This story was originally published on the W.K. Kellogg Foundation website.
One fateful afternoon at a family gathering three years ago, 39-year-old pickling aficionado Maria Gamboa asked her cousin Angie Rodriguez to try the pickled green beans she made from her garden.
Angie was hesitant at first, but it was love at first bite. The sour yet crunchy beans were so good, in fact, that Angie urged her cousin to start a business. Many brainstorming sessions later, the two created Valley Gurlz Goodz, a pickled vegetable business that “pickles everything but the traditional pickle.”
Neither Gamboa nor Rodriguez had managed — much less launched — a business before. Hurdles like figuring out the permit and licensing process, and even the best method of jarring and sealing, quickly arose.
“Starting out, we were so naïve, and had a reality check early on that it’s not easy to start a food production business,” Rodriguez, 45, said of the challenges.
“It’s been an interesting journey, breaking the tradition of being known only as a state with a variety of products of chili and transforming a hobby of pickling into an industry here.”
After seeing a posting, the cousins applied for a new business development program housed at the STEMulus Center, a project of Central New Mexico Community College (CNM), in Albuquerque. The center trains local residents for jobs in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — professions, along with starting a business in those fields.
Opened in 2014, the center houses classes and programs that include a digital coding boot camp, cyber security training program, entrepreneurial training and a hands-on workshop space and lab located at a separate facility. They also offer the IGNITE Community Accelerator, a program that helps grow fledgling businesses like Valley Gurlz Goodz into larger businesses.
For many of the students, the classes provide more than training: they offer the support and encouragement necessary to make a change. Recognizing that not everyone needs a college education to get a job or start a business, the center provides a condensed, accelerated curriculum focused on real-world training.
Through the program, Gamboa and Rodriguez had access to a business mentor that helped the cousins get their pickled vegetables distributed to grocers outside of New Mexico and grow their wares to include pickled pearl onions, okra, asparagus and watermelon rinds— available in spicy and regular dill varieties. Their pickles are now being used as garnishes on cocktails at local bars and to dress hot dogs at the local baseball stadium. Moreover, the pickles will soon sell under a private label at a historical museum in Albuquerque, with all pickled produce grown right on-site.
“To grow our economy, we know we have to significantly increase educational attainment to create more businesses and jobs for families in our community,” said Samantha Sengel, CNM’s chief advancement and community engagement officer. “CNM is now building a career pipeline in Albuquerque by paving new and different pathways to community college, especially for those that are not opting into traditional models of higher education today.”