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For Félix Serrano and his wife, Minerva, it only took them one year in charge of their business, Activus Connect, to win a contract with Uncle Sam.
This enormous achievement, however, did not happen miraculously. More than 20 years of experience in their respective areas, an innovative business model and clear goals as a team have been their key to success.
Learning the stories of these Latino entrepreneurs
More than two decades ago, and almost as if it was written in the stars, Félix and Minerva arrived in the United States with the same goal in mind: to study. Luckily, they both studied their master’s degrees at the University of Denver, Colorado, where he graduated with a Masters Degree in Business Administration (MBA) and she from Finance.
From there, both their love story and the joint dream of a promising future were woven together until they got to where they are today: married for more than 20 years, three children, and an innovative customer services company which is also a federal contractor.
Employment in a call center: the seed of entrepreneurship
Originally from Toa Baja, Puerto Rico (PR), his uncles welcomed Félix when he arrived in the United States. According to him, they were very poor and, although he was offered the chance to apply for a scholarship in Colorado, coming from low resources, he needed to work hard. But his debut in the work scene was not a piece of cake for the young Puerto Rican.
“I started working in a call center, on the third shift (from 10 pm to 6 am) and I did it for three years. I bathed in the gym, went to college until 2 pm, and after that I went to sleep a little… And I repeated this process five days a week.
Although he earned reasonable money in that job, Félix points out that he never thought of staying in that type of job, however, “I was learning about operations, training, human resources, technical skills, and, as I continued learning, I continued to move up in the company. Then, I continued in the same industry, but in different companies.
The businessman acknowledges that it took him eight years to get his master’s degree. In fact, one of the companies he worked for ended up paying for his education through an employee retention program. “At that time,” he recounts, “the economy was very bad; I was looking for another job and my supervisor understood I was a good employee, so they ended up paying for my education.”
Upon graduation, “I was already working globally and understood everything about call centers. I worked in India, South Africa, South America, Central America, doing projects in which companies on the same field were bought and sold and in where trained people were needed to do it.” Thus he was promoted to executive positions, not only in that company, but also in many others.
“I realized that my years of experience were paying off, but the time came when we already had children, I was traveling 75% of the time and my wife was raising our children by herself. It was then when we thought about what we could do with our experiences. This is how Activus Connect started.
Working from home: the business model
A native of Maracaibo, Venezuela, Minerva Serrano worked in Pepsi’s finance department before having her children and starting her own business, along with her husband.
When the time came to decide what to do to change their life style, they both decided to focus on a virtual call center business model, in which employees work from home.
“At first,” Felix tells us, “the goal was not to travel so much, but that changed into a service company focused on its employees, with this new concept.” To date, the company has about 900 representatives working from their homes in 48 states across US and Puerto Rico.
Likewise, it provides customer and sales services in a wide range of industries from logistics, retail, medicine and telecommunications to insurance and travel, among others. It serves its clients in three languages (English, Spanish and Portuguese) and has its own work platform, SmartVirtual ™.
Even though it’s only a year and a half old, Activus Connect has already landed a million-dollar contract with the US Census Bureau. “One day I got a call from a private company that needed to partner with a business like ours to work with the Census Bureau,” continues Félix.
It turns out that “in 90 days we got the contract. It was quick and easy because we were already working in the industry, we were an established business, we met the requirements, we had solid funding, an image on social media, and even though we were small, we didn’t look like it. Besides – he emphasizes – we already had federal certifications.”
Rafael Marrero’s role: The exceptional advisor
About the leading expert on federal contracting for Hispanics, Rafael Marrero, Félix says, “I met him three years ago, and at that time, we didn’t do anything, but I kept him in mind. Then, he helped us a lot: he explained us the benefit of getting certified and how to do it. We decided to get the Minority and Women-Owned business certification (WBENC WBE). The plan was to have them ready in case the opportunity arose. And so it did. He also encouraged us to register in the System for Acquisition Management (SAM), and to have a strong contractor profile.
Now that the company is allowed to operate in PR, and given their previous satisfactory experience with Marrero, Félix and Minerva are getting ready to obtain the HUBZone Certification, with the help of La Salsa Secreta del Tío Sam book’s author.
“Rafael is very knowledgeable and his lessons are incredible. He helped us with the strategic plan, opened several doors for us and guided us on each decision. In our case, that was what we needed. We had a concept, but he helped us to refine it. We really wouldn't have been able to get these certifications without him.”
Obviously, continuing to grow as federal providers is one of the main goals of these two entrepreneurs. “We understand that there are many opportunities with FEMA, with Homeland Security, [agencies] we could offer our services to in times of hurricanes, or in cases of earthquakes or fires, like the ones in California.”
In their promising path as United States Government suppliers, Félix and Minerva will continue to rely on Marrero’s support. “He keeps in touch with us, he is up to date on everything, he invites us to events, helps us to establish relationships with important people. He is definitely part of the Activus family.”