A LIFE HE COULD ONLY DREAM OF…
“I remember standing there with one hundred other kids, waiting for my shoes.” Gabriel Ruiz’s memory of getting shoes as a child is quite different from waiting for the latest and greatest Nikes to drop. His shoes cost only 25 cents. And that was thanks to a government program in Puerto Rico because his family was just that poor.
But that’s not all Ruiz recalls about his childhood. He also remembers working in the pineapple fields during those searing hot summers at the age of twelve.
And he remembers his parents relying on actual food stamps to buy food for him and his three brothers.
But there are no bad feelings. Ruiz knew the government helped his family get through rough times. He just wasn’t aware that there were so many resources out there that could help him create a life he could only dream of as a child.
INDUSTRY: Information Technology, Systems & Network Engineering (Government Contracting & Commercial Markets)
STARTED BUSINESS: 2006
LATINO CONNECTION: Born in Puerto Rico
Master’s degree – Information Technology – Western International University
MBA - Western International University
Bachelor’s degree - Computer Science - University of Puerto Rico
ROTC Commission - University of Puerto Rico
DREAM JOB AS A KID: Police officer, firefighter or cabinetmaker
BIGGEST GOAL YET: “I’m hoping to serve as an example…an inspiration to others, that it [entrepreneurship] can be done" and want to "...share that lesson."
NOT YOUR TYPICAL RETIREMENT
Those dreams took flight in ways he never expected at a stage in his life he never imagined. After all, in 2006, after 26 years of service in the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel, he retired. For Ruiz, though, he was just getting started - as a tech entrepreneur.
A chance to volunteer at a small business seminar changed his life. He found out about the Small Business Development Center, which could help him start a business. “They assigned me a team, a counselor/advisor and, basically, an entire board to help me compete and grow.” And it was free. There was just one problem, a big problem.
ONE BIG PROBLEM
“I never ran a company…I didn’t know the basic calculations.” He goes on to say, “My background is computer science. It’s not finance. It’s not marketing. It’s not business development.” And, yet, Ruiz was able to build a company, Advanced IT Concepts, that applies the latest technology and cybersecurity tools to improving performance and processes in the military.
In the early days, he learned about security clearances and paying taxes in different states. And he learned about many, many other things that never even crossed his mind.
Even though he had served in combat, he says “running the company has been 10 times more difficult than my military career.” And the challenges weren’t what you may think.
SUCCESS CAN BREED FAILURE
People assume companies fail because there's not enough business. Ruiz says, “Many companies fail because they do so well.” He says, once you get to the 2nd stage (making between $5 million and $10 million in revenue), the complexity grows exponentially. In his case, at the fourteen-year mark, “We were growing so quickly, we didn’t know where to get the money” to keep up with the growth. He even took out a second mortgage on his home to try to repay a loan. His company struggled, but it made it. He says it is now back on track. He recognizes all the help he got along the way.
THE SWEET SPOT
And that’s why he’s quick to share gems like this one: It’s better to seek out multi-year contracts than to rely on projects. Ruiz believes the sweet spot is to stay at the 2nd stage level than to try to become a $50 million company. And he encourages small business owners to reach out, not just to friends, but perceived foes. He says, don’t be shy about asking for favors, even from your competitors.
Ruiz is so committed to sharing his business know-how that, before the pandemic, he would, on a regular basis, assemble a group of around 15 young CEOs, mostly minorities. He would share with them his hard-earned wisdom. He says, “I even opened up the [financial] books and showed them where the money was going.” Ruiz wanted them to know what went right and what went wrong.
NEW MEASURES OF SUCCESS
As a kid, Ruiz’s idols were superheroes like Batman and athletes like Roberto Clemente. Nowadays, he's the one trying to do good in the community. He supports mission trips and started a charitable organization. Success is also viewed through a different prism. Ruiz says it's about “how you lead, how you manage and how you take care of people.” And, he adds, “If this kid that spoke no English” was able to start a successful business," he firmly believes, "...it can be done.”
Ruiz still has big plans for his company. And he still believes in reinvention. Every three or four years, his company reinvents itself in some way, from expanding into new countries, adopting new technologies or bringing in new people.
But there is one thing that doesn’t change. That’s his belief in never forgetting when his family had nothing, when prosperity was measured on those pineapple fields, or when he had to patiently wait for a 25 cent pair of shoes. And he wants to do his part to make sure newer generations, particularly Latinos, can measure success through entrepreneurship. He says, “We raise the flag, raise the voice, and then it dies. We need to continue the message.”
THE TIP JAR (tips passed out courtesy of Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Gabriel Ruiz)
“Ask and do favors” – Ruiz says most people don’t think about it that way. But he says, “When you ask for favors, you empower others. It makes them feel good. It develops that bond.”
Ruiz says you could ask for an introduction to a potential customer, a vendor or a bank manager.
And here’s the twist people don’t expect that he believes in: Ask for favors from your competition. He says, if you have an idea for a proposal or a customer and don’t have the capability to do it yourself, ask that competitor to join your team.
Just don’t forget you have to do favors, as well.
STEEPED IN SKILLS (mid-career):
“Don’t be afraid to jump.”
Ruiz says you can’t get too comfortable and look for your safety net. Just be sure you have the knowledge and expertise to jump.
Then, “constantly jump.”
He says his company reinvents itself every three to four years. How? They expand into new countries, add a new technology or bring in new people.
Ask yourself the reason for jumping. If it’s because you’re not making enough money, find out first how to make more money.
If it’s because you want or need flexibility, Ruiz says entrepreneurship may be the way to go.
In either case, he says you need to have a thousand questions to ask. Then, go get the answers to them. If it’s a field like medicine or law, he says, don’t go it alone. Instead, align yourself with someone who knows the space and has been successful in that field.
I’LL NEVER DO THAT AGAIN:
Ruiz says he’ll never let his company outpace his ability to run it again. Having to take out a second mortgage on his house and take out money from his savings accounts taught him that.
BEST ADVICE FROM “LA CASA”:
For Ruiz, the best advice from “La Casa” came from his grandfather. But it boils down to a variation of the Golden Rule for him: “Be kind. Be respectful. Be honest. Be hard working…It doesn’t matter if it’s personal or business. You’re going to do well.”
NO NEED TO GO IT ALONE
HELP ON THE OUTSIDE:
Money troubles can keep you from starting or staying in business. This FREE virtual class is all about helping start-up or current small business owners learn where they can find funding for their company and what the criteria for lending is. The Saturday seminar is specifically geared towards those who face problems with cash flow or capital.
NATIONAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP CENTER THRU SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) Seminar
Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021
9:30 a.m. EST – 12:30 p.m. EST
WORKING ON THE INSIDE (Because, let’s face it, we could do a better job in our culture of encouraging people to ask for help):
COVID TO CONNECTEDNESS
This is definitely something Latinos don’t really discuss: suicide. This conference takes place on World Suicide Prevention Day, Sept. 10th. What I appreciated is that, even though many therapists and mental health professionals will be attending, it specifically says anyone is welcome. The seminar is designed to tackle suicide through support. It couldn’t come at a better time, especially now that the Delta variant is postponing the return to the office for many and extended isolation and uncertainty is triggering thoughts of suicide for some.
Forefront Suicide Prevention
Friday, Sept. 10, 2021
8:45 a.m. – 3:45 p.m.
THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THIS ISSUE: I get that some people who are brilliant have outsized egos. I think I’ve met a few too many of them. That’s why it’s so refreshing when someone with a lot of money and/or power is humble. Not false humility. Not humility for public relations purposes. Authentic humility. And commitment to service. Retired Lt. Col. Gabe Ruiz is the epitome of that. Spend just a few minutes speaking with him and it becomes abundantly clear that this man, who served our country in the U.S. Army, has service in his bones. It’s who he is at his core. His mission trips are an extension of that.
The money he’s made and the expertise he’s acquired almost seem like an afterthought. But his success hasn’t gone unnoticed. Ruiz was named the 2017 SBA Small Businessperson of the Year for the North Florida District, among other distinctions. He certainly didn’t mention any of them to me during our interview.
But you can sense his genuine excitement to share any tips or advice he’s learned along the way to help others succeed.
And it comes from a man who speaks softly, but whose actions speak loudly.