UNI prepares first-generation college student to take over family business
Ali Guzman is ready to play an active role in her family’s business when she graduates in May 2021. The UNI business and marketing major has gotten the training she needs to develop the grocery store, which caters to a growing cultural market in Iowa.
“I want to give back to the store and make it better. We need to modernize,” she said. “[My parents] are very old school, and me being in marketing, I’m all about digitizing. The customers always evolve and my goal is to just evolve with it and make it better and bigger.”
El Gallito is “an authentic Latinx, Hispanic grocery store” in Tama. It was the first and is still the only authentic Latinx grocery store in the area, carrying a variety of authentic Mexican merchandise. With shelves filled to the brim with spices like chile guajillo, epazote and Piloncillo; and a food counter that offers homemade tamales, fresh chicharrón and menudo, it's a favorite spot for Tama's growing hispanic population.
But Guzman wasn’t always such a fan of the store. It was always assumed she would continue helping with the business after high school, but Guzman had other plans.
“My mom and my dad always told me, ‘Come work at the store!’” Guzman said. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to do that, that’s not for me.’ My plan was to get my business degree and go work corporate. I later then realized that being your own boss is better than working for someone else.”
At UNI, Guzman got involved with Pi Sigma Epsilon, a co-ed business fraternity, where she gained experience about the corporate world. She said she met many talented individuals, but felt it was not the best fit for her.
“I felt out of place,” she said. “It was too formal. I didn’t feel like myself.”
She started to see her family’s store as an opportunity to do business on her own terms, but she was still focused on completing her degree first. Her father dropped out of school after first grade and her mother never finished high school. They came to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico to find opportunity, but often faced discrimination. The success they've found with their business has inspired Guzman to use her education to ensure its continued success.
"I'm proud of her for getting her degree,” said Guzman’s mother, Carina. “I'm very excited and enthusiastic about the knowledge she can bring back to the family business.”
As a business and marketing major with an emphasis in digital media, Guzman has gained a variety of skills that will help her as she starts taking on more responsibility at the store. Guzman and her three siblings grew up helping out with small tasks. They would make games out of it, trying to see who could break down boxes or stock shelves the fastest.
“It was a bonding experience,” she said. As they got older, they took on more serious responsibilities, like running the cash register. When Guzman began studying business, she knew she wanted to come back in a more official capacity.
It hasn’t been an easy — or linear — road. Guzman originally wanted to be a CNA and even got her certificate in nursing, but ultimately found the field wasn’t for her. A marketing class at Marshalltown Community College (MCC) helped her develop a passion for business, and when it was time to transfer to a four-year university, she chose UNI due to the strength of the business program and the size of the campus.
“I like to have a closer relationship with my professors, which I did get at UNI,” she said.
At UNI, she still faced her share of challenges. But with the help of the network she built at UNI, and her own unfaltering commitment to her goals, she was able to overcome them. Guzman struggled with her accounting classes and was left questioning whether she was cut out for business. But her advisor Elisabeth Soliz helped her make a plan that allowed her to successfully overcome this challenge.
Not only did Guzman successfully complete the class so she could continue the rest of her major coursework at UNI and graduate on time, but she also became a source of support for her sister Diana, who took the classes at the same time as her.
“When we were almost done with both of the classes, she was like, ‘I want to quit,’ and I told her, ‘Don’t be a quitter! We’re almost done.” Guzman said. “We would help each other out. I would teach her what she didn’t know and vice versa.”
According to Soliz, this positive and proactive attitude is exactly why Guzman has been successful at UNI.
“I first met Ali at the Jump Start luncheon on campus. I could tell immediately she was going to be a bright and shining star at the university as a UNI Business student,” said Soliz. “We have been working together the past two years and she has continually demonstrated her amazing determination and her dedication to earn her degree at UNI. If a roadblock surfaced, she would ... actively engage in problem solving and overcome that roadblock to keep moving forward towards her goals.”
Still, Guzman gives all the credit to the resources she found at UNI, including supportive faculty and staff, and robust programs. An entrepreneurship class with Laurie Watje at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center helped give Guzman knowledge that she’ll be able to apply directly to her work with her family business.
“[Watje] really helped me just have a more open mind, because my mind was just on digital and marketing,” she said. “She taught me how to make [shopping] exciting for customers ... to make it an experience that makes you want to come back.”
Guzman has also developed lasting relationships with professors, notably faculty member Heidi Noonan-Day, JD, whose classes in business law and ethics were particularly impactful for Guzman.
“I genuinely enjoyed going to her class,” said Guzman. “It wasn’t just boring lectures. She would challenge us.”
It paid off — Noonan-Day herself has observed Guzman’s growth first-hand.
“Ali is a very enthusiastic, high energy, and engaged person. This was evident when I met her on the first day of class,” said Noonan-Day. “She has grown in experience and knowledge. Obviously, there has been major growth in her education level, and therefore in her critical thinking, and through discussions with other students and faculty, her perspective has changed and matured. I’m very proud of her!”
This growth will serve her well as she prepares to graduate and take on a leadership role in her family business. Already, she convinced her parents to change their manual cash register machines to modern machines with scanners, and she’s excited to continue her plans for modernization when she graduates.
It’s a significant change from dreading the tasks she was assigned as a kid. But her UNI education has prepared her to take on new aspects of the business — and shifted her perspective.
“To have the opportunity to be my own boss while working alongside my family is something not everyone gets to experience so I’m very fortunate,” she said. “I want to be a well rounded employee. And I want to be close to my family. As you grow older, you realize what’s important.”