Mariel Cota had just begun to rebuild her life when she learned about Accion by accident. While attending a parent-teacher conference, a flyer caught her eye. It had fallen to the floor, left over from a previous event. “Accion in Spanish means action. Somebody else dropped that flyer and I don’t know how it got to my hands,” Mariel said. “I thought, you know what? I can start a business.”
For Mariel, the timing of when she found the flyer was crucial. “I had to believe first that I was going to make it, and that I could start over again,” she explained. In her previous life, Mariel had felt trapped in an abusive relationship. Her former husband of nearly 10 years, a U.S. citizen, had led her to believe that if she left him she would be accused of kidnapping the son they had together, Derek. “I choose to stay because I was afraid of losing my son,” she said. Finally, she chose to flee her situation with Derek and her two older children, Lexi and Luis. She contacted the YWCA San Diego County domestic violence shelter. “I realized after coming to the shelter that it didn’t matter where I am from, what my nationality is. I do have rights over my son.”
While at the shelter, Mariel’s case manager referred her to an organization called Leap to Success. Through their Leap to Confidence curriculum, the organization helps women overcome major life challenges. “After I went to Leap to Confidence, I realized that one of the things that was holding me back was my own belief that I was not good enough,” Mariel said. “And just changing that, I realized that I could change my life.” Mariel was also referred to Access, Inc., which offers pro-bono immigration legal support. Lawyers at Access helped her file for legal permanent residency, and eventually for citizenship. While she was waiting for her papers to come through, she started taking flower arrangement classes. “It was like therapy for me, because I was going through this difficult situation,” she said. “I ended up loving it, so by the time I had my papers I decided I’m going to focus my business on flowers.”
Starting from zero
Mariel had formerly owned a business in Mexico, making balloon arrangements and colorful cakes to help her neighbors celebrate festive occasions like quinceañeras and weddings. But when she began looking for financing for her business in the U.S., she realized that her thin credit history would be a barrier. “In my country, we pay everything with cash. To start with no credit in this country, it was almost impossible,” she said. “Accion was that key that opened the door for me to start my life again. I was able to get on my feet, to stop being homeless and living in shelters. And now I have my house.”
Opening new doors
Mariel was able to access capital to start her business through her participation in the Accion Academy, an eight-week intensive course where entrepreneurs receive practical, hands-on training on how to start a business. Through the Academy, Mariel learned how to develop a business plan, manage her finances and promote her business. She recently joined a panel of former Accion Academy participants to share her experience with the fall 2017 cohort.
Mariel’s business, Flowers by Mariel, currently serves many of the organizations that helped her get back on her feet, including the YWCA domestic violence shelter. “It’s an amazing feeling to now return back to that same shelter in very different circumstances,” she said. “The YWCA was that oasis for me to emotionally recuperate. Now I’m very grateful they trust me with my flower arrangements for their events and still support me with their business.” The exposure from her business also helped Mariel land a job as assistant to the flower show coordinator at the San Diego County Fair. “Thanks to that one door that Accion opened to me, I’ve been able to open other doors in my journey,” she said. Mariel is currently completing an associate’s degree in flower design, which she hopes will enable her to take on larger projects.
A strong mother
Throughout her ordeal, Mariel prioritized her children. “Sometimes I remember I used to feed my kids, and whatever was left on their plates, that was my meal. I was able to realize that I’m a strong mother and that I’m not willing to let go of one of my children.” In addition to support from community organizations, Mariel said that the process of starting the business helped her family heal. “This is a family business,” she said. “It’s something we’re part of together, and helping to cope with all these fears that we had in the past.”
Mariel noted that her children’s grades are exceptional and that her daughter, Lexi, has been able to secure scholarship funding for college. “I feel proud. My kids can see that we can fall and it’s okay, as long as we get up,” she said. When discussing her children’s future career paths, Mariel shared that entrepreneurship would be a viable option. “Let’s say they’d like to start a business on their own. Regardless of what they’re studying, all it takes is a skill. If you have a skill and you put that skill to work, you can feed your family.” In fact, as children of a business owner, Lexi, Derek and Luis are more likely than their peers to pursue entrepreneurship.
A source of inspiration
Mariel feels that it is important to share her story as a means of helping others. “I share my story so people can hear it, so they don’t need to be trapped in an abusive relationship for fear of losing a kid,” she explained. She also serves as a paid instructor for Leap to Success once a week. “It’s so inspiring, for someone to come from basically nothing and have her own business and be able to teach other women that were in her same situation, especially in the span of five years,” said Lexi.