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Those in attendance at the 2023 AL DÍA Top Entrepreneurs Forum and Reception
More than 150 people attended AL DÍA's 2023 Top Entrepreneurs Forum and Reception on Feb. 24, 2023. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick.

Quantifying entrepreneurship as a beam of light in our society at the 2023 AL DÍA Top Entrepreneurs Forum

As AL DÍA honored seven entrepreneurs across six categories, it’s clear that these minds improve the quality of life in our communities.

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The journey to becoming an entrepreneur can be a long and arduous one. However, among the other commonalities is that it can also be a fulfilling endeavor with ebbs and flows along the way.

On Friday, Feb. 24, AL DÍA hosted its second AL DÍA Top Entrepreneurs Forum, honoring seven total individuals across six categories.

As each honoree gave their acceptance speeches, many major points were made. While each individual story is unique in its own way, there are also key similarities that each share — hence why they were all named 2023 Top Entrepreneurs.

Take Sofia De Leon, the recipient of the Top Restaurateur award.

Born in Guatemala, her journey as a food entrepreneur started at the age of 13. Her brother gifted her an ice cream machine, which she’d use to make ice cream and her brother would eat it.

That small endeavor planted the seeds of the entrepreneurial spirit she displays today as the owner of El Merkury.

Now five years in, she reflected on what prompted this venture.

“It all started because I wanted to represent underrepresented countries with a great food culture,” said De Leon. 

She needed a little piece of her native home of Guatemala in her new home in Philadelphia. El Merkury has given her that opportunity.

However, its impact goes far beyond simply that.

“I never thought it would become almost like an educational piece where I welcome people everyday and I get to teach them about my country,” she added.

The food scene is just one of the many qualities that makes Philadelphia such a rich city. 

Hector Nuñez, the recipient of the Business Innovation award, has dedicated himself to showcase the city’s entire richness.

He has done so through his multimedia platform, Wooder Ice.

The innovative and influential platform seeks to detract from the negative storylines that often dominate people’s perceptions of the city. Instead, it allows people to see the positive aspects — from the small businesses to community members and more.

“It started off as just a hobby,” Nuñez said during his speech. 

However, that hobby quickly grew and became the popular platform it is today. 

Nuñez made sure to highlight that this endeavor isn’t a one-man show, and that the growth has been a byproduct of his entire team. 

However, they also saw that there was a need. 

“A lot of businesses needed a platform to amplify their voices,” he added. 

As the amount of diverse entrepreneurs and businesses grew, so too did the Wooder Ice team’s level of responsibility to control the narrative, which circles back to the entire purpose of the platform.

“Representation matters. We want to be that positive influence in Philly because Philly has a lot of great places to eat, places to visit, but the real commodity is its people,” said Nuñez. “We want to invest in those people.”

Doing so takes a collaborative approach — a partnership, if you will.

Alma Romero and Marcos Tlacopilco are the very definition, and they were the recipients of the Partnership Award. 

Arriving to the United States together in 1998 with the odds stacked against them, the couple overcame multiple obstacles to become the well-known business owners they are today. 

They went from working for a fish market to becoming staples of the Italian market in South Philadelphia, as owners of Marcos’ Fish Market & Alma del Mar.

The two of them live by the motto: “Put your heart in everything you do.”

When it comes to what motivates them, Tlacopilco said, “We recognize that we are part of the Philadelphia community, and we continue to work our hardest for you.” 

In a similar vein to Nuñez, Mazzie Casher has wants to highlight the positivity in Philadelphia.

In recent years, gun violence has been at the forefront of the local news cycle. 

Casher has committed himself to put an end to that violence, as the Changemaker Award recipient.

He is the CEO and executive director of the Philly Truce Foundation and co-creator of Philly Truce, an app that serves to mediate and resolve conflicts in a non-violent manner.

In each of the past two years, Philadelphia has recorded more than 500 homicides. When reflecting back to 1990, Philadelphia did the same thing.

Back then, Casher was a high school student. Thirty years later, as a grown man, he and Philly Truce co-founder Stephen Pickens decided they wanted to do something to change that.

It wasn’t easy, but the app has been able to make an impact due to Casher following his heart.

“In these two years, we were able to get over 500 Philadelphians to volunteer in first-time activism and gun violence prevention,” said Casher. 

As a changemaker, Casher notes that now is the most opportune time to strengthen the bond between the African American, Latinx, and other diverse communities, who make up 65% of the Philadelphia community. 

However, in addition to the gun violence crisis, Philadelphia is also facing an opioid crisis and a 23% poverty rate. 

To close his speech, he made a call to action to those of us who will be responsible for electing our city’s 100th mayor later this year.

“The only way out of these cycles is to band together and hold the next mayor accountable,” he said. 

He continued, indicating that true change will take place only if they are willing to work together. “They’ve got to sit down with the Black and Brown.”

Neydary Zambrano, the honoree in the Brick-and-Mortar category, never thought she would be an entrepreneur.

However, ever since arriving to the United States from Venezuela, she has been guided and supported by those around her.

“I’ve never done this alone,” she said. 

Her parents set the first example on how to be a working parent and still maintain a successful career.

Zambrano, herself, is the founder of Magic Memories, a development center that provides young children with a loving, caring, and stimulating environment to grow and learn. 

Her entrepreneurial endeavor was influenced by both her daughter and son. Her husband and siblings have also been a heavy influence.

Given that, one thing is very clear.

“For me, family is super important,” said Zambrano. “I think that is the value that I bring as a Latina, and that’s part of who I am.”

She has staff members who have worked with her for so long that they have become like members of her family.

Magic Memories has provided service to over 800 children across the region, and is a quantification of her desire to shape the youth who will be the future of our country.

Shaping the youth and providing them with a path to success is something that Richard Olaya, the recipient of the Pioneer Award, prides himself on.

In fact, it’s the epitome of what he believes being a pioneer is all about.

On the front of his office building, a sign reads: “Creating beautiful spaces that reflect the best of contemporary society.” 

“We wrote that as architects because to me, it describes the essence of what we do,” said Olaya. 

As he celebrates 30 years of being an architect, it’s dawned on him that it also describes the essence of what being a pioneer is.

“It is the creation of beautiful spaces that happens with ongoing efforts on helping the next generation of Latinos and Latinas to find their path towards their own dreams,” he added. 

While taking a step back and reflecting upon his own personal and professional journey, he sees that while unique in the details, the challenges he has fought to overcome and the sacrifices he has made along the way can be shared.

“I think the real takeaway today is that as a pioneer, we are all fortunate — as Latinos, we are all fortunate — so that the next young Latino and the next young Latina with big dreams can take that path and have it be a little bit easier to navigate,” Olaya underscored. 

Entrepreneurship is many things. However, you can also say it’s about following a dream, helping others, and serving as an inspiration.

Those elements all encompass the AL DÍA Top Entrepreneurs Forum and why it is held.

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