. Lake Forest still remains that precious adored place on earth.”

While a freshman in college, she wrote a paper on the Colombian drug cartel headed by Pablo Escobar, predicting that the cartel would change the structure of the country forever. The paper gave her notoriety in the intelligence community, with the U.S. Army trying to recruit her after college. But she decided to go her own way.

“I am an entrepreneur, a capitalist to the core,” she says. After working for others for several years, she started her own company, Latin Trade Solutions, which she ran for eight years before changing its name to Latin Intelligence Corporation. Today, she remains president of that company, offering her intelligence expertise to businesses and government agencies.

“My objective with the company was to help people enter foreign markets profitably and safely. They have to have actionable marketing intelligence, know what you are doing, know the ins and outs of the local market, the local competition, the major players, the reasons for their success and failures, and be aware of the regulatory environment under which you’ll be operating. The legal systems and labor laws are very different there,” she says. “Intelligence is not the CIA wrapped in a trench coat. Intelligence is information that has been vetted and analyzed so that somebody can make as informed a decision as possible.” 

Berliner, who’s been married to Jordan Berliner for 42 years, has built her business on a lot of hard work — “I work 24/7, and I travel 70 percent of the time,” she says — and oversees four independent contractors to help with the load. She recognizes that although it would have only hindered her development in her home country, her family name has opened plenty of doors for her professional life in the States.

“Although my generation in my family has nothing to do with me, my name carries a lot of weight all throughout Latin America. Because when you belong to one of the leading families of Latin America, in essence you belong to all of the leading families in Latin America. It’s totally incestuous,” she says. “So I have a lot of high-level contacts in every single country, in government, in Congress, in municipalities, within the armies and militaries. So even if I don’t know a person in particular, I know the person who can lead me to that person.”

The Berliners moved to Hilton Head from Washington, D.C., four years ago, enjoying the Lowcountry’s slower pace, natural beauty and thriving arts scene. When looking back on her life, Berliner says her proudest accomplishments are two-fold: Serving her adopted country through instructing at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School and liberating the successive generations of women in her family.

“To the generation that followed me, I am the mythical figure that freed them all. All of the women that followed me are top-notch professionals, they married the men they wanted, they have the children they wanted, they educate their children the way they want them to be educated. They have lives of their own,” she says. “I am still, to my generation, the black dot to my family’s reputation. But I became a heroine to all the women in my family.”


Her favorite vacation spot: “Home. My own bed and my own blanket and my own pillows.”

OK, but where else? “I love Asheville (in North Carolina). And I love Portland, Oregon.”

What she thinks of people who complain about all that’s wrong with America: “We are not perfect, by far. But we are the best. And if you don’t believe me, get out of the country. And don’t stay in the five-star hotels, don’t take the five-star cruises. Get out into a foreign country and see where real people live, and see the difference. And when you come back, I am sure you will do what I do whenever I come back to this country. As soon as I land in America, I say, ‘Thank God I had the good sense and the generosity of this country to be an American citizen.’ Don’t ever take it for granted.”

Something she loves about living in the U.S.: “Voting. I never miss an election. I go to the polls because it is sacred to me to live in a place where I can vote, and when I get out, a machine gun is not pointed at my back. That is the beauty of America.”

Celebrating entrepreneurs:
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