IOWA CITY — Growing up in Chicago, Marlén Mendoza loved to visit the Little Village neighborhood, where shoppers can pick up made-to-order tacos, Mexican sweets or a quinceañera dress, hear Spanish spoken and learn about Mexican American culture.
Mendoza would like to bring more of that to Iowa City and has formed the Colectivo de Mujeres en Negocios, or Collective of Women in Business, to help female entrepreneurs launch businesses in Iowa City.
“People love living here in Iowa,” said Mendoza, 27. “They want to be able to contribute to the strong local economy the city takes pride in.”
The Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau recently awarded Mendoza, president of Iowa City’s League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) chapter, one of its 2020 BRAVO Awards for her work with the collective, which includes a handful of women in different stages of business development.
Mendoza first moved to Iowa City nine years ago as a freshman at the University of Iowa. She thought she might be a writer, but learned after a study abroad trip to India that she had a knack for communicating, organizing and gathering information about the needs of communities. Mendoza reached out to the UI College of Public Health, where then-faculty Barbara Baquero and Jason Daniel-Ulloa were leading public health programs in Iowa communities with large Latino populations.
“We would stand outside the market, do surveys in Spanish,” Mendoza said. “I really enjoyed it. I was able to recreate that experience I had in India, but here in my community.”
After earning a degree in International Studies in Global Health in December 2016, Mendoza moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a research assistant for the Center for Law and Social Policy. There, she researched, wrote reports and talked with members of Congress about funding programs to reduce poverty. But Mendoza realized that while the programs often benefited youth, young people weren’t involved in the process.
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“Young people understand the issues in their community, but how do you build that together into a policy format?” Mendoza said.
She pitched a plan to travel around the country to conferences where she could recruit active young people. Her boss said yes and Mendoza hit the road, presenting a Policy 101 workshop at conferences and finding teens and 20-somethings to participate in focus groups, write blogs and present to lawmakers.
“And we made sure to pay them,” she added.
Mendoza moved back to Eastern Iowa in 2019 and started using what she learned about organizing young people to start her own business.
“My full-time job is I work with three different nonprofit organizations based in D.C.,” she said. “I put together youth campaigns or youth policy recommendations.”
As Mendoza is growing her own business, she is helping other women do the same.
The Colectivo de Mujeres en Negocios recently had a seminar with Victor Oyervides, a retail specialist with Iowa State University Extension, who shared information in Spanish about opening food-based businesses in Iowa. Mendoza also is collecting laptops so the women in the collective can learn how to sell their goods online — essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As the ladies are doing their own business models, I’m also sitting down and figuring out how to do my business,” Mendoza said. “I also need to create an LLC. I’m learning with them.”
Mendoza, who lives in North Liberty, is glad she came back to Iowa, where she can see the results of her work among friends and neighbors.
“Here, there is so much need, so much help, so many opportunities to see a direct impact,” she said. “Now, I guess you could say I’m an adopted Iowan. As Latinos say, Iowano.”
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