One fateful afternoon at a family gathering three years ago, 39-year-old pickling aficionado Maria Gamboa asked her cousin Angie Rodriguez to try the pickled green beans she made from her garden.
Angie was hesitant at first, but it was love at first bite. The sour yet crunchy beans were so good, in fact, that Angie urged her cousin to start a business. Many brainstorming sessions later, the two created Valley Gurlz Goodz, a pickled vegetable business that “pickles everything but the traditional pickle.”
With backgrounds in banking and healthcare in Albuquerque, New Mexico, neither Gamboa nor Rodriguez had managed — much less launched — a business before. Hurdles like figuring out the permit and licensing process, and even the best method of jarring and sealing, quickly arose.
"Starting out, we were so naïve, and had a reality check early on that it's not easy to start a food production business,” Rodriguez, 45, said of the challenges. “It's been an interesting journey, breaking the tradition of being known only as a state with a variety of products of chili and transforming a hobby of pickling into an industry here."
After seeing a posting, the cousins applied for a new business development program housed at the STEMulus Center, a project of Central New Mexico Community College (CNM), in downtown Albuquerque. The center, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), focuses on training local residents for jobs in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — professions, along with starting a business in those fields.
Opened in 2014, the center houses classes and programs that include a digital coding boot camp, cyber security training program, entrepreneurial training and a hands-on workshop space and lab located at a separate facility. They also offer the IGNITE Community Accelerator, a program that helps startups launch and individuals grow fledgling businesses like Valley Gurlz Goodz into larger businesses. With a new $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the center plans to place more than 300 student workers in apprenticeships in the information technology field within the next five years.
For many of the students, the classes provide more than training: they offer the support and encouragement necessary to make a change. Recognizing that not everyone needs to take the traditional path of a college education to get a job or start a business, the center’s structure and format provide a condensed, accelerated curriculum focused on real-world training. Regardless of which program they choose, students are encouraged to look for needs or problems in their communities and solve them through a business, a tech project or by applying for a new job.
With a small child to raise and a wife working full-time, Alonso Indacochea said the Deep Dive Coding Bootcamp’s structure was perfect for his busy lifestyle. Consolidated into 10 weeks of 40-plus-hour weekly sessions, the boot camp centered on simulating the workplace he would enter after graduation.
Students worked on team projects and created websites that addressed community issues. After finishing the program, Indacochea and two of his classmates launched Hermes Development, a web programming company that builds websites for businesses and organizations.
Already, Indacochea and his co-workers have helped more than 30 clients and they recently landed their largest contract to date—designing a website and infographic for a large public university. Indacochea is also helping organize and sponsor an upcoming conference in Albuquerque on WordPress, a website building application tool.
“I’m hyper aware of how long young businesses last. We’ve been developers for a little over a year, running a business for just under one, and already paying ourselves decently,” Indacochea said. “I don’t think that speaks to any business genius I have: I owe a lot of it to the bootcamp. We would not be a business without them.”
The center’s benefits extend beyond the actual training, too, alumni say.
Through the program, Gamboa and Rodriguez had access to a business mentor that helped the cousins get their pickled vegetables distributed to grocers outside of New Mexico and grow their wares to include pickled pearl onions, okra, asparagus and watermelon rinds— available in spicy and regular dill varieties. Their pickles are now being used as garnishes on cocktails at local bars and to dress hot dogs at the local baseball stadium. Moreover, the pickles will soon sell under a private label at a historical museum in Albuquerque, with all pickled produce grown right on-site.
Other, more recent graduates, also are experiencing early successes. Doug Radecki, a graduate of the IGNITE accelerator in 2016, recently won $20,000 in a business competition for the mobile app he designed during the program.
While it continues to grow, the center will remain focused on supporting populations who are underrepresented in higher education and entrepreneurship, according to Samantha Sengel, CNM’s chief advancement and community engagement officer.
To that end, WKKF support has helped the center offer scholarships, on-site career counseling, childcare and targeted outreach for enrollment, as well as a matching fund for companies that hire coding camp graduates as interns. A partnership with the Hispano Chamber of Commerce in Albuquerque is also helping the center offer a series of workshops specifically for Spanish-speaking residents that provide coaching on starting a business, and eventually, applying for the IGNITE program.
Thus far, center staff estimate nearly half of all participants at the center are low-income and people of color and more than one-third are parents with young children. In total, 436 people have enrolled in courses to date and more than 4,000 people reached through the programs, convenings and events to date. By 2017, the center hopes to enroll at least 1,000 people in their courses.
“To grow our economy, we know we have to significantly increase educational attainment to create more businesses and jobs for families in our community,” said Sengel. “CNM is now building a career pipeline in Albuquerque by paving new and different pathways to community college, especially for those that are not opting into traditional models of higher education today."