AL DÍA’s 2023 Top Entrepreneurs are transforming Philly as we know it
This year’s AL DÍA Top Entrepreneurs do it in their own ways, but the impact is citywide.
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Pick any of the stories of the seven honorees at this year’s AL DÍA Top Entrepreneurs Forum and Reception, and aspects of two major entrepreneurial elements stick out the most.
They all started from the absolute bottom in some way, shape, or form, but are now leaders transforming Philadelphia as you read these words on the page. They’ve also done it in their own ways, away from the traditional systems and power structures that often cater to a certain population in the entrepreneurial and business world.
Truly starting from scratch
Take Pioneer Award winner Richard Olaya.
“I did not have this entrenched culture of recognition and network that exists within American society,” Olaya told AL DÍA. “I’m starting everything from scratch. I’m starting my life from scratch. I’m starting my business from scratch.”
“That’s a roundabout way of saying business is harder for Latinos and minorities across the board as an entrepreneur,” he continued.
Olaya, the son of Colombian immigrants to the U.S., worked in architecture for 12 years before founding his own firm, Olaya Studio, in 2006. He ran it through all its ups and downs for 13 years before completing a merger with another firm to create The O Z Collaborative, which he still co-runs today.
Brick and Mortar honoree Neydary Zambrano arrived in the U.S. 25 years ago to escape the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. She found work in the nonprofit world while pursuing her law degree at Temple and learning how to build her own business.
Roughly 10 years ago, Zambrano bought her first early childhood education center in Phoenixville, PA and it became the first location for her business, Magic Memories.
The Top Restaurateur, Sofia De Leon, can remember selling ice cream to classmates in her first entrepreneurial endeavor while growing up in Guatemala City. Her current one in Philadelphia, El Merkury, first opened its doors in Rittenhouse in 2018.
Transforming Philly’s neighborhoods
Alma Romero and Marcos Tlacopilco — The Partnership Award winners — have chased their American Dream as entrepreneurs in the U.S. for the last 25 years. They arrived from Puebla, Mexico with a goal that is the same for most immigrant entrepreneurs not just in Philly, but across the U.S.
To “fight for the children,” and give them a “better and good future,” Marcos told AL DÍA in a recent interview. His and Alma’s entrepreneurial journey in Philly started with Marco’s Fish Market and Crab House on South Ninth Street.
In his own words, it was founded out of “necessity,” and Tlacopilco said it took 10 years for him to understand “the whole business of buying and finding vendors.” He operated it for 17 years before taking the next step in he and Romero’s entrepreneurial careers with Alma del Mar.
The restaurant, which provides Mexican and American-inspired fare often with a helping of seafood for breakfast, lunch or dinner, is on the same block as the Marco’s Fish Market and Crab House. It opened in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and got major promotion help from an appearance on the fifth season of Queer Eye.
It’s now a South Philly staple, but also represents another pillar in the transformation of South Philadelphia — especially Ninth Street, historically known in Philadelphia as the Italian Market. Yes, there’s still Sarcone’s Bakery, Ralph’s Italian, and Lorenzo’s Pizza. Anthony’s Coffee & Chocolate House, the original DiBruno Bros. and Villa di Roma (to name a few).
But any further South and the transformation starts — Blue Corn, and a block away, Marco’s Fish Market and Crab House, and now Alma del Mar. Cross Washington Ave. and the taquerias start with La Prima and Adelita, and end with South Philly Barbacoa.
Geographically and as entrepreneurs, Marcos and Alma sit at the source of a river that’s created what’s now more popularly known as the Mexican Market on Ninth Street in South Philadelphia.
They’re not alone on AL DÍA’s 2023 Top Entrepreneur list as sources of transformation.
Transforming Philly’s narrative
Business Innovation winner Hector Nuñez was tired of the same old news reports he heard his whole life growing up in the city when he finally decided to change that himself.
“Philadelphia in general gets a bad rap for violence, negative news and so forth,” he recently told AL DÍA.
The motivation sits at the core of what Nuñez would call Wooder Ice. The idea sparked while he was still a student at Temple University, and it was something he’d make a reality a few years after graduation.
Almost a decade later, Wooder Ice is a fast-growing brand in the digital media sphere that is definitively Philly and cut from a different cloth compared to other outlets in the city. It’s bread and butter is exactly what Nuñez envisioned — positive, uplifting stories about all the happenings in Philly that offer a much-needed reprieve from the daily cycles of TV and print news.
Wooder Ice’s base of operation in the digital domain starts on Instagram — with an account boasting more than 113,000 followers that are informed daily about the city’s happenings and entertained by the Philly-centric memes. That content has also spread to TikTok (mostly the memes there), and YouTube, where the growing Wooder Ice team posts clips from its podcast, other interviews and spotlights of local businesses, among other video content.
Wooder Ice also has its own merch that fans of the platform can purchase, featuring its logo — Founding Father Ben Franklin donning a bandana.
In many ways with Wooder Ice, Nuñez is well on his way to sitting atop a digital media empire to be reckoned with that puts Philly on the map for all good reasons.
"Recognizing that capacity has been rewarding. It's the brand in itself… It’s a community that we built here in Philadelphia,” Nuñez told AL DÍA.
Transforming Philly’s humanity
Community is also what sits at the heart of the Philly Truce App. The creation of 2023 Changemaker Awardee Mazzie Casher, the app is out to curb gun violence — one of Philadelphia’s biggest challenges of the last three years (and well before that if you ask any Philadelphia resident).
With the dramatic recent rise in shootings, especially among Philadelphia youth, Casher and his friend Steve Pickens came to the same conclusion: “It was time to be leaders.”
Philly Truce creates a community of nearby conflict mediators that can be contacted through the app by youth and others in situations escalating towards violence. The mediators go to the scene and play peacemaker.
They’re volunteers that also complete violence intervention training offered by Philly Truce.
Casher’s mission is for youth to turn to the app instead of a gun for resolving their conflicts with others and reduce overall gun violence in the process. The app also combats the “snitch mentality” that often infects at-risk youth because it’s not perpetuating further violence.
“An app can modify behavior if it’s properly implemented and marketed and advertised,” Casher told WHYY in 2021. “Uber, Instagram, Yelp, Airbnb — these things have come in and changed the way we do very basic things.”
Since its launch in 2021, Casher has also become a leader on the frontlines of the anti-gun violence movement in the city. Transformation on the issue is still a work in progress, but with Casher’s app, there’s a new solution on the scene.
Like Casher, Zambrano’s transformation occurs in the human. For her, that’s the children she interacts with everyday at Magic Memories — and that’s definitely multiplied since she took over in 2006.
Now, she boasts nine early childhood education centers across Montgomery and Chester counties that serve hundreds of kids everyday. They also employ over 200 people.
“It’s a team effort in all areas,” Zambrano told AL DÍA. “I’ve had a lot of support and love that allows me to be the person that I need to be to support my team, the kids and the families that we serve.”
Transformation is also still in the works for De Leon’s El Merkury. She has her coveted locations in Rittenhouse and Reading Terminal Market, but still views every day as a new learning opportunity for customers and staff to pass on the greatness (and uniqueness) that is Central American food in the form of pupusas, tostadas, churros and taquitos.
But that’s not to say people’s minds haven’t changed a little in the last five years.
“I really want to believe that we have played a big part in that,” she said of the changing view.
Transforming Philly’s cityscape
Transformation for Olaya, much like Marcos and Alma, is in the physical neighborhoods and structures of Philadelphia. In his time running Olaya Studio and at the O Z Collaborative, he’s done major work at Drexel, Temple and other nearby universities, and built the city’s biggest mosque, to name a few of the projects.
It’s a body of work that now stands at 30 years — and he’s transformed the architecture field along the way, at least in Philly. What was once a bunch of old white guys, now has a few old Latino guys in the leadership mix too.
“Myself included,” Olaya told AL DÍA.
He only got where he is by striking out on his own and starting from scratch, just like the rest of the 2023 AL DÍA Top Entrepreneurs.