In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re showcasing three entrepreneurs on various points of their dream journeys. Each shared their inspirational stories at our Young, Gifted, and Dreaming Fearlessly event in Phoenix, AZ. Read about some of their accomplishments below!
Aleena Valdez has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. It all started with the establishment of a lemonade stand at the end of her driveway, waving down passersby with her brother. As she sized up the competition in her town, it was then she had an epiphany. “I thought this would be a really great idea in Phoenix, it gets VERY hot during the summer and I thought that snow cones along with lemonade would be perfect and refreshing,” says Aleena.
And that’s when it got serious. She asked her parents for a loan and presented her case in a PowerPoint that outlined the materials she would need, the cost of materials and marketing, her expected profit, and when she expected to pay pack the loan. After they agreed to help finance her dream, Aleena put her ideas into action – resulting in the Aleena’s LemonAid Stand, which donates a portion of her proceeds to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital cancer unit. After three years, she’s donated over $2500!
From there, Aleena continued to build her momentum. She created a girls’ empowerment conference for girls ages 11-15, Girls for Progress, which aims to inspire girls to make a difference in their communities, increase awareness and create a supportive network of girls in cities across America. “We have speakers talk about self-image, social media, setting and achieving goals and inspiring stories. We also include youth as well to help the girls realize that girls just like them are taking action and doing amazing things,” says Aleena.
Believe it or not, this was all accomplished before her 14th birthday. “One challenge I continually face is adults taking me seriously due to my age. Sometimes it’s hard for them to get past I’m only 14 and take my ideas seriously,” says Aleena of her challenges.
That doesn’t stop her from pursuing her dream of growing her business. Aleena would eventually like to rent out space in a mall to sell cupcakes and baked goods, along with her famous LemonAid. As for Girls for Progress, she’d like to expand it to more cities to help inspire girls to pursue their dreams. But it’s not all business for Aleena — she’s currently working on improving her public speaking skills, and has dreams of traveling to New York City after graduation.
“I truly believe that you are never too young to change the world, you just have to start somewhere with something you are passionate about,” says Aleena.
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They say a great entrepreneur understands the unique value of each opportunity. Ezequias Fuentes is no different. Not only does he see the value in each opportunity, he sees the opportunity in each obstacle. A once struggling student, who slept in a park with his mother and nine siblings, Ezequias is now using those barriers to create his own lane.
No matter what circumstances you’re in, no matter where you come from that does not disqualify you from pursuing what you’re passionate about,” says Ezequias.
Currently, Ezequias is building his entrepreneur skills at his motivational non-profit, OHana (means family; no one is left behind) that encourages people to persevere. He created bracelets for his company with the phrase “Because I can” to serve as reminders to stay strong through life’s obstacles.
Ezequias dreams of creating stability for himself — physically, mentally and financially. Moving around his whole life, he admits he never felt comfortable anywhere because everything just seemed temporary. And in order to help others, he feels he must be stable first himself. “One of my goals is becoming an outstanding entrepreneur who’s going to make a huge impact on society one way or another,” says Ezequias.
A self-described “opportunist,” Ezequias seeks out opportunities that provide skills and access to a better life. Despite instability at home, Ezequias managed to stay at the same high school, join The Young Entrepreneurs Academy and his school’s DECA program, and took honors and AP classes. And that’s on top of working three jobs and doing community service — eventually earning enough to buy a much-needed car. “I wanted to make sure I was not missing out on any opportunities that I already had…I use everything I’ve been through to help me reach my goals,” says Ezequias.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t acknowledge the challenges he faces. While like many teens, he’s still sorting out his finances and making his education a priority. However, he admits his biggest challenge is overcoming jealously. He is upfront about feeling envious of others who may have had it easier. He says, “I have grown with that and am accepting I might have to work harder, but that does not define what I can accomplish.”
In the future, he wants to continue to help others like himself to find the motivation within themselves to pursue a dream.
“I honestly am not looking to be the richest person in terms of wealth — although I want to be stable in that — I want to be rich in soul. Being able to help others, give back and help contribute to a world so full of negative things is a huge dream,” says Ezequias.
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Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza
Chef Silvana Esparza isn’t just cooking up award-winning food in Phoenix. She’s using her platform as a culture contributor to elevate popular perceptions of Mexican American culture. Raised in the back of a Mexican bakery in central California, many generations of chefs have influenced Silvana. Pair that with decades spent learning the intricate recipes, spices and flavors of her culture plus traveling throughout Mexico, it’s not surprising that she’s been a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award numerous times and has been inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame. As the owner of Barrio Café, her food has been featured in Esquire Magazine, and on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
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“I had a 5-year-old dream, so I left my job to pursue it. I sold everything, put my car in storage and backpacked most of Mexico for close to a year. For me, it was the most significant decision I have ever done,” remembers Silvana.
As a citizen of both the United States and Mexico, and an outspoken civil rights advocate, Chef Silvana also advises and mentors young chefs-in-training. She is deeply committed to supporting the next generation.
“Part of success is to honor others’ dreams and aspirations. From helping with advice on how to open a small business or creating a menu, to sponsoring scholarships to culinary school, I firmly believe that I cannot succeed if I do not serve my community and give back,” says Silvana.
She realizes that without the support of people around her, she wouldn’t be where she is today. Her backpacking trip to Mexico was only possible because she received a scholarship to attend culinary school — giving her the financial freedom to pursue her dreams, instead of worrying about student loans. That’s why she works with local high schools to offer scholarships for culinary students, including one that offers a job in her restaurant — where students learn more about Mexican culture and cuisine simultaneously. “I am filled with their amazement as they experience the wonders of Mexico for the first time in the sacred cuisine that belongs to their ancestors,” says Silvana.
And while scholarships recipients are certainly receiving the opportunity of a lifetime thanks to Chef Silvana, they are helping her achieve her lifelong dream.
“My dream has always been and will always be to change the erroneous perception north Americans have about Mexico’s cuisine and her culture. I found out a handful of years ago that I cannot do this alone, so I have engaged in training these students and perhaps inspiring them to dream and dream big,” says Silvana.