Puerto Rican entrepreneur opens Charlotte business during pandemic after devastating loss
Wilman Ortiz had a construction business in his hometown of Bayamón, Puerto Rico. He used to travel to North Carolina often to visit family.
“But I never had any interest in living here. Never,” Ortiz said. “Because my business was doing really well in Puerto Rico. So I couldn’t complain.”
That all changed in the fall of 2017 when Hurricane Maria hit the island.
“Maria hit. It was terrible. Our house shook, we felt it vibrating. And we were left without water or power immediately,” Ortiz said. “Maria changed my life for me and for my family."
Ortiz said he lived without power and water for around two months. He said his neighbors all came together and would bring everyone bread in the mornings and Ortiz and his family would make coffee and rice.
Eventually, work started to pick back up. But his two kids still couldn’t go back to school.
“I would go out to work. My wife would go to work. But my kids' education got really bad,” Ortiz said. “They couldn’t go to school because they didn’t have the resources.”
With his kids’ education in mind, Ortiz packed up his home in Puerto Rico and moved to Charlotte. For the first few months, he lived at his sister-in-law’s house.
Soon after arriving, Ortiz started working as a heavy equipment operator. He had previous experience from his work in Puerto Rico.
He was there for about two years. That’s when he decided he wanted to do something else.
“Because I know I could have stayed as an operator. And I would have been the best operator in the company. But what then?” Ortiz said. “It doesn’t make sense. That’s why you have to try to keep growing.”
With his wife working, Ortiz decided to enroll in English classes at Central Piedmont Community College.
Jose Alvarez, Prosepera’s North Carolina director, said he was struck by Ortiz’s positive attitude.
“When entrepreneurs like Wilman come, you know, 50% of their homework is done because they have the entrepreneurial spirit. When they come here, they have that,” Alvarez said. “The other 50% is relearning how to do it here.”
Alvarez started working with Ortiz, helping him save money and improve his credit score.
Two years ago, Ortiz got his commercial driver’s license and started working as a truck driver, going from North Carolina to Texas multiple times a week.
“I bought my dump truck and I went out and started knocking on doors. Because if there’s something I’ve realized from my own experience, doors don’t open on their own,” Ortiz said. “You have to go, knock and open them.”
Ortiz wasn’t alone in starting a new business during the pandemic. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans filed paperwork to start 4.3 million businesses in 2020. That’s almost 850,000 more than the year before.
At Prospera, Alvarez says when the pandemic first started, no one was launching businesses. But after a few months, calls started coming in from aspiring entrepreneurs.
He says starting a business is challenging for anyone.
“The overall barrier for small business owners is pretty much the same across the board — access to capital, access to opportunities,” Alvarez said.
But add to that a pandemic and being Latino, and it can get even more complicated.
“Because of language barriers, because of cultural barriers. And now you're in the middle of a pandemic trying to get resources in the middle of a crisis,” Alvarez said. “A lot of that, of the resources available were available for existing business owners, not for startups.”
Ortiz said his first few months as a business owner were tough. Between the pandemic, language barriers and the weather, he was barely making enough money to keep up with the truck’s maintenance.
“It was really difficult. It’s discouraging,” Ortiz said. “A lot of times I wanted to leave and just go back to my old job.”
But Ortiz kept going. After a few months, he had consistent work. He went from making around $1,200 a week to sometimes up to $4,000.
“It’s true that the United States gives you the opportunity. But you have to start from nothing,” Ortiz said. “You have to do what needs to be done and jump through any obstacle that comes up.”
And once again, he was ready to grow. So in November 2021, he sold his dump truck and bought a tractor-trailer.
It’s like starting a completely new business, he said. But he’s up for the challenge.
José Alvarez is a member of the Community Advisory Board.