Lou Rodríguez: A Journey Towards Success
The founder of Rodriguez Consulting and Board Chair of the GPHCC is AL DÍA’s Business archetype for its 2020 Hispanic Heritage Awards.
Growing up, Lou Rodriguez admits he tried to stay away from the subject of his last name as much as he could.
Born to a Puerto Rican father and Polish mother in Chester, Pennsylvania, Rodriguez’s family had both deep and new roots in the area. His mother Christine’s family had been there for decades, while his father Luis’ came from Utuado, Puerto Rico in 1953.
As industry left and the jobs dried up in Chester, the family moved and settled close by in Ridley Park, where Rodriguez spent the majority of his childhood.
Back then, in the 1970s and 80s, the Delaware County suburb that sits in the shadow of Philadelphia was much as it is today: a predominantly white, middle-class town.
“If you said ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino,’ nobody even knew what that meant,” said Rodriguez.
If it was said, the only subgroup recognized were Puerto Ricans, who were the predominant group of Latinos that had established enclaves in parts of nearby Philadelphia.
Popular culture of the time was also not kind to them.
Rodriguez remembers the character Julio from Sanford and Son and Freddie Prinze’s Chico in Chico and the Man as some of the early negative media portrayals of Puerto Ricans and the wider Latino population of the U.S.
The result was avoidance of discussing his Latino roots whenever they were questioned to limit ridicule.
“If there’s something different, someone’s going to pick it out,” said Rodriguez. “As a child, you’re just like: ‘God forbid’ you get teased or bullied, so you do everything you can to avoid it.
In addition to being Puerto Rican, his Polish roots also put a target on his back in the neighborhood.
“Which one do you want to choose?” is how he described the dynamic.
Whenever Rodriguez was questioned about his last name, he would say he was “Spanish.”
“Leave it at that,” he said.
The dynamic was later explored by Rodriguez’s sister, Diana, who is now a published author.
One of the book series she’s written very much follows her own struggle growing up with a Latina identity surrounded by white and European on all sides.
The series follows a 15-year-old Puerto Rican protagonist, Mariana Ruiz, who is sent on a journey back to Puerto Rico to discover the roots she had ignored her whole life up to that point.
“My story was kind of similar,” said Rodriguez. “I wasn’t necessarily running around and advertising it even into my professional life.”
As for school, Rodriguez admitted he didn’t like it growing up, being initially much more drawn to its social aspects like parties and sports.
But he did also like computers and had a natural talent for math.
When applying for college, the combination of the two led him to first study computers at Millersville University in Lancaster, PA.
Unfortunately, Rodriguez’s party life hadn’t left him yet, and his first year at college was an academically tumultuous one.
“I fall flat on my face,” said Rodriguez.
He returned home for the summer after his freshman year and took a construction job that would prove to be life-changing.
One day while on a job site digging a hole for a new septic system, Rodriguez spotted a crew of peculiar-looking men chopping their way through the nearby woods with a machete and tying ribbons to trees.
Their ritual was foreign but seemed to impact the work he was doing as a laborer.
“I just knew everywhere they put a ribbon, we knocked that tree down,” said Rodriguez.
He asked who the machete-wielding men were.
“Those are the engineers,” was the reply.
In that moment, Rodriguez knew he wanted to be one of them someday.
With a renewed motivation, he went home and told his parents about his change of life plans. Rather than return to Millersville and continue with computers, Rodriguez would transfer to his dad’s alma mater of Widener University and switch majors to engineering.
He initially confided in his mother, whom he called a “saint” and was typically also his toughest critic and greatest adviser growing up.
“It’s going to be hard, and you’re probably going to struggle,” was her response, but she supported the notion of seeing her son’s newfound confidence.
In going to Widener, his father only had one request: “don’t be an accountant.”
As the main breadwinner in the family, Luis Rodriguez was the first in his family to ever get a college education.
When he came from Utuado, he initially worked with his father in Chester and at first followed in his footsteps of holding multiple jobs to support his own young family.
“My dad looked around and said: ‘This isn’t the life,’” said Rodriguez.
So, while working as a stock boy at General Electric and raising a young family, Luis, went to night school at Widener and got his accounting degree after eight years.
Rodriguez was young when Luis got his degree, but the memory of going to his dad’s graduation ceremony stuck in his mind as he made the decision to go to Widener, where he would graduate with a civil engineering degree in 1991.
As he entered the workforce, Rodriguez started with the Philadelphia Water Department.
There, beyond finding fascination with the city’s grand, artistic blueprints for its 150-year-old water infrastructure, Rodriguez was also in the business of interacting with the public affected by the department’s projects.
“The Water Department, anytime they decide to dig a lot of people get impacted,” he said. “So the engineer’s role in a lot of cases was coordinate, and resolve issues.”
In the process, Rodriguez found he had a knack for talking to people and negotiating.
“I just want to be outside, I want to talk to people, I want to get in rooms and make deals,” he said of his early realization.
Before he would leave the city in 1999, Rodriguez would further refine his ability to connect with people as the city’s first Geospatial Information System (GIS) Program Manager, which involved him flying around the country to meet with other experts in cutting-edge mapping technology.
When he left, Rodriguez entered the private sector for a number of years before starting his own engineering consulting firm, Rodriguez, in 2007.
The company was a refurbishing of the last engineering firm he worked for before realizing his own business aspirations.
“I was diving into the deep end without really knowing how to swim,” said Rodriguez.
In the early days, he said his wife, Nicole, was the main support beam for his business and family and has been ever since he started the company.
“There would be no firm without her,” he said.
Early on, he was also approached by people in the city about identifying Rodriguez as a minority-owned business.
“That was the first time really anyone had said: ‘Hey, we know you’re this. Why aren’t you identifying with it?” said Rodriguez.
He also had concerns about being undeserving of the label because of his inability to speak Spanish and little interaction with the Latino community outside of those in his family.
To help ease some of his insecurities, Rodriguez was pointed to the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
In his first meeting with the chamber, Rodriguez was honest about them and realized the world was way different from the 70s and 80s of his childhood.
“Things have changed,” was the message he got.
In a meeting with GPHCC’s then-president Varsovia Fernandez, Rodriguez also found out he was a rare find in his field.
“There are lots of faces that are successful, there are none that are an engineer,” Fernandez told him.
To further cement the perfect match, the chamber also needed access to the Philadelphia Water Department, which doles out some of the most money for contracts of any city department.
For the next 13 years, both Rodriguez’s business and involvement with GPHCC have flourished.
On the business side, Rodriguez said his keys to staying successful are two things: money and people — with a heavy emphasis on the latter.
“I don’t do the work in Rodriguez Consulting. My strength was being able to assemble people — a team — that was able to play this game,” he said.
Rodriguez said it’s taken all of 13 years to build that “team” to win the “Super Bowl” or “World Series” as he calls it, but it’s created a family in the process.
He spoke with joy of being able to see younger employees not only grow as professionals but also grow personally within the business.
“To me, that’s the biggest joy I get out of it. The freedom that business offers, but also the ability to affect lives,” said Rodriguez.
In the chamber, he’s risen to the position of Chairman of its Board of Directors.
Rodriguez’s goal there is to remove the “minority” label he came there with for all who associate with the chamber.
“I don’t want you hiring me because I have an ‘M’ in front of the business name. I don’t want that to be the reason,” he said. “I want to be seen as just: we’re good.”
It transforms into a question of how to evolve for not just the Latino business community of Philadelphia, but the Latino community as a whole in the U.S.
With leaders like Rodriguez, we might just get there someday.