October 14, 2022
Maria’s Mastery: Envision, Strategize, Hustle, and Serve
By Sandra Pedroarias
NWBC’s Enterprising Women Blog Series highlights conversations with current and past Council Members, as well as other prominent women small business owners from across the country who serve as a source of inspiration and motivation for aspiring women entrepreneurs and established businessowners, and who are adding incredible value to their local communities and ecosystems, their industry, and the nation’s economic recovery.
Our first featured business owner for this blog series is NWBC’s very own Council Member Maria Rios—a dedicated advocate for women’s business enterprise, the professional advancement of Latinas and the Latinx community, and for a more sustainable, cleaner environment. We are pleased to share a glimpse into Council Member Rios’ journey to entrepreneurship, the obstacles she overcame, and her vision for the future, as well as how she is observing and celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month this year.
Q&A Business Profile: Maria Rios, President and CEO of Nation Waste, Inc.
Sandra: Maria, as President and CEO of Nation Waste, Inc. (NWI), you lead the first multi-million-dollar Hispanic-, woman-owned waste removal company in the U.S. It is also one of the largest minority-owned companies in the state of Texas. That is an incredible accomplishment!
In fact, your entrepreneurial success has given you not just national but also global notoriety, traveling the world as a speaker and thought leader to a long list of countries, from El Salvador, to Turkey, and more, also serving as a Global Ambassador for the International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge (IWEC), which recognized you as one of the top 27 women entrepreneurs in the world. You were also recognized in recent years by Forbes as one of the “Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs in the U.S.” and by Goldman Sachs as one of the “100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs”.
Would you share a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey—what were a couple of your biggest obstacles and how did you overcome them? Give us a glimpse on how your journey began and how you arrived to where you are now.
Maria: More than 20 years ago, my entrepreneurial journey began when I started my first company, Nation Waste Inc., with two trucks and a dream in Houston, Texas. I was a young wife and mother attending Houston Community College and the University of Houston, where I wrote a business plan to fulfill a class requirement. That business plan helped me solidify and bring my dream to fruition.
I knew from my research and professional experience Houston’s waste market had a niche available for small low-cost waste removal providers to succeed. I have grown my company to where it is today using a carefully planned strategy and hustle to secure my place in the business world. I spent many nights in my boardroom planning, dreaming, and executing what would be the next vital steps to my success. I knew what I needed to do to live my dream.
Starting NWI as a low-cost leader, I outpriced the larger established companies to earn business. It was great planning in the beginning that helped me establish Nation Waste Inc. as a go-to provider for an inexpensive solution.
As my company grew, I began to recognize new opportunities were available. I continued to learn and to take classes even though I had already graduated from the University of Houston. In the beginning, I learned the importance of certifications and I worked hard to qualify Nation Waste as a Women Owned Business and Minority Owned business. Now Nation Waste has more than ten certifications. (My very first was a Women’s Business Enterprise certification through the City of Houston’s Office of Business Opportunity.) During this time, I also continued to network and meet new people involved in many kinds of businesses. I also attended many events, speaking engagements, and participated interviews just like this one.
I made connections and friendships that have stood the test of time, and some of those same people still advise and support me today. In fact, mentors were key. I had a lot of mentors who were bankers—they were the first ones to give me the idea about getting a certification and helped me get my first two loans to set up my business. Look, at the time, I didn’t have money, all I had was college debt. So, those two loans helped me set up the business. I guess for me, having seasoned business mentors was my secret sauce.
Sandra: What about fear? Have you ever had to overcome fear or self-doubt? And what advice would you give any young, aspiring, future Maria Rios’ out there—or any seasoned female professional thinking about pivoting into entrepreneurship?
Maria: I do not often admit it, but yes, I did have some internal fear. In those early days when I was the only woman in meetings and on construction sites, and people asked me for coffee or tried to give me a food order, I had moments of doubt. Those were just moments, not even minutes! I just took a deep breath and carried on. I was following my dream and knew I was building a legacy for my family and my community.
Sandra: Here is a follow-up question to that—do you think it is ever too late for a woman to start her own business? And what is the frame of mind you really need to be in? Also, what would you think is a sound strategy for launching a business, especially if you’re balancing family or caretaking responsibilities at the same time?
Maria: I do not think it is ever too late to follow your dreams. You need to know it will take work and time— and be ready for that commitment. Although as women we sometimes believe we can have everything and do it all by ourselves, I strongly suggest being ready to ask for help with family responsibilities or work tasks if you have a support system. Also, self-care is so very important! Remember to continue to eat well, get rest, and do things for you that are not work every day!
Listen, you’re never too old or too young to fulfill your dreams, but also do something you’re really passionate about!
Sandra: You built it and you scaled and have had phenomenal success. What kind of people did you surround yourself with, how did you seek out mentors, and who were your first champions?
Maria: I surrounded myself with people that encouraged me, saw my vision, and people that wanted to see me succeed. I had a friend that was a middle management executive at a waste company who helped me in the early days, and I still ask him and many other colleagues questions from time to time. I made sure to take advantage of classes at universities and joined professional organizations. I attended networking events and learned from the best minds in business and other successful entrepreneurs.
Sandra: How has the business landscape changed for women who identify as Latinx, Latina and/or Hispanic since you first started your business? What has stayed the same—the good, the bad, or the ugly?
Maria: There are so many more Latina and Latinx business leaders than there were when I began. I cannot remember the last time someone in a meeting thought I was there to deliver coffee. However, it is still common, especially in my industry, to be the only woman in the room. Opportunities for strong women business leaders are still fewer than they ought to be, but there are more of us, and that number continues to grow! That is really encouraging.
Sandra: Can you share more about seeing waste as an opportunity? What’s next for Nation Waste, Inc.?
Maria: Originally, the plan for Nation Waste, Inc. was to stay a regional company in Texas. I now am excited to move into more complex waste solutions, including power generation, renewables, and other infrastructure support. We are no longer a regional company, and we are well on our way to becoming a global contender. In fact, I would say we are already a global contender as we will next expand our business into other countries. I’m not, we’re not, stopping. I have the support of some very talented women and men—engineers and advisors—supporting this work.
In fact, expertise and dedication from my team and our collaborative partnerships have been key to finding ways to improve my business and the quality of our work environment. To give you one example, in 2018, NWI set out to revolutionize worker safety and so we launched a new division, Nation Safety Net. This division basically leverages a technology solution powered by IBM Watson IoT that uses environmental sensors and wearable devices to identify potential dangers and to help employees avoid injury. I’m very proud of the work we are doing to ensure worker safety. This is really important. Nearly 5,000 people die and approximately 27 million workdays are lost each year because of workplace injuries, just in the U.S. alone.
I just really love what I do, I love my work, and my team. So, I really want to support them because they support me in my dreams. And my big dream is that I really want to clean up the earth and inspire any future Marias out there. I plan to continue leading this effort.
Sandra: You are actively involved in your community, and you also dedicate time to supporting ecosystems and communities at home and abroad. Beyond your service on NWBC, what activities are you involved in that you are most proud of and that are really life-affirming?
Maria: I am extremely proud to be the founder of USASDF.org—a foundation to support the education, business, and growth of El Salvador and the El Salvadoran people. It is an honor to work with a stellar group of community and business leaders to support my original home country that is on the path to a revolutionary financial and economic recovery—a renaissance of sorts is happening in El Salvador, and it is amazing to be a part of it!
It is especially meaningful for me, because just imagine Sandra, I came here at 13 escaping the war in my country, knowing no English, and with absolutely nothing. That is why I want to show other future entrepreneurs they can achieve their dreams. If I can do it and I did it, you can do it!
Sandra: Do you believe there is more the government, private, and nonprofit sectors can do to leverage the potential of women, especially women of color? Do you see any opportunities here?
Maria: Until there is pay parity, until there are equal numbers of women and men in the boardroom, until the number of women in STEM programs at universities is the same as the number of men, there is still much work to be done. I see opportunities more as a responsibility to continue to share my story, to continue to mentor other minority women, and to continue to express my expectations to business partners to see women in executive roles!
Sandra: It’s Hispanic Heritage Month ~ as a family woman, successful business owner, and women’s business enterprise advocate ~ what would you say is the best way to commemorate the occasion?
Maria: The best way to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month is to continue participating in programs and events that observe our community’s cultural and economic contributions and to encourage the next generation of Hispanic, Latina, and Latinx entrepreneurs to take chances and follow their dreams. If I can do it, so can they!
Sandra: Last set of questions, just for fun…
- What is your favorite city in the world?
- Your favorite book?
- And what is your favorite kind food?
Maria: San Salvador will always hold a special place in my heart. It is so amazing to me to see revitalization and the economy turning around.
I am currently reading, “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week.” I am intrigued by the thought of a sabbath and taking a sacred day of rest. I am not sure if I can implement it, but I am interested to learn more.
I love El Salvadoran comfort foods. My very favorites are pupusas and sopa de pollo.
Sandra: Council Member Maria Rios, thanks so much for taking the time to tell us your story and imparting your wisdom. We truly appreciate you sharing the ingredients for your “secret sauce” for business success!
Here is what we heard goes into that sauce:
- industry expertise,
- strong business mentors (in the finance world),
- a capital stack for the startup phase,
- business certifications,
- cultivating business relationships and staying connected to your sounding board,
- brushing off pettiness and moving on,
- having a clear vision and strategy,
- execute and don’t be afraid to ask for help,
- look outward and serve others,
- get even more education,
- get even more certifications,
- remain resilient,
- push past the pain points,
- never stop hustling, and
- never stop dreaming … even bigger.
That is quite a recipe! We appreciate it and do hope we can also get your “receta secreta” for that “sopa de pollo” too!
Maria: You got it! It’s my pleasure … and you know already know how I feel, it’s my honor to serve on this Council with so many amazing and accomplished women business owners!
To learn more about NWBC, visit www.nwbc.gov.
The NWBC’s Business Profiles Blog Series highlights current and former Council Members, prominent women small business owners across the country, and women’s business enterprise thought leaders who have successfully built thriving businesses, launched promising startups, or have contributed their time and expertise to helping fortify local ecosystems by actively advocating for equitable access to financing, entrepreneurial resources, and contracting opportunities for more U.S. women entrepreneurs.