2017 – Local Entrepreneur Launches Diverse Organic Product Line

Published in the Bay State Banner, January 11, 2017

Photo: courtesy Made Organics

There are few things more comforting than a mother’s touch — whether it’s a homemade meal, a note in your lunchbox, or a buttery moisturizer.

Bernette Dawson, mother of two, sells handcrafted organic, grooming products using only fair trade ingredients through her business, Made Organics, LLC. The “made” stands for Mother Approved Daily Essentials, which is organized as a limited liability corporation.

With items like white mint cocoa whipped butter or cold-pressed argan oil, Dawson creates simple, but luxurious beauty staples that everyone and anyone can use.

Formally Lady B Naturals, Made Organics began as a home experiment. During one of Boston’s harsh winters, Dawson set out to make a soothing, safe and all-natural skin remedy for her son.

She spent about three years researching and working in her kitchen, trying out different ingredients and recipes. “When I found something that worked, I used it for myself and my sons,” said Dawson.

Friends and family were soon clamoring to try Dawson’s creations, and one friend even asked her to include one of her creams in a gift basket she was giving away at an event. “At that point, if I wanted to put this product in this basket and people liked it, I wanted them to be able to go to a website and order more if they wanted,” said Dawson.

Early support

In 2015, when the company started out with the name Lady B Naturals, Dawson was selected as a cohort for Babson’s College’s WIN Lab accelerator program.

The program is open to Babson College students and alumni, with only a couple spots given to Boston-based female entrepreneurs via a partnership with the City of Boston’s Women on Main Initiative. Dawson recalls a pivotal moment during a pitching session with a live audience and a panel of judges.

One of the judges was brutally honest. “She said, ‘I love your product and story, I hate your brand’”, said Dawson.

She was undeterred, however, and gained invaluable advice from the critical judge. “After the pitch, I pulled her aside and asked her what I could do better,” said Dawson. “She said ‘Lady B Naturals is not you. Tell your story.’”

Hardly unable to sleep, Dawson thought about what the judge said for the rest of the night and woke up the next morning with a new idea. “I don’t know why but Made has to be in the title of our new brand,” Dawson told her husband Abdul, who she considers her business partner. A focus group on Facebook with 60 friends and family helped the Dawsons decide on Made Organics, and the new company was born.

Read the rest here.

2016 – Mayor leads city forum on racism

Published in the Bay State Banner, November 22, 2016

Photo provided by Mayor’s Office

The Cutler Majestic Theatre was at full capacity on Saturday morning with students, educators, elected officials, community organizers and other Boston residents who were ready to have a difficult but necessary talk.

Mayor Martin Walsh, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and Emerson College, hosted a public discussion on the state of racism in Boston and the steps the city can take to become more “socially cohesive and resilient.”

“This is the right conversation in the right time to have it, in the right city,” said the mayor, who described seeing sadness and frustration among the people of Boston the day after the presidential election results.

The event’s keynote speakers included James Rooney, president of the Boston Chamber of Commerce; Otis Rolley, 100 Resilient Cities regional director for Africa and North America; Debby Irving, author of “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race”; Ceasar McDowell, MIT professor of community development; and two teen empowerment organizers, Kendra Gerald and Dante Omorogbe.

Before an audience of 600 people, each speaker spoke to what had been for many years in Boston the elephant in the room.

“As a city, we’re hanging on to a whole lot of messed up crap,” said Rooney, referring to Boston’s history of redlining, segregation, hostility and school desegregation. He announced that the Chamber of Commerce will be engaged in action-oriented reflection over the next year, in partnership with the mayor’s office, on issues of small business, diversity, workforce development and economic mobility.

“Racism may seem to some an issue that exists in relative isolation from the rest of the city’s problems,” said Rolley. “It does not.”

Irving, who spent years working on racial equity work, shared her own previous misconceptions, which undermined her best intentions. As a white woman, “I had a limited understanding of racism,” she said. “I thought it was just about people not liking each other and I was so wrong.” She spoke to the audience about the importance of acknowledging the normalization of whiteness, the whitewashing of history and the myth of meritocracy.

Read the rest here.

2016 – Chef-entrepreneurs open eatery on Roxbury/South End border

Published in the Bay State Banner, December 21, 2016

Photo by Jose Luis Martinez

For Douglass Williams, Italian cuisine is the most relatable food in the world. Perhaps it’s the comforting flavors of olive oil and Parmesan, or the versatility of pasta, but Williams believes it can bring people together.

MIDA, which is Italian for “he gives me,” is a new restaurant venture by Williams and Brian Lesser. The restaurant is located at 782 Tremont Street in the South End, on the edge of Roxbury — a distinction of neighborhoods that was not lost on anyone, Williams said. Despite economic and racial divisions, “What can bring two sides together?” he asked. “I thought about what I like to do the most, what I like to serve the best, what I like to teach people the most, and I said, ‘Pasta.’”

Williams’ theory about Italian food being widely loved is an educated one, drawing on 13 years of chef experience, including five whirlwind years traveling the world. Originally from Atlantic City, his culinary roots are in Boston where he first worked at Radius and then at Coppa, where he “just fell in love” with the process of making pasta, he said.

He left Coppa to go to Thailand. “I wanted to learn more about other cuisines and see how that relates,” he said. He taught Thai locals how to make pasta, and learned how to make rice-based noodles. Then came a stint in New York City, where he worked at Paul Liebrandt’s Corton. Liebrandt, in 2000, was the youngest chef ever to earn a three-star review from The New York Times, at age 25.

Teamwork

Williams then spent some time in Paris, further refining his skills. “What I learned the most was that everybody there owned restaurants at 26 or 28 years old. And I said, ‘What am I doing here?’” He returned to Boston with one goal in mind.

Opening MIDA with Lesser was something he could not have done by himself, said Williams.

“Having a good partner really, really helps. And getting people to be honest with you, hiring the right people from the start,” he said. “You need to let people help you.”

Williams reached out to the Boston-based Restaurant Investment Group, a collective of restaurant and financial consultants spearheaded by real estate lawyer Dan Dain that provides access to capital and financial expertise to young chefs.

“We had conversations, tastings, and lessons on what needed to be done, as far as financial commitment, contracts, personal commitments, everything,” said Williams. MIDA is RIG’s first investment so far, with other restaurant openings in the works.

Read the rest here.

2016 – Festival Betances Celebrates Latin American Culture & Community History

Published in the Bay State Banner, July 21, 2016

Last week, New England’s longest running Latino festival, Festival Betances, celebrated its 43rd year in the Villa Victoria Community in the South End.

The festival’s history is rooted in triumph against gentrification and displacement and has become a weekend event where multiple Latin nationalities come together and pay homage to the Puerto Rican activist, doctor and intellectual, Ramón Emeterio Betances. The free festival was organized by Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, a non-profit organization and community-building agency that played a role in Villa Victoria’s inception.

When the festival first began in 1973, it was mainly a celebration of Puerto Rican culture and was “a little less formal with music and talent presentations mostly from the community,” said Yarice Hidalgo, Director of Institutional Advancement for IBA.

Today, the festival boasts international musicians, participants from all over Boston and guests from all over New England. This year’s musical headliners were Bohemia singer Edgardo Zayas, Grammy Award winner Jesus Pagán y su Orquesta, and salsa band 8 y Más.

Fun and games

Part of the three-day agenda featured a basketball tournament, domino tournament and a greased pole competition. Food and drink stalls were lined up, and the stage was set up at the center of plaza with plenty of room for dancing.

“Music and artistic presentation have always served as a catalyst to community organizing. Today we continue to work towards these goals and to celebrate our beautiful community and its diversity,” said Hidalgo.

The opening parade that kicked off the festivities on Friday evening was joined by members of Villa Victoria and organizations including Sociedad Latina, South End Neighborhood Church and MIT Casino Rueda Group. Local musicians and colorfully-dressed dance performers also joined the lineup and led the way from West Dedham Street, down Tremont Street and around the Villa Victoria Community streets.

Diana Ruiz, a member of MIT Casino Rueda, said that the dancing group was invited by the festival’s organizers to participate in the parade for the first time. The group, which teaches and performs the Cuban style of salsa dancing, began at MIT but is open to anyone. “We love these types of events and we love bringing something to the community,” she said.

Deep roots

Anastasia Correa, who has organized the domino tournament for the past ten years, was 9 years old when Villa Victoria was founded. She was born and raised in Boston to Puerto Rican parents and was living in the working-class area in the South End called Parcel 19.

In 1965, the Boston Redevelopment Authority intended to tear down the existing housing in Parcel 19 for a new development that the current residents would not be able to afford. “We were being burnt out of our own apartments,” said Correa. “There was no place to go.”

In response, members of the community formed IBA as a grassroots organization to take action, gather support, and save their homes. Correa’s grandmother, Paula Oyola, was among the organized residents who joined the leadership of Israel Feliciano, Rev. William Dwyer, Helen Morton and Phil Bradley. They rallied and protested at the State House and City Hall shouting, “No nos mudaremos de la parcela 19.”

In 1968, residents of Parcel 19 won control over their housing and with the help of IBA, developed Villa Victoria, a 435-unit affordable housing community designed by a Puerto Rican architect, inspired by a typical Puerto Rican neighborhood and plaza.

A couple of years later, the residents of Villa Victoria started the festival with the support from IBA, which has continued to secure sponsorship and resources for the event through the years. “We created something where people can come out, know their neighbors, enjoy the festivities, the delicious food that we have, and the music that can move your feet,” said Correa.

The festival’s evolution into a diverse celebration occurred naturally. “The festival became really popular and that’s when people recognized that we had other cultures living in the community,” said Correa. “They began to introduce themselves and their culture.”

Correa emphasized the importance of the festival as a way for Villa Victoria’s youth to learn about where they live and how they got there.

“We want to teach them where they come from and the community’s history,” said Correa. “The past is what we got…without the past, we wouldn’t be having all this.”

In addition to her role organizing the domino tournament, Correa also has helped coordinate youth fashion and pageant shows as part of the festival.

Correa said that her grandmother was her teacher, telling her all about the community’s legacy of activism and strong cultural pride, and that in turn, she wants to be the same resource for today’s kids.

“The last words she said to me were, ‘Take care of my people and take care of my community,’” said Correa of her now-deceased grandmother. “I believe that’s what I’m doing now.”

Photo courtesy of Steve Tompkins

 

 

2016 – Paying it Forward in the IT Business

Published in the Bay State Banner, July 13, 2016

After working in the information technology industry for 13 years, Reinier Moquete witnessed the emergence of cloud computing and founded Advoqt Technology Group in 2012 to help usher companies into a new era of easier, cheaper and quicker data storage and protection.

“Our goal is to be at the intersection of cloud computing and cyber security,” said Moquete.

Advoqt, pronounced as “advocate,” comes from the company mission to be a strong proponent for clients’ technological needs, while the “qt” is a nod to Moquete’s name.

Moquete was born in New York City and spent the majority of his childhood traveling back and forth between the Washington Heights neighborhood of his hometown and the Dominican Republic. Moquete moved to Boston in 1999 to start fresh and pursue his childhood interest in technology engineering.

“As a kid I was tempted by certain dark elements of street life,” Moquete said of his life in New York. “I lost many friends to violence or prison. I had to work hard to put that behind me and get myself into college.”

Moquete attended Bunker Hill Community College, obtaining associate’s degrees in finance and business administration, then graduated from Pace University with a degree in telecommunications. He worked for various corporations over the years and then, struck out on his own.

“I saw an opportunity whereby a lot of companies were thinking about cloud computing but weren’t sure how to execute it and capitalize on it,” Moquete said.

The Advoqt Technology Group includes 17 employees and 30 contractors, and is certified as a Minority Business Enterprise and a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise. As CEO, Moquete emphasizes social impact as one of the company’s main goals.

“We believe in paying it forward,” he said. “We want to invest in people who are then going to make the same investments for the next generation.”

STEM Alliance

In 2010, Moquete co-founded Latino STEM Alliance, a 501(c)(3) organization that engages underrepresented youth in science, technology, engineering and math through afterschool programs. Two years ago, he also started the Diversity IT Network, a community that brings together information technology professionals of multicultural backgrounds and connects them to career development and personal growth opportunities.

As a company, Advoqt invests time and resources into initiatives like Latino STEM Alliance and Diversity IT Network. It acts as a liaison between multicultural technology professionals and job opportunities either internally, or as a way to fulfill their clients’ staffing needs.

According to statistics released by The U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, in 2015 African-American and Latino workers represented 29 percent of the general workforce population, but just 16 percent of the advanced manufacturing workforce, 15 percent of the computing workforce and 12 percent of the engineering workforce — rates that have virtually remained flat since 2000. White and Asian individuals dominate 83 percent of the advanced manufacturing workforce, 84 percent of the computing workforce and 87 percent of the engineering workforce.

“As a business owner, I have the discretion to say, this is the kind of business that I’m building,” said Moquete. “It’s going to create opportunities for folks of all backgrounds. … It’s going to help us all generate personal wealth but do so in a way that is also contributing to the good of our community.”

Diversity is critical for Moquete and his company, not only on a social impact level, but also on a strategic level. “It gives us different perspectives and different points of view to solve a problem,” he said.

But more than anything, when hiring, Moquete looks for attitude and work ethic. “I love hiring people who are demonstrated hustlers,” said Moquete. “Somebody who, despite every obstacle, has found a way to be successful.”

Moquete did not have any capital when he started Advoqt but had already garnered active customers from his previous jobs that allowed the company to float for a couple of years.

“When I decided to go off on my own, there were a number of customers that supported me,” he said. “But then, being out there, hustling, beating the bush, we were able to secure major customers that have functioned as anchors and from which we scaled.”

Advoqt grew 300 percent last year and Moquete is hoping to continue with similar momentum through strategic partnerships with mid-sized business clients.

According to Moquete, the ever-increasing sophistication of hackers only makes the need for cybersecurity through cloud computing even more urgent.

“Hackers are far more advanced than your average business owner, which allows for a business like mine to prosper,” he said.

Photo provided by Reinier Moquete