This $35 million company's co-founder is America's highest-paid TV star

In Hollywood, it's assumed that star power comes in the form of Tom Cruise, Kevin Spacey, or Matt Damon. But few celebrities are as well positioned as Sofia Vergara to craft a second career -- as the co-founder of one of America's largest Hispanic-owned companies.

The Colombia native is best known for her Emmy-nominated role in Modern Family, ABC's consistently top-rated sitcom. And she's America's highest-paid TV actress -- $43 million a year, according to Forbes. (She's held this distinction for eight years straight; in 2016, she outearned all actors on TV, period.) But the real engine of Vergara's success is Latin World Entertainment, the multimillion-dollar licensing, marketing, production, and new-media empire she co-founded in 1994 with former music manager Luis Balaguer.

Although it's fair to assume that Balaguer does more of the day-to-day leadership at LWE, Vergara's dominating A-list, glamorama presence doesn't preclude her own sharp business acumen. "I'm not ashamed to say I love making money," she once said in an interview with Glam Belleza Latina magazine.

The 44-year-old actress studied dentistry for three years before dropping out for a TV host gig in Miami. "I have a special eye for opportunities and work harder than anyone might expect," she continued. "It's fun to shock people with my business ideas."

Sofia Vergara over the years
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Sofia Vergara over the years
HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 4: Sofia Vergara attends Walk of Fame Star Ceremony Honoring Cristina Saralegui on November 4, 1999 at Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 6: Sofia Vergara attends 14th Annual American Comedy Awards on February 6, 2000 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Sofia Vergara (R) attends the first 'Lo Nuestro' awards hosted by Univision Spanish-language television on February 7, 2002 in Miami, FL. (Photo by Adrian Del Angel/Getty Images)
Sofia Vergara (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/WireImage)
Sofia Vergara (Photo by Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage)
Sofia Vergara (Photo by M. Caulfield/WireImage)
Model Sofia Vergara poses outside The Lounge club May 2, 2002 in West Hollywood, CA. (Photo by David Klein/Getty Images)
Sofia Vergara (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
Sofia Vergara (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage)
Sofia Vergara (Photo by Rodrigo Varela/WireImage)
Sofia Vergara during World Premiere Of MGM's 'BulletProof Monk' at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
MIAMI - SEPTEMBER 23: Sofia Vergara attends the 1st Annual Premios Juventad Awards at the James L. Knight Center September 23, 2004 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Alberto Tamargo/Getty Images)
Sofia Vergara and Juanes at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, Florida (Photo by Rodrigo Varela/WireImage)
Sofia Vergara (Photo by Steve Granitz Archive 1/WireImage)
Sofia Vergara during 2005 Venice Film Festival - 'Four Brothers' Photocall at Casino Palace in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Goffredo di Crollalanza/FilmMagic)
MIAMI - DECEMBER 28: Actress Sofia Vergara shops on Lincoln Road on December 28, 2005 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)
Sofia Vergara during 2006 NCLR ALMA Awards - Arrivals at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
COZUMEL, MEXICO - JULY 09: Sofia Vergara (R) and her son Manolo Gonzalez bring her birthday celebration to Cozumel, Mexico on July 9, 2012 in Cozumel, Mexico. (Photo by Jesse Grant/WireImage)
PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO - JULY 10: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE)(NO TABLOIDS) Sofia Vergara and her son Manolo Gonzalez celebrate her 40th birthday at the Rosewood Mayacoba on July 10, 2012 in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. (Photo by Jesse Grant/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 12: Actress Sofia Vergara (R) and Nick Loeb attend HBO's Official Golden Globe Awards After Party at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 12, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 12: Actress Sofia Vergara and son Manolo Gonzalez-Ripoll Vergara arrive at the 2014 InStyle And Warner Bros. 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards post-party at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 12, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 12: (L-R) Actor Joe Manganiello, actress Sofia Vergara and TV host Alex Trebek attend the celebratory dinner after the special tribute to Sophia Loren during the AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi at Dolby Theatre on November 12, 2014 in Hollywood, California. on November 12, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 31: Sofia Vergara and Joe Mangeniello attend New Years Eve dinner at Strip House at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on December 31, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 31: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Heather Milligan, Joe Mangeniello and Sofia Vergara attend New Years Eve dinner at Strip House at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on December 31, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage)
MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 26: Sofia Vergara is on the set of Despierta America at Univision Studios on February 26, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 25: Actors Joe Manganiello (L) and Sofia Vergara attend the 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 25: Actress Sofia Vergara arrives at FOX, 20th Century FOX Television, FX Networks And National Geographic Channel's 2014 Emmy Award Nominee Celebration at Vibiana on August 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 25: Actress Sofia Vergara attends the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 03: Actress Sofia Vergara attends the 100th Annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton on May 3, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

LWE originally began as a talent management firm. "When Sofia first got into Hollywood, very few Hispanic talents had their own agents," says Balaguer. "Back then, many had to negotiate their own contracts with studio executives." Without a manager to represent her, or an entertainment lawyer to review contracts, he explained, Vergara's deals gave her a very small take-home profit. Feeling frustrated and powerless against the big networks, Vergara and Balaguer slowly built a business that allowed them access into a vastly underserved market. It was a smart move, and no one else in the industry saw it coming.

In 2015, Hispanics controlled $1.3 trillion in buying power, according to an analysis from the Selig Center for Economic Growth. That's up 167 percent since the turn of the century. If the trend continues, and it likely will, that number is expected to reach $1.7 trillion by 2020. At 57 million strong, people of Hispanic origin represent 18 percent of the U.S., making it the largest minority. Research from a recent McKinsey report predicts that number to reach 24 percent by 2040, and 29 percent by 2060.

LWE has a global audience of more than 400 million, with 30 percent based in the U.S. It also represents some of the biggest stars in Spanish-speaking TV. There's Alejandra Espinoza, the host of Univision's new reality TV show La Banda, created by Simon Cowell and produced by Ricky Martin. And also Rafael de La Fuente, the Venezuelan actor known for his roles in telenovelas and the Spanish-language Nickelodeon series Grachi, who crossed over to the broader market after landing a part in the Fox's Empire.

These celebrities are key to making LWE a lucrative business -- but finding the talent and matching him or her with the right product to market is what matters most. For brands to market effectively, the first step is to locate the bona fide personalities who are driving the cultural zeitgeist forward -- one social-media post at a time. But it's not cheap. Want Selena Gomez to sponsor your product on Instagram? According to D'Marie Analytics, that'll cost you $550,000 -- for just one post.

D'Marie currently ranks the Hispanic pop star (who has roughly 198 million followers across Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook) as No. 13 on its list of top social influencers. Vergara reigns at No. 35 on the list (she has a total of 30 million social-media followers). That's not so far behind, considering there are only three other Hispanic celebrities ranked above her, and they appeal to a much younger demographic.

At LWE, Vergara isn't just a co-founder. As the agency's most successful client, her long list of endorsements includes Head & Shoulders, CoverGirl, Quaker, McDonald's, Comcast, and Cerveza guila -- all of which have generated millions for LWE. Kmart hit the jackpot in 2012 when it signed a licensing deal with Vergara. The contract, which reportedly came with a $7 million advance, helped the large retailer in its aggressive pursuit of Hispanic consumers.

"Brands want a sense of uniqueness, and if they're endorsed by a well-known celebrity, the chances of their product being seen in a positive light increases," says Eric Diaz, the co-founder of OYE!, a marketing startup that monitors real-time online Hispanic conversations.

"Hispanics are twice as likely to seek celeb-inspired beauty looks versus the general market," he said. Big consumer brands have realized this, but Diaz also now works with tech startups like Square and Xoom to better target the Hispanic market.

LWE has spawned a wealth of partnerships. One of its most successful was with CNET to create a Spanish-language version of the tech website. Within 90 days after initial launch, CNET en Espaol became the No. 1 Spanish tech website in the world, says Balaguer. (But with no competitors at the time, it was an easy title to claim.) In 2012, Vergara and LWE partnered with Univision to create NuevoMall, an e-commerce cross platform intended for fans to connect and interact with TV celebrities and brands.

Vergara's multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts aren't likely to be renewed, says Balaguer. The plan is to ditch that model for more licensing contracts, which have proven to generate bigger profits. One such is the Ninja Coffee Bar brewer, Vergara's most recent licensing deal with home appliances maker SharkNinja. The QVC bestseller launched last October for $179, and moved over 1 million units within the first eight months, which means an estimated million-plus dollars moved into Vergara's bank account.

If there's one thing Vergara can teach us, it's that nothing sells like a celebrity. But the actress has her sights on a number of other business ventures in the works -- specifically, projects aimed at empowering Amazonian women who want to build businesses of their own.

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