Alicia Navarrete: From migrant worker to entrepreneur
Alicia Navarrete with her son, Lucio Reyes.
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The year 2013 has been one of honors for Alicia Navarrete. By the time people ring in the new year, the owner of Wisconsin Financial Services and Mercadito Madison Corp. will have taken home a Dane County Small Business Award and an Entrepreneur of the Year Award for her financial services firm (awarded as part of Hispanic Heritage Month) as well as the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County’s Latino Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Mercadito Madison, a new family-owned food market that features Latin specialties and Latin takeout.
For Navarrete, whose story wasn’t always about collecting hardware but was one of struggle and persistence, the latest honor provides more confirmation that her life’s work has been worthwhile. “It really means all the effort and energy we put into things has been well worth it,” she says. “It means you’ve done something right and that you’re doing things the right way.”
On her path to Madison, there were plenty of hurdles to clear. In her teen years, when she was Alicia Rodriguez, her family would migrate from Texas to Wisconsin to work in farm fields, and she spent several of her formative summers in a migrant camp in Berlin, Wis. But a migrant’s hard life in the fields was not something Alicia envisioned for herself. She was determined to break the migratory chain in her family, and she decided to make a bold move.
“My husband is the one who kept saying to me, ‘You are strong-willed, you are determined, you’re honest, and that’s what it takes. You’ve got to do it.’” — Alicia Navarrete
In 1987, when she was only 18 and already a single mother, Alicia remained in Wisconsin beyond the month of October to look for educational and employment opportunities. While some embraced her, “it was difficult in the community at that time,” she recalled. “The community was not used to migrants staying after October. We were expected to leave.”
She endured that first Wisconsin winter and began to build her new life and that of her son, Lucio Reyes. Along the way, she would volunteer at local schools that needed someone who could speak Spanish (and assist migrant students), take evening income tax classes through Fox Valley Technical College, and use that knowledge to help migrant workers with their tax returns.
Working multiple jobs, she developed a keen understanding of the link between educational attainment and economic circumstances, and she made sure her son could bear down on the books throughout his upbringing. When he entered high school, Reyes took advantage of the Upward Bound Program, which gave him exposure to different colleges every summer. He would visit them for four to six weeks at a time and came away impressed with Edgewood College on a visit to Madison.
Feeling trapped in the country, he enrolled in Edgewood, and after raising her son in rural Wisconsin, Alicia came with him in 2005. “He said, ‘I want to go, I don’t want to be stuck here,’” Navarrete recalls. “I said, ‘You know that I’m not going to hold you back, but I’m not staying here either.’”
Once in Madison, Alicia would meet her husband, Raymundo Navarrete, the owner of Anthony Construction, and attend classes at Madison Area Technical College. Her tax knowledge would enable her to take the entrepreneurial plunge in 2008, the year of the financial meltdown, with the founding of Rodriguez Tax and Credit Services, the forerunner to Wisconsin Financial Services. It’s hard to imagine the courage one has to have to start a business in any environment, let alone the beginning of a national financial meltdown, but Navarrete did so at her husband’s urging.
Alicia was reluctant to take an entrepreneurial risk while Reyes was still in college, but Raymundo was persistent. “He said to me, ‘You’ve got so many skills, and you’re so bright, I can’t believe that you don’t open up a tax business,” she recalled. “My husband is the one who kept saying to me, ‘You are strong-willed, you are determined, you’re honest, and that’s what it takes. You’ve got to do it.’”
Naturally, Alicia did it, starting her business with $800 and a computer. She was able to take a leave of absence from her state government job during tax season, but she didn’t have any money for advertising, and the company’s first-year financial performance was not a sign of things to come. She doubted herself that entire tax season, and while she lost four months’ salary from her state job, she avoided going into debt. Thanks to a little bit more promotion the second year, including Raymundo’s determination to hand out at least 25 business cards a day, the fledgling business started to gain traction in year two.
It did well enough to move into a larger space, transition to its current name, and eventually move from DeForest to Madison. Needless to say, Alicia and Raymundo form a mutual admiration society. “Alicia is my wife, my business partner, and my best friend,” Raymundo noted. “Alicia is an amazing woman who has shown me, her son, and anyone else she encounters that life is what you make of it. This woman fears no challenge. She has a huge, giving heart and always puts others before herself.
“I am so proud of my wife and all of her accomplishments. She truly is one of a kind.”
Today, Navarrete considers Wisconsin Financial Services — now with insurance services and legal services like Chapter 128 bankruptcy, plus a second office in Beloit — to be “her business baby.” Meanwhile, her human baby now is fully grown and managing the day-to-day operations of Mercadito Madison. At one point, Reyes had left school for nearly two years to help his mother make ends meet. After working steadily since the late 1980s to see that Reyes got better educational opportunities than she did, Alicia worried that he wouldn’t return to school.
He did return, however, and finished with a degree from UW-Madison, where he majored in communications and minored in business. Both disciplines come in handy as he helps his mother operate the kind of store he’s dreamt about since childhood.
Dream come true
The main reason Navarrete is being recognized as “Entrepreneur of the Year” at the Latino Chamber gala is her recent founding of Mercadito Madison. This is indeed a family enterprise and something Reyes first mentioned as a very young boy, when his mother briefly had to return to the fields to pick cucumbers and peppers.
“I put an umbrella underneath a tree and put him on a blanket, and he would say, ‘I can’t wait until I get older so that I can help you [pick vegetables],’ and I said, ‘Nope, that’s not for you, son. You won’t have to do this,’” Alicia recounted. “So he dreamt up this thing where he would own a Mexican store, and I would say, ‘Okay, okay, yeah.’ That was something that was so far-fetched for me at the time, but throughout the years, he never lost that. He would often ask, ‘When are we going to own a Mexican store?’”
As Reyes completed his education at UW-Madison, it was time to talk about the future, and sure enough, he posed the same question. Alicia agreed to pursue it, as long as the family did its homework, including market research into what was working for store operators in other markets, including Chicago and Milwaukee. In their store, they decided to incorporate an authentic Mexican takeout section, complete with family recipes, including one for tamales handed down by Alicia’s mother, Alicia Balderrama, who everyone knew as “La Nena.”