You might never realize it, but 6,000 entrepreneurs and hundreds of startups and small businesses across Puerto Rico were all helped to success by one driven, dedicated woman: Nerma Albertorio. She founded Centro para Emprendedores in 2012 in San Juan, which has blossomed to a multi-million-dollar organization providing thousands of people and businesses with support, quietly and behind the scenes. That’s because, with over 15 years in developing entrepreneurial programs for women, artists, engineers, and communities living below poverty levels, Nerma knows how to effectively create business opportunities for the people who need them the most, even in the most challenging economic environments.
In July 2022, she joined Project Makers as their co-manager director, designing entrepreneurship programs for all segments. Project Makers is the first social impact fund created in Puerto Rico, investing in companies with the mission of eliminating poverty. They combine education, technology, and mentorship with access to financial resources.
Nerma’s dedication to entrepreneurial growth has earned her multiple awards, including Mentor of the Year at 2015’s H3 Conference and the 2022 Techstars Allstar Community Leader awards, and is a Cordes Foundation and Aspen Institute fellow. We spoke with Nerma to learn more about what she and Project Makers are doing for the small businesses and startups of Puerto Rico.
Tell us about your work with Project Makers and its mission.
This is the first fund investing in social enterprises in Puerto Rico, so it’s incredibly important. We focus on low-income families to promote mobility, using the United Nations framework as a model. Right now, 53% of our kids live under the poverty level, so we need to help them. We’re investing in startups and people with solutions to help underserved communities. Right now, we’re looking at startups focused on sustainable development goals and working to help families escape the cycle of poverty through career opportunities and jobs that allow them to grow. Our investments right now are $50,000 per company. We just started this program last year and have funding right now for 20 companies and have already funded six of them.
You believe that access to education and collaboration is essential to fostering entrepreneurship. Why is this important?
Being introduced to entrepreneurship very young made me see the world differently and made me realize that I have the tools to succeed—I didn’t have to wait for someone to give them to me. So, if you teach people at an early age, their future can be different. For many people, being an entrepreneur is the only way out of the situation they’re in. You have to help them develop their minds so they can see possibilities differently, and that they have the tools and resources to make it happen. There’s a moment as an entrepreneur when you get it: “I can do this myself. I do know what to do!” But you need a support system of people with similar mindsets who encourage you. My entire team has been through the entrepreneurial journey themselves. We have different stories and backgrounds that we take into consideration. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. Entrepreneurs are built one by one—not “here’s a book, follow these steps.”
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
Seeing that look in people’s eyes when they get it, that they understand they can do this. It’s spectacular. Hearing their stories, being part of their journey, and seeing them succeed as entrepreneurs is the reason that makes me work so hard for them. You’re going to make mistakes, but you have to learn from them and move on, and we tell that to them so that people can have a real perspective of what this is and not a romanticized idea of it.
This is very personal to me. I started Centro para Emprendedores because I failed at my first venture. I was sad, depressed, and made huge mistakes. I felt like a failure. There’s no book, chapter, or segment of entrepreneur class that talks about when you fail. So, I started the company from the perspective of the human behind the business and the mistakes and hiccups along the way. We start with the person—not the money they might make. I can’t picture myself doing anything else. I’ve been blessed because I found what I love to do, and that I’m able to be able to do what I do.
Founder, Centro para Emprendedores Inc.
Co-Manager/Director, Project Makers
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