How Marlén Mendoza turned her empathy and skills into a business

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Photo by Duane Tinkey. Illustration by Kate Meyer.
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By Emily Barske Wood, Fearless

As told to Emily Barske Wood

Marlén Mendoza is the founder and CEO of Mendoza Consulting, a national community-design firm that focuses on revitalizing underserved communities through policy recommendations and economic development solutions. In September, the 29-year-old was named the associate director of external affairs at the Latino Policy Forum in Chicago. Along with Angie Jordan and Tasha Lard, she co-led a municipal improvement project on the south side of Iowa City. As part of the project the trio created an annual diversity market, a pop-up outdoor market that began in the summer of 2021. The market brings eyes to nearly 30 minority-owned and women-owned businesses, featuring food vendors, products, services and family-friendly activities. She was previously the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Iowa state deputy director.

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The following story has been formatted to be entirely in her words, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Love is not just romantic. Love is the source of everything – the relationships that we build, the reason we get up every morning, why we do what we do for the people who are closest to us. There’s risk with love because you always know that you could get hurt.

I think nowadays in our society, it’s very much about fending for yourself and figuring your own stuff out, which there is truth to that and there’s balance. But I also believe that you have to be willing to choose to lead the work – I say choose because every day you have to choose it – it’s hard. I’m not saying it’s easy, but you have to wake up every day and choose to act and respond in a loving manner, where you’re trying to be empathetic and compassionate, and you understand not everything is personal.

In community work, you have to do it in that way. Any time you’re trying to work with a group of people, they have to first know you. Then they have to like you. Once they know you and then they like you, then the trust gets built. Trust stays if there’s a component of “Oh, this person is here for the right reasons. They’re not going to harm me. They’re not here to get something out of it. I can trust them because I know that they have the best thing in mind for me.” That is where I’ve always taken that risk of saying, “I’m being very transparent with you. I’m not here to pretend that I’m going to solve your problems because I can’t, but I’m willing to say that if you’d be willing to step out of your comfort zone and come to the table to try to understand how we all want the same thing, if you take that little risk, I can promise to see that the work is done with love that we can all benefit from it.”

We have to go back to the foundation of conversation. Can I get to know you? Can you get to know me and put everything else aside – assumptions, biases, what people have told us to believe about each other – and just listen to each other?

My whole life when I’ve done that, and I’ve learned this from my mother, it’s come to show me why I’m good as a connector. It’s not a superpower, everybody has it, but you have to be willing to meet and listen to all kinds of people. The reason my business has been successful is because I’ve carried that needle throughout everything I’ve done. That is what makes me fearless.

Photo by Duane Tinkey.

I was born and raised in Chicago. I came to Iowa for school. I was applying to a lot of schools, and the University of Iowa was one of the first schools that got back to me and said, “We really want you to come here. We’re going to support you in every aspect and take care of everything.” I was born and raised by a single mother. I have six siblings. I’m a middle child. My mother always taught me that education was a tool for liberation. Whether it’s formal or informal, no one can take your education. They can always destroy the person, but they can’t kill the idea. Even your thoughts, the way that you carry yourself – no one can take that from you. She always very much encouraged us to follow our passions. I always loved school. That drive and passion for education got me to the University of Iowa.

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Then I graduated in 2016. I was working out in D.C. for a couple years. When COVID hit, I wanted to be closer to my family. Iowa City was a good halfway point. I’ve been here since late 2019.

I initially started my business out of necessity. Everybody was working remotely. In D.C. I had done a lot of work on policy and advocacy around workforce development and secondary education. I realized that there’s not a lot of policy jobs out here in Iowa City. So another fearless thing I had to do was realize that I had to look within and ask myself, “Who are you and what are you good at?” It’s really easy to distract ourselves and tell ourselves that we really want something when in reality, it’s other people telling you that you should. I had to do the hard self-reflection of what I see myself doing and what I actually enjoy doing.

I’m good at communication skills in general. Being able to speak in front of people, being able to communicate what I want to say, being able to bring people into a room and have them support a shared vision – a lot of these skills are organizing skills. So I decided that I wanted to do Mendoza Consulting, primarily to walk into spaces and rooms and help other people figure out where we are going? What’s our North Star? What’s our vision? A lot of my work is heavy on facilitation.

My close friends, Angie Jordan and Tasha Lord, the reason all three of us work well together is because we have the same MO, which is do the work with love. We check in on each other every day. We care more about the whole well-being of the person because in any work that you do, especially in community development work, like what we do in the south side of Iowa City, in order for families, neighborhoods, and then the community to flourish, it all stems back to the individual and then the family.

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It’s very much like Maslow’s hierarchy. We’re here to help support and say, “How can we connect you to things that you may need?” We genuinely want to check in on people and care for them and say, “How can we empower you? What is it that we can do to get you to the place where you can do it yourself?” Because we do have to teach people how to fish, and you can do it in a loving way, or you could do it in a way where people aren’t going to like it.

When deciding to start the business I got to a point where I told myself two things. One, you have nothing to lose. Everything’s a learning experience. So even if this doesn’t work out, what could I take from this experience? The second thing was, I didn’t look for the business. I was in Iowa City, everyone was working remotely and my networks on the West Coast and East Coast started contacting me. I had no idea about the whole consulting side of the world of business.

I thought, “Well, it’s just until I find a job.” And then I found myself saying that for two years. Then I realized these people are contacting me because clearly I have some form of value with this. I was not aware of that value for myself. As a woman, sometimes you just do things because you enjoy doing them. For some people it could be pottery, it could be painting, it could be writing. For me, it was this ability to be able to organize, communicate and bring people together. I just knew that I liked to do it. But then once you realize you have value, then what do you even charge for that value? Monetizing the thing that you’re passionate about was the hard thing for me because I kept having this idea of, “Well, if I make money off of it, then it’ll change and I’ll hate it.” I was battling with my own self, but then I realized it was just my way of self-sabotaging and telling myself it’s not gonna work.

My mother is a very religious person. I consider myself more spiritual. But my mother always has taught us that whatever gifts you’re given, you are required to then multiply them and then give them back. So however much you’re given, you’re expected to do more. I decided these are the skill sets that I have and I should be putting them out there.

I made a pact with my higher self, and I told myself, “OK, you know what, Marlén? We’re going to do this. We’re going to start this business, just to prove that there’s nothing here.” So I literally told myself that because I did not want to start. I thought, “I don’t want to do this. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be challenging. I gotta put my name out there. I gotta start an LLC.” I had this fear of being a fraud. In the journey of entrepreneurship, you started to realize everybody’s in the same boat. Everybody has to start somewhere. Nothing is done in completion. You start in small steps.

It’s not an experience that gets shared as much because I guess people don’t feel comfortable having these conversations. One day, I’m in the negative and then the next thing, two months in the negative. You wonder, is this the thing I’m supposed to be doing? But it was really a challenge to myself. So I told myself, “I’m going to do it just to show that I did it, and it didn’t work out. Then at least I know that I tried it.” I also found that clearly this is something that people wanted from me.

When I was younger, whenever I had an overwhelming feeling of emotions, I would find ways to distract my discomfort. Always. I did not want to pay attention to those feelings. I would rather bury them, suppress them and distract myself. But what I came to realize when I got older is that it’s not good to keep burying down your emotions and how you feel because these feelings are not bad or good – they’re valid. It’s just how you are feeling.

Sit with discomfort and don’t distract yourself. Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this way?” When you look within, you’ll have that self-reflection, and that’s how you start to know who you are. When you know who you are, anything else falls into place. Because when you know who you are, everything hurts less: What people say about you, what people think about you, insults, how other people see you. Why? Because you know who you are. I feel like for young women especially, we don’t get told this enough. We’re constantly hypervigilant about how everybody else feels or ensuring other people are taken care of.

I’m not saying all women have this, but it’s very natural for us to be more hyperaware of our environment. We have that asset that other people might not have, like our male peers. We have to remind ourselves, “No, it’s OK for me to have these emotions. It’s OK for me to feel the way that I’m feeling. Let me sit with that and reflect.” When you do the self-reflection of sitting with yourself and your emotions, you start to learn to be comfortable with yourself.

What does it mean to be fearless?

The word fearless to me means doing something hard when you’re very uncomfortable. It’s facing discomfort. That’s what it is.

We can all do it. And it can be something very small. It doesn’t have to be anything really big, because in life, everything we do starts really small. So you just have to take the first really small step to be uncomfortable and be in discomfort with whatever it is. That builds up and the next time you’ll be fearless, you’ll take on something that’s a little bit bigger, and then a little bit bigger.

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