When she was three years-old Dora Westerlund already exhibited a special gift. It was a special blend of drive and determination to become an entrepreneur.
“I remember buying her a small oven and on it, she made pancakes then try to sell them to other children. She was too young to understand the concept of business, but she was born with something inexplicable,” said Rafael Rivera, Westerlund’s father.
As a business owner in his native Mazatlán, Sinaloa México, Rivera was always impressed by how his daughter, from a very young age, always took the initiative and had an insatiable desire to succeed.
Operating his own tourism company, restaurant business and shipping exports on both sides of the Mexican-U.S. border, entrepreneurship was something that ran in the family blood. It was also through his successful enterprises that he was able to have the means to provide opportunities to his children, so they in turn, could turn their dreams into a reality.
“Parents work hard to give their children what they need to succeed. Being an entrepreneur helped me do that for my children,” said Rivera.
By the time Westerlund was old enough to uproot from her native Mazatlán, she revealed her personal plan to her father. She would pursue an education, and learn how to speak English in the United States. Nothing was going to stop her.
“She was on a mission. She didn’t ask for permission. She knew what she wanted and as a parent, there was nothing I could do to tell her but simply be supportive,” recalls Rivera.
At California State University, Westerlund was an international student who successfully graduated from the Craig School of Business, and was provided with the opportunity to work for a year in the United States upon graduation. Her first job was at Bank of America where she worked for six months, then was hired by the Mexican Consulate in Fresno as its executive assistant to the Consul of México for the following four years.
In 2002, she accepted a position of president and CEO for the Fresno Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and in 2004, led the creation of the Fresno Area Hispanic Foundation where she now serves as its CEO.
Last Thursday afternoon, Westerlund was bestowed with one of the most prestigious recognitions of a lifetime that not only came as a surprise, but was the result of years of hard work and dedication in helping her community in the Central San Joaquin Valley.
“I was nominated for the James Irvine Leadership Award. I didn’t think I could possibly win it, even though a small part of me thought, well...maybe,” said Westerlund.
At the Sheraton Hotel last Thursday, Westerlund was one of six Californians who were recognized with the 2017 James Irvine Leadership Award from The James Irvine Foundation. The award honors those who are advancing innovative solutions to the state’s challenges and provides honorees with a $200,000 prize to use to further their work in their respective communities.
Westerlund, who was selected from a pool of 400 nominees due to the caliber of her work at the Downtown Business Hub was ecstatic to learn of the prize.
“I still can’t believe it. I am humbled. It was a long process that took several months. A team from the Irvine Foundation came out to Fresno last year and did their research and investigation and took a careful analysis of the work that I have been doing and a couple of months later, I got a call that I was a finalist,” said Westerlund.
Just for being a finalist, Westerlund received a $25,000 prize but was still uncertain whether she would be the recipient of the leadership award. But on November 18, 2016, she received confirmation that she was one of the six honored.
As the only Latina from the Central Valley region to be selected, and one of four women total, it was difficult to sum up her emotions.
“I can’t tell you how happy, excited and honored I am to have received this award. But, it really doesn’t speak to my work specifically, but for all the people who have benefited from the Downtown Business Hub,” said Westerlund.
For the last 15 years, Westerlund has helped revive an economy in the Central Valley that has been plagued by drought, high unemployment rates, foreclosure challenges, among a myriad of other problems. Latinos, who make up a greater percentage of the population in the Central Valley compared to other parts of the state, were heavily impacted by the Great Recession.
In the face of these challenges, Westerland offered those who were seeking an opportunity, new means to income and advancement through entrepreneurship.
“When you own your own business, you can put as much time and energy into your success as you want. The opportunity is unlimited and can be transcended to your family, and your children,” said Westerlund.
As the CEO of the Downtown Business Hub, Westerlund has expanded the chamber’s mission from being traditional to focusing on small business startups and growth. The hub features the first bilingual business incubator in the Western United States.
Through partnerships, the Foundation has been able to provide eight-week business planning courses, one-on-one technical assistance and microloans. Since the incubator opened in 2011, it has created or retained nearly 12,000 jobs with an estimated economic impact of $200 million.
Westerlund is expanding her work to include a touring program that brings small business workshops to aspiring entrepreneurs in the regions of the Central Valley that are too remote and rural. She believes that easing insurance, bonding and collateral requirements could remove common barriers to small business growth and boost economic development throughout the region.
“When someone opens up a small business, they don’t realize the lasting impact it could have on future generations. It not only provides opportunities for them in the present, but for also for their children and grandchildren. It is a trickle-down effect,” said Westerlund.
What has been the most important and rewarding aspect of her work with the hub has been providing a pathway to peoples destiny.
“Our entrepreneurs are good at what they do but less likely to have the business plan and financing to get off the ground. That’s what we give them, in both English and Spanish,” said Westerlund.
Rivera says the prestigious recognition comes with great responsibility and expects his daughter to work twice as hard with the grant money that was awarded.
“My daughter already works too hard, but this prize will enable her to work harder and stronger for the people she truly cares about,” said Rivera.
More than 30 close friends and family were present at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Sacramento to witness Westerlund’s recognition. Among the guests were the Consúl General of México, David Preciado, Central Valley grower, Joe Del Bosque and entrepreneur José Antonio Ramírez who praised Westerlund’s work and impact throughout the Central San Joaquin Valley.
“She has an incredible work ethic and truly believes in the promise of our Latino and immigrant communities. She is determined to see everyone have an opportunity at reaching their dream and if entrepreneurship is the way, she is the expert to help in any capacity,” said Ramírez.