By Coco Salazar
Life as a wealthy restaurateur and tenor performing opera concerts in the grandest of Mexico’s artistic venues was a far cry from standing in the streets of Dallas seeking a workday’s pay on a cold March morning. Fast forward seven years, Juan Miguel López was open for business, living the American Dream.
“The U.S. is a blessed country, and it’s been very good to me,” López says, sitting across the table from me at French restaurant, while I practically inhale a Saturday’s brunch. He takes a sip of coffee and continues telling his humbling story of riches to rags, eloquently describing a roller coaster of life-changing events, complete with exact dates.
At age 17, shortly after his parents divorced, López took his first shot at entrepreneurship: a taco stand that put him and two siblings through college. His musical and vocal studies at the University of Guadalajara School of Music led to a solid performance career as an opera tenor. His adventures south of the border proceeded to include funding and directing art conservation programs, conducting a TV show aimed at preserving Mexican traditions, and owning four other highly, profitable businesses: a bar, a nightclub and two restaurants occasionally visited by celebrities.
“People think everything has to be perfect to start a business,” López said. “That’s never going to happen. Start when you have a gut feeling.”
Judging by his articulateness and poised demeanor, it’s easy to assume that López, 47, immigrated to a Dallas suburb, with his wife, daughter and two dogs, solely to establish an American business. He started Mito Financial, a credit and business plan consultancy, and quickly picked up where he left off in his native Leon, Guanajuato; being a member of various community organizations, discussing socioeconomic issues via radio and TV shows, and singing opera on the side. His entrepreneurial expertise and intensive networking led to his current roles as president of Casa Ciudad de Mexico, treasurer of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, on the board of DFW International Community Alliance and as the Irving Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s chairman-elect.
The stark reality of his journey to U.S. territory is based on the global repercussion of the 9/11 attacks. Heightened trade restrictions took a toll on Leon’s wealthy shoemakers – López’s main clientele. He closed his restaurant and six months later headed to Dallas with $200, an unknown resting place and without speaking English.
On Thursday, March 7, 2002, after an unsuccessful attempt to find work as a jornalero (daily-wage laborer), López spent the evening exploring downtown Dallas. Fascinated by numerous people in formal attire walking toward a venue, he traced their path, wound up at the door of the Dallas Museum of Art and found the $15 entrance fee unaffordable.
López started mowing lawns Monday, lived in an acquaintance’s storage room for three months and subsequently started waiting tables seven days a week to bring his family to Dallas, raking in extra tips singing for his customers. On Nov. 22, he entered through the front doors of DMA in his best suit as one of the performing artists of the night.
“It was overwhelming; eight months later, there I was, on stage — with a standing ovation,” López said, smiling as he recalled the moment. “Life gives you many opportunities, and it’s up to you to grasp them.”
On March 10, 2009, Mito Financial was born. Since then, he’s created jobs for eight employees and helped 1,550 people start or grow a business. Almost a quarter of those clients form part of the 2,000-plus attendees Mito’s had at its business seminars in Dallas, Irving and San Antonio.
This March, López launched Mito Investments, a small-business loan company, and attended the 2012 Immigrant Journey Awards luncheon as one of 11 immigrants nominated for their exemplary leadership in business, a chosen profession or the civic arena.
Here are more tips and anecdotes from the Mexican entrepreneur who’s contributing big to the U.S. small-business sector and economy.
Infórmate DFW: Tell us about your new company, Mito Investments.
Juan Miguel López: After observing how difficult it is for our Hispanic community to obtain small-business loans, I presented this concern to some friends and the idea of creating a loan company for that purpose was born. The first requirement for an individual to qualify
for a loan is to have a business or a clear idea of what they want to undertake. [This prevents giving] a loan to someone who won’t know what to do with it when they get it.
IDFW: How is Mito Financial different?
JML: It helps our community in everything related to credit, either establishing or improvingit, and how to prepare a business plan and register a business. We also offer free seminars in Spanish on these subjects.
IDFW: What motivated you to launch finance- related businesses in the United States?
JML: My family has for generations engaged in business; my dad opened his first grocery store at age 15, so I grew up watching the “buy and sell.” When I had to start working in the U.S., I realized that most of my coworkers did not know how to set up a business or about the paperwork involved. Once I understood the system and opened my own business, I wanted to help others establish businesses.
IDFW: What are the most common reasons why people refrain from being business owners?
JML: Most want to stay in their comfort zone. There’s a saying that “business is good for everyone, but not everyone is good for business.” Of 100 people who attend a Mito seminar, only 12 to 20 follow up with a call for more information and help to achieve their goals. When people realize long hours are involved the first years, discouragement sets in and they return to their [comfort] zone. Most Hispanics come to the U.S. because of lack of money, and the need to eat and support our families prevents us from opening a business. You enter the circle of working in “whatever,” the years go by and you get stuck in this system the rest of your life. Only a handful of risk takers break this pattern. The truth is real obstacles don’t exist; we put them in our head and that’s what limits us.
IDFW: What’s your advice for young Latinos in college and aspiring entrepreneurs?
JML: This country offers opportunities to those who ask for it — regardless of their language or origin. Forget the 40/40 (40 hours for 40 years) and put forth extra effort. Start working in a field related to your major — no matter the pay or if you have to volunteer — and stick to people from whom you can learn business. Remember that “birds with the same feathers flock together.” If you hang out with entrepreneurs, you’ll become an entrepreneur!
IDFW: In addition to entrepreneurship, you’ve made a living as a tenor and founded and directed several programs to nurture and preserve the arts. Why are the arts so important to you?
JML: The only thing that a man has is his story — good or bad, it’s his. For this reason, it’s important to know why we stand here today. It’s no accident; it’s an accumulation of experiences. Art and social movement go hand in hand. For example, the playwright and novelist (Denis) Diderot started important social movements like the Encyclopedia, which revolutionized the way of thinking and influenced the French Revolution and U.S. and Latin American independence. Art and traditions are what give us identity.
IDFW: What performance are you most proud of?
JML: Two have really marked my tenor career: initiating “Conciertos de Primavera” (Spring Concerts) 10 years ago in Leon because that tradition continues today and interpreting the Mexican National Anthem at the Organizations of American States building in Washington, D.C., for the Bicentennial Celebration of Mexi- co-representing your native country abroad in a historic, once-in-a-lifetime event is priceless.
By Coco Salazar