Home / Business Spotlight / Reaching out: Cortex names new director to support, engage entrepreneurs

Reaching out: Cortex names new director to support, engage entrepreneurs

Gabriela Ramírez-Arellano

After moving to St. Louis, Gabriela Ramírez-Arellano became the executive director of the BALSA Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to help first-time entrepreneurs by providing two rounds of $1,000 grants each year. (Photo courtesy of the Cortex Innovation Community)

When Gabriela Ramírez-Arellano and her then-husband divorced in 2012, she had not worked outside of the home in two decades.

She ended up homeless in Detroit. She told the social services person who helped her obtain government assistance that she could do only two things: “I can speak Spanish, and I am a professional Girl Scouts volunteer,” having been leader of her daughter’s troop.

A week later, the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan announced that they were seeking a Hispanic initiative director. Ramírez-Arellano got the job.

Ramírez-Arellano, who immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico to California as a child, also later started helping Hispanic owners of small businesses.

Between her own experience and that of the entrepreneurs she helped, Ramírez-Arellano saw the long list of challenges encountered by immigrants: language, access to technology, transportation and childcare, among other obstacles.

“Those are all things that are part of an entrepreneur’s life that we expect them to put to the side to be a small-business owner — the reality is, that’s a part of their life,” she said.

Now in St. Louis, Ramírez-Arellano has dedicated her life to helping local people of color become successful entrepreneurs. In January, she joined the Cortex Innovation Community as the director of entrepreneurship and executive director of the Center for Emerging Technologies, Missouri’s largest and oldest innovation center.

Gabriela Ramírez-Arellano

Gabriela Ramírez-Arellano

Her role will focus on expanding programs at Cortex and CET to support entrepreneurs while advancing equitable outcomes for underrepresented communities.

“[Ramírez-Arellano] understands both at the big level and with granularity what it takes to build a business, grow a business,” Cortex President and CEO Sam Fiorello said. “And she has passion around the cause — especially businesses owned by underrepresented minorities, people of color and women — and she brings an incredible energy and passion for the job, so it’s a perfect fit.”

Ramírez-Arellano’s journey into the startup world started around the time she got the job with Girl Scouts. She also signed up for an entrepreneurship class with ProsperUS Detroit, an organization that aims to help low- and moderate-income immigrant and minority individuals launch businesses.

“Immigrants have a tendency to start businesses, so I thought, ‘Let me explore what that would mean, to be my own boss,’” Ramírez-Arellano recalled.

Just a couple of weeks later, a ProsperUS representative asked Ramírez-Arellano, who had earned a master’s degree in business administration, if she also wanted to teach classes in addition to being a student.

At that time, Detroit was in the midst of an economic rebound following the decline of its auto industry and the city’s bankruptcy filing. TechTown, another entrepreneurship development organization, also offered Ramírez-Arellano a position helping small-business owners in predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.

To try to rebuild the local economy, the city launched Motor City Match, a program that provides grants to entrepreneurs; Ramírez-Arellano helped people to obtain the funding.

“I really enjoyed helping small-business owners in so many different ways, but specifically, being able to connect with them culturally because the challenges [for Hispanic business owners] are a little different,” Ramirez-Arellano said.

In 2014, she married her current husband, Victor. They share an entrepreneurial spirit.

Victor had long dreamed of opening a Mexican restaurant, but Detroit was oversaturated with such eateries, Ramírez-Arellano said. Instead, the couple decided to move south to St. Louis, where her mother lived. In 2015, they opened Don Emiliano’s in O’Fallon.

Meanwhile, Ramirez-Arellano considered how she could continue to do similar work with small-business owners in St. Louis, which, unlike Detroit, didn’t have a concentrated Hispanic community. She reached out to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis, which hired her as a business counselor. She assisted with workforce development, helping entrepreneurs to access capital and building connections between the chamber and the members of the Hispanic community.

Continuing her juggling act, Ramirez-Arellano also launched the Auténtico Podcast because the “voices of Hispanic entrepreneurs and professionals weren’t really represented here in St. Louis,” she said. She also became the executive director of the BALSA Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to help first-time entrepreneurs by providing two rounds of $1,000 grants each year.

Across her various endeavors, Ramirez-Arellano’s approach is consistent: meeting “people where they are, really trying to understand their holistic situation and doing more accountability with them . . . a little more handholding because language is an issue,” she said.

Landscape construction company owner Gabriel Cardenas, who met Ramirez-Arellano through his uncle, describes her as his “work mom.”

“Whenever she tells me to do something, I just go do it,” said Cardenas, who in 2019 moved from San Antonio to St. Louis and launched Missouri Constructors.

Ramirez-Arellano advised Cardenas to attend Alberici University, a construction company’s professional development program that offers classes on such topics as safety, finance and project management. She also urged him to enroll in the Hispanic Leadership Institute, which assists participants in developing management skills and a professional network.

Cardenas’ company generated about $2 million in 2020 — a 400 percent increase from the previous year — and now employs about 20 people, he said.

Ramirez-Arellano’s help was essential to him and other Hispanic entrepreneurs his age because “most of us are first-generation or second-generation, and we don’t have that know-all of how to get things done or how to really communicate,” he said. “And because [Ramirez-Arellano] is Hispanic and can relate to Hispanics, she is able to bend the curve for us.”

In her new position at Cortex, Ramirez-Arellano plans to improve access to technology, ensure that websites are available in Spanish and increase collaboration among local organizations. She described the job as a “great opportunity for me to bring my past experiences and my skill sets and make an impact in the region.”

She also wants to help not only Hispanic people but other people of color.

Michelle Robinson, an African American woman who created and owns the vegan-friendly DEMIblue Natural Nails in St. Louis, was selected in 2019 for a BALSA Foundation grant program in which Ramirez-Arellano hosted industry experts and local business leaders.

 

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