The First Friday Speaker Series returned as an in-person event Feb. 3, with attendees braving a frigid evening to hear what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur from two St. Thomas alumni. Schulze School of Entrepreneurship Associate Dean Sheneeta White moderated the conversation between Jazz Hampton ’12, ’15 J.D., CEO and general counsel at TurnSignl, and Milissa Silva ’94, co-owner and CEO of El Burrito Mercado.
Here are five observations from the First Friday Speaker Series conversation.
Adding employees will unlock growth.
Hampton co-founded TurnSignl, a technology platform that connects drivers to attorneys during traffic stops and car accidents, in 2020 with Mychal Frelix ’13 and Andre Creighton. TurnSignl is now available in 26 states. Hampton and his co-founders learned early on that adding people, even though that requires training investment, would be needed in order to scale the business.
“If you keep trying to do it yourself because you don’t want to train people, you’re never going to get there,” Hampton said. “There is so much work to be done by us founders that it seemed like we would never stop. If we didn’t take the time to find the people to help us scale, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”
The right opportunities are the ones that align with the organization’s focus.
Silva’s parents started the business in 1979. The growth of the Mexican and Latino marketplace and restaurant took place organically as that demographic started to grow in the Twin Cities. For instance, other small restaurants started buying wholesale from El Burrito Mercado. The business opened a second restaurant, in south Minneapolis, in 2018. El Burrito Mercado now has a food truck outside of Target Center for Minnesota Timberwolves games. Despite some of those business aspects no longer existing (competition killed the wholesale business and the pandemic caused the south Minneapolis location to close), Silva said that it all related to a focus on community.
“Those opportunities had been a part of building who we are at the ‘mothership’ – our location in St. Paul. We took over another building, added seating, a bar and patio, and continued to grow the legacy,” Silva said. “It’s always driven by a need to serve an underserved community ... that continues to be the drive for myself.”
When working with family, there has to be respect.
Female family members are at the helm of El Burrito Mercado; Silva owns the business with her sister and niece. Silva has served as CEO for 12 years. When her parents retired seven years ago, the restaurant was rapidly growing.
“We were at a point where we couldn’t keep up anymore. I was constantly butting heads with my parents, trying to convince them to invest in expanding the coolers, freezers and kitchen ... doing things to better serve the growing business,” Silva said.
Her parents didn’t want to take out loans, as they were starting to think of retiring. After many conversations, Silva’s parents decided to turn over the reins.
“(My generation) was just getting started, and it all worked out well in the end,” she said.
Entrepreneurship takes a village.
“We have a huge village supporting us at TurnSignl. Part of it is that people get behind us because of the mission,” Hampton said.
Referring to the co-founders’ backgrounds, Hampton added, “We were not entrepreneurs in any sense of the word.”
However, the TurnSignl team learned many best practices of entrepreneurs and made many connections by working out of the Twin Ignition Startup Garage coworking space.
Both Hampton and Silva noted the support that they receive from their families.
Higher education can foster entrepreneurship.
“Anyone here who is in the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship program, you’re incredibly lucky,” Hampton said. “I was not in it, and I did not know how to run a business or develop a pitch deck. To look back now at those early pitch decks now is embarrassing.”
To keep El Burrito Mercado innovating as its leader, Silva relies on the experiences that she had at St. Thomas and in high school at Visitation.
“So many times, I was the only Latina in so many spaces,” she said. “I found that when I was able to share about my culture, experience and food, I was breaking barriers. I didn’t feel like an outsider, and I carry that mindset as I lead the business.”