Determined, with a hippy air and forever young at heart: Rosalía Mera

Zara founder, social campaigner and 66th-richest woman in the world dies

Rosalía Mera (1944-2013) cofounded the Inditex empire with her then-husband, Amancio Ortega.
Rosalía Mera (1944-2013) cofounded the Inditex empire with her then-husband, Amancio Ortega. XURXO LOBATO (EL PAÍS)

Rosalía Mera, Spain’s wealthiest woman and cofounder of the retail clothing giant Inditex, died Thursday night at age 69. Despite her great fortune — she was the world’s 66th-richest woman, according to Forbes — the entrepreneur and mother of two from A Coruña will be remembered for her charity work and as a social campaigner.

She was rushed to hospital while on holiday in Menorca last Wednesday after suffering a stroke followed by a cardiac arrest. She was taken to a private hospital in her home town, where she passed away just after 8pm on Thursday.

“I saw her for the last time on an airplane last month and she was the same as always,” said a friend. “Determined, with her hippy air and not seeming the age that she was.”

Born in 1944 in Monte Alto, a working-class neighborhood in A Coruña which surrounds the Tower of Hércules lighthouse, hers were humble origins. Her father worked for Fenosa and her mother ran a butcher’s shop. Mera would tell how her grandfather “worked taking salted pork to Cuba. He used to go and not even tell his wife. He would tell my mother to tell her.”

Despite the efforts of her grandfather and her hardworking parents, Rosalía Mera had to leave school at 11 and began working in a famous shop in A Coruña, called La Maja, first as a seamstress, then as a shop assistant. It was there that the attractive, determined young shop assistant met Amancio Ortega, who was working at another well-known A Coruña clothing store, Gala. Together, they decided to begin a new life, both personal and professional.

She had to leave school at 11, starting work as a seamstress

After a few initial hiccups, Rosalía Mera, her husband and their family began their first successful venture, Zara (then Goa Clothing), making house coats.

Zara went from its first store in 1975, to an ever-growing number of outlets all over the world today. This is where the company cofounder made her reported 4.7 billion euros. But in 1986 she split from Amancio Ortega and from everything involved with her job at Inditex, although she would not leave the board of directors until 2004. She studied teaching and concentrated on her two children: Marcos, who was born with profound cerebral palsy, and Sandra, who was later her closest confidante.

She started the Paideia Galiza Foundation, a center of social and educational studies. The organization has been active in helping disabled children, but in many other wide-ranging activities besides. When a lottery jackpot sowed millionaires all over Rianzo (A Coruña province), a team from Paideia went there to ensure that the money did not all end up being spent on things like luxury cars, and instead went to more productive uses.

Her own fortune, which grew when Inditex was floated on the stock market, was invested in the hotel sector, renewable energy, information technology and more. She was also involved in housing investment societies and had funds managed by the fraudster Bernard Madoff. She possessed a five-percent share in Zeltia pharmaceuticals, which she supported when their anticancer experiments came into question.

In 2004 she founded the Mans Center, an entrepreneurial initiative center, focused on cultural and technological sectors. The center provided everything from offices to a studio big enough to record a symphony orchestra. She was not without her detractors. Some said that Rosalía Mera’s influence drew unnecessary help and grants to her projects. Deloa, a tourist association made up of two dozen companies, sponsored by Paideia, managed investments of 17 million euros in 10 years. “Our associations and our businesses all have the right to opt for public help,” Mera said.

Three of the four multimillionaires that top the Forbes list of Spain live in A Coruña: Ortega, Manuel Jove and Rosalía Mera. The three were easily found in places such as the Riazor soccer stadium or the Os Belés bar. But Mera stopped attending this temple of tavern singing because, reportedly, there were people who would go there in order to ask her for favors. The daughter of Monte Alto who became the teenage seamstress for the ladies of A Coruña professed the old left-wing belief in redemption through work.

She opposed cutbacks in social spending and change to the abortion law

She went to all of Paideia’s press conferences and would answer any question. There she would throw out verbal bombs that she did not appear capable of. “Such widespread corruption happens in many ways, and comes in many colors. We have to stand here and say ‘No!’” she said in June 2011. She was a supporter of 15M — a precursor to the Occupy protest movement — and went to join their camps. And she was critical of government cutbacks. “The cuts in the fields of health and education are a bad deal for society. What you cannot do is go to the easiest part and cut from the bottom. We are on a boat on which we must save ourselves together, and we cannot be throwing people overboard,” she said last May, at the same time as expressing her opposition to reform of the abortion law.

“I am without a class,” she told Suso de Toro from EL PAÍS in 2004. “However, if I have to identify myself, I identify much more with this environment that has been my world, which I haven't wanted to leave too much because it nourishes and sustains me.”

Her fortune passes to her daughter, Sandra.

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