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In Conversation: An Interview with Griselda Martinez of Ascendo Strategies

By Sally Guzik, VP Strategic Initiatives

Griselda Martinez is a bilingual and bicultural professional with over fifteen years of experience in private industry, government, non-profit, and academia, including eleven years of diverse economic development work in a binational/tristate region. Recently, Griselda opened Ascendo Strategies, a firm dedicated to focusing on creating opportunities for economic prosperity, with an emphasis on equitable and inclusive approaches. Fourth Economy's Sally Guzik spoke with Griselda about how her experience as an immigrant and early work in manufacturing informs her current work within economic development.

SG: When I asked about how you came to open your firm you mentioned that everyone in your family is a small business owner, and that environment was a part of your upbringing. How has the culture of entrepreneurship shaped your career in economic development over the years?

My decision to go into the economic development field, including becoming a Certified Economic Developer (CEcD), and my perspective as an economic development practitioner and consultant directly results from my lived experiences and education. The use of a creative thinking process to every challenge to maximize the opportunity is my drive, including considering the breaking of patterns or systems that may result in a more equitable economic prosperity approach.

My parents grew up in large families with limited access to opportunities. However, somehow, they were the first ones from their families to go and finish college. My mother was a teacher, and she instilled in me not only to love education but to work hard at it. She also served as the anchor and primary support system for my dad when he started his own business, as the first one to do such a thing among his family or peers. He began with a lumber business. Soon, he realized that the transportation of his product was of key importance to his customers. He expanded the business to include a fleet of semi-trucks. Then, he discovered a demand for semi-trucks and parts for their maintenance. He expanded once again with an importing business for heavy equipment parts from the US into Mexico. As a little girl, I spent long hours seeing how my dad did the business, served his customers, and led his employees. Having this family business allowed our family to have a source of income. I later appreciated the importance of keeping it as a healthy business for those whose income depended on the jobs created by this business. By reliving those childhood moments, I learned that making strategic moves and taking risks is part of life.

Throughout my career, my parents have served as my mentors. They also have mentored many of their family members, friends, and peers. In several instances, they have also served as the famous and critical “friends and family” support system to their community members, including an informal micro-lending system that allowed many to start their own businesses.

Needless to say, I learned many economic development lessons from a very early age, including the importance of creative thinking, strategic moves, resourcefulness, and giving back to our community. I sincerely believe in entrepreneurship as something that opens doors to incredible opportunities. It is often the only way to break cycles of poverty, creating possibilities outside of the expected destiny given our upbringing. I have seen entrepreneurship transform not only the closest circles to the entrepreneurs but also entire communities, as well. Similarly, and as a form of education, strategic workforce development builds capabilities from within and among community members that translate into opportunities for growth and strengthening from within the core.

As an immigrant, my perspective includes building from the assets communities already have and seeing challenges as opportunities. My lived experiences continue to shape my practices and recommendations on economic development, emphasizing entrepreneurship, small business, and workforce development. They all work to transform individuals’ lives resulting in community transformations.

SG: You bring up many important pieces for getting a small business off the ground: the importance of micro-lending networks, access to resources, and a network with knowledge and support. Most importantly, a sense of community. You’ve also mentioned how your experience as an immigrant working in the U.S. and Mexico shaped your work within economic development. Can you share more?

In 2001, I came to the U.S. to finish my college education transferring from Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua Campus Parral to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). As a young female and as an immigrant, I knew I had to work hard and consistently to take advantage of every opportunity that came my way. In my first year of school at UTEP, I lived in Juarez, Chihuahua, and commuted every day for school using public transportation on both sides of the border. When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I worked for a locally owned small firm with headquarters in El Paso and a manufacturing facility in Juarez. I managed imports and exports, managed cash flow, and negotiated with vendors and clients. Every week, I commuted to the manufacturing plant to do payroll. While I saw the benefits of the manufacturing sectors by creating jobs, I also saw the struggles of the low-education, low-wage workers. I concluded that not all jobs were created equal.

In 2009 I was in job transition, and the opportunities were slim. As a good economist, I followed the trend and started my doctorate in Economic Development at New Mexico State University (NMSU). While waiting on this new adventure, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a business incubator in my hometown, validating that entrepreneurship and small business were my focus areas. I had the blessing to join Arrowhead Center’s team at NMSU. I became the manager of a beautiful program providing technical assistance to small businesses with faculty and staff expertise from NMSU, Los Alamos National Lab, and Sandia National Lab. I first understood the business’s needs, then became a connector between those needs and the available resources. Later on, I had the opportunity to craft and implement a customized entrepreneurship program in Spanish to work with low-income students and graduates from public universities in Mexico City. While I guided them through the entrepreneurship program, I challenged them to see their business as an entryway to possibilities and to think big based on all the assets they had at their disposal, including their lived experiences.

As an immigrant, my perspective includes building from the assets communities already have and seeing challenges as opportunities. My lived experiences continue to shape my practices and recommendations on economic development, emphasizing entrepreneurship, small business, and workforce development. They all work to transform individuals’ lives resulting in community transformations.

SG: Such an interesting background in lumber and manufacturing that led you to small business development and support. I appreciate how you emphasize the value in one’s lived experience as a part of their skillset. Thinking about communities where people may feel that their life experiences are not valued or appreciated, how can communities better support their residents. Specifically, their immigrant and refugee populations? How can community leaders be inclusive in their planning and implementation approach and process?

Our differences make us a more robust, rich, and vibrant society. The first step to better-supporting newcomers in the U.S. is acknowledging the benefits of the differences. Immigrants, including refugees, are entrepreneurs at heart; they already have taken the risk of leaving everything behind to start in a new place. More often than not, these people are desperate for opportunities. How can those strengths be connected to transitioning support systems? This may include language programs, workforce training resources to transfer their skills to a new occupation, and entrepreneurship programs to assist in them understanding the new systems. For example, along the US-Mexico border, we have a large population of Spanish speakers. Why don’t we become the region known for its outstanding Spanish interpreters in the nation? After all, the U.S. has the second-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, after Mexico.

SG: I agree. Having the opportunity to work in the startup sector in Miami, FL, it was moving to see so many immigrant business owners from small business storefronts to tech companies. We know that immigrants are more likely to start a business compared to those born in the United States, but I agree, we need to also place value in their contribution to our economy and their experience in our economic planning efforts. For communities that are used to seeing their resources and capacity from a deficit, can you speak to your experience leveraging assets within a community? How has an asset-based approach created a path forward from ideas to impact?

Many communities, including many in New Mexico, place a big emphasis on the challenges. However, no matter where we are and the struggles, we have something to build upon and start from where we are. To transform communities, we need all the energy, creativity, and focused hard work to get us to where we see possibilities. I genuinely believe in helping communities reach their full potential. Through my consultancy, I have supported communities and non-profit organizations to see opportunities based on existing assets for inclusive strategies, fund acquisition, and program crafting and implementation to strengthen their communities.

SG: I haven’t had a chance to visit New Mexico yet, but it’s on the list! What is something unknown about New Mexico that you wish more people knew about? Where would you take us if we were visiting Las Cruces for the first time?

New Mexico is a beautiful state full of rich history, including that of the Native Americans that are alive and present in our day to day in so many different ways, making our state unique and colorful.

As a first-time visitor, I would take you to experience the best sunset in your lifetime by watching it in the most serene place, sitting on top of the hills surrounding our valley.

During spring or fall, I would invite you to hike “The Organ Needle,”; the highest point in the state of New Mexico. Here, you will enjoy a beautiful valley view, including White Sands National Park in New Mexico and the Samalayuca Dune Fields, part of the Chihuahuan Desert covering an area across the US-Mexico border

SG: Sounds beautiful, I hope to take you up on the offer for the best sunset in my lifetime! Thank you for sharing your story and experience.

The Organ Mountains create a dramatic and imposing backdrop to the city.


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