by Bobbin Wages
Juanita Velez, a 2013 graduate of Robinson’s Master of International Business program, received the Young Professional of the Year Award from the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce this month. The 26-year-old possesses the chops of a fortysomething at mid-career.
Corporate leadership runs in Juanita Velez’s blood. Her seven aunts have dominated the business landscape in her home country of Colombia for decades. One of them owned Comcel, the Colombian equivalent of AT&T, before retiring; another runs a textile and clothing manufacturer that distributes goods all over the world; a third aunt serves as marketing director for a paper company. So when Velez was named a Goizueta Scholar and declared a neuropsychology major at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia, she was straying from her family’s normal path by entering the medical field instead of business.
A fascination with the brain
The emotional impact of a serious family illness sparked Velez’s interest in neuropsychology in the first place. At age 38, her mother developed breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. Because Velez’s mother still spoke her native language and no therapists could juggle both Spanish and English to help the family cope, Velez decided to become one of a few, if not the first, bilingual psychologists in Georgia. After completing several internships, Velez realized she couldn’t leave her work at the office; her personal investment in clients suffering from autism, depression, and bipolar and conduct disorders had taken a toll on her own mental health. Still propelled by a fascination with the brain, Velez entered the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University but struggled with the coursework during the first semester. “I’m more of a right than left brain,” she says. “I was trying to make it in a world where I could have succeeded, but it didn’t align with my strengths.”
That’s when Velez dropped out of medical school and succumbed to her natural calling.
The final straw
First, a little background: when she was six, Velez’s nuclear family moved to the United States from Medellín, Colombia, which TIME magazine named the most dangerous city in the world in the late 1980s. After an impressive transformation, Medellín was named City of the Year by Citi, the Wall Street Journal, and the Urban Land Institute, but the Velez family lived there during the height of the city’s drug war. The final straw occurred when three men broke into her father’s dental clinic when he was out for lunch, but Velez and her nanny had come by to feed the tank of fish. One of the crooks held five-year-old Velez at gunpoint while the others swiped every valuable from the office. She vividly remembers the men’s bandannas, the noise they made while smashing the tank, and the sight of all those fish spilling onto the floor. Fed up with the rampant crime, Velez and her mother relocated to Suwanee, Georgia, but her father was forced to split his time between their new home and Colombia in order to continue practicing dentistry. “That’s the struggle as an immigrant,” Velez says. “You don’t speak the language, you’re coming with very little money so you can’t afford to go to school, and you have to sustain a family.”
The Google search that started it all
Soon after Velez left medical school, her father asked her to Google teeth whitening products in China, as he had heard they cost significantly less and could be used at the clinics he still ran in Colombia. During her research, Velez discovered that a dental product manufacturing expo would occur in China within the next couple months. She and her father not only attended the expo but also signed an exclusivity deal for several Latin American markets with Beyond Dental, a dental product manufacturer that enabled them to sell its new and refurbished merchandise through the company they cofounded, InterDem. Velez certainly racked up plenty of global entrepreneurial experience, but she lacked a formal business education. Lured by Georgia State University’s reputation as one of the most multicultural student populations in the country, she enrolled in the Master of International Business program at its J. Mack Robinson College of Business. “I’m passionate about diversity,” Velez says. “It takes a team of different mindsets to push something bigger than great.”
While Velez was in graduate school, her father retired and InterDem folded. But during her studies, she developed a mentoring relationship with Ed Baker, her classmate and then publisher of the Atlanta Business Chronicle who now is executive in residence at the Robinson College of Business. Through that connection, Velez secured her current position as international integrated communications supervisor at UPS, where she manages communications efforts across four regions.
Nearly a decade of community service
Velez is a mere 26 years old but possesses the chops of a fortysomething at mid-career. Not surprisingly, the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce named Velez its Young Professional of the Year earlier this month. Her anonymous nominator specifically noted her leadership in the Hispanic community. It dates back to Duluth High School, where she and several classmates developed Juntos (Spanish for “together”), the school’s first Hispanic club that not only facilitates community service projects through the Latin American Association of Atlanta but also provides scholarship opportunities to members. As part of the requirements for the Goizueta Scholarship that funded her undergraduate education, Velez joined the Hispanic Outreach and Leadership Association (HOLA) at Armstrong Atlantic and completed 150 hours of community service each semester.
Just last month, Velez kicked off Hispanic Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE), a branch of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber that she chairs. “The Hispanic community in Georgia is growing fast, and their impact on the economy is increasing every day,” Velez says. “HYPE will be a place for them to connect, grow, and develop their careers.” With financial backing from the UPS Foundation and an impressive board of directors from companies like Wells Fargo, Telemundo Atlanta and Hispanic radio station La Mega Mundial, HYPE is slated to open membership in the third quarter of 2016.
Velez’s sense of obligation to the community can be attributed to her parents, who every Christmas collected used clothing to distribute to people in need. Plus, prior to retirement, her father ran a free dental clinic for orphans in Colombia. “I always have been involved in giving back to the community,” Velez says. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t exposed to helping others.”
Velez notes the obstacles that stand in the way of Hispanics’ success, particularly learning English, adapting to the many cultures they encounter in the melting pot of the United States, and balancing dedication to their families while striving to move ahead. “I want to be a motivational figure for the community as more and more Hispanics strive to develop their lives and really amplify and elevate their status,” Velez says. One might say that business runs in Velez’s blood, but community pumps in her heart.