Editors Note: Motivated by his own experience investing in a gumball machine at 11 years old, CCF 2013 Unsung Hero honoree Ezequiel Olvera engages youth in East LA/El Sereno to participate in a hands on creative extracurricular business program that provides business and entrepreneurship opportunities and also removes economic barriers that might prevent them from realizing their full potential. His organization, the Gumball Foundation, enables students to run their own small-scale healthy micro ventutre business as an incentive to save up and attend a four year institution. Below is his personal story.
By Ezequiel Olvera
My dad held two jobs when I was growing up and never missed a day of work. He fixed cars and worked at Old Country Bakery for 36 years. I always wanted to work as hard as my father. His strong work ethic was an incredible example and is likely why I became an entrepreneur. Even at a young age, my father entrusted me to be his helper, handing him sockets, wrenches and sending me to pick up parts at the local auto parts store for the cars we fixed in our garage. I would earn money from him for my work, and I remember how I would take the dollar bill he gave me and exchange it at the store for pennies, because then it would seem like I had more money.
A ‘Gumballer’ loading his vending machine.
I’m grateful while growing up, the small business owners in my neighborhood, such as Alfredo who owned the shoe repair shop, or Lucio from Franco’s auto parts store, took me under their wings and showed me the importance of getting a good education and running a business. My first job outside of helping my father was working at Franco’s at the age of 12. He even trusted me with large transactions, like ringing up a $1,200 motor! That kind of exposure made a big impact on me. So did the visible discrepancy between where I grew up and the more affluent towns just a few miles away. In the early 90′s, in my neighborhood of El Sereno, I would see graffiti and trash in the ally. Then I would take the bus to the movies with my sisters and pass by the nearby towns of South Pasadena and San Marino and it was a very different world.
Growing up, I knew early on the financial strain it would be on my parents to send me to college, so I decided to save up for it myself. My neighbor said he would sell me an old 10-cent glass gumball machine and I could use it to make money. I did, and mustered the courage to ask Alfredo if I could put it in his shoe store. He said I could on the condition that I kept up my grades. I knew I had to do my best or Alfredo would take a portion of my profits.
Soon, I bought another machine with my earnings and by the time I was in high school, I had more than 50 gumball and refreshment machines around the city.
At the time I didn’t realize it, but now, I see that my gumball and refreshment machines came with many lessons. I learned to study my customers and pay attention to their needs and fill the machines with pistachios, gum or toys that would sell the best. I learned how to speak up for myself and sell my business. I also learned about rejection, as some places would say no to my request to install a gumball machine. That was hard to hear as a 12-year-old boy, but luckily, about one out of every 10 small businesses would say yes.
By the end of high school, I had saved $15,000 through my business and also received an academic scholarships to fund my college tuition at UC Santa Cruz.
Working for KPMG and participating several internship opportunities led me to polish my business skills and develop a business plan and curriculum that is the basis of the Gumball Foundation.
‘Gumballers’ share their experiences.
I truly credit my father Ezequiel Sr., and Lucio Franco and Alfredo Vargas for being fantastic role models and appreciate all that they did for me. I’ve taken their entrepreneurial spirit and positive influence, and infused it into the foundation. Often times, kids from my neighborhood, including myself, aren’t raised with knowing high end business etiquette — such as how to dress or the lingo to use — and that is a big challenge. Through all of my experiences, I knew I needed to help other students bridge these avenues to achieve opportunities that many think they don’t deserve.
The Gumball Foundation is dedicated to igniting, fostering and providing healthy economic and entrepreneurship opportunity for students. I’m proud of the impact this foundation has made on the lives of so many deserving teenagers. It’s a lot of work and risk, but I do it because there are students in the program that are truly amazing, and coming up with innovative ideas to help shape our future economy. This is the solution to the challenges we face as a society. To make our communities a better place for all of us to live and work, it’s important that these students learn hands-on, business skills, creativity, confidence and a sense of community. We need more people to invest in us because we are just like the gumballs in my first machine. When someone invests money, it propels the gumball to shoot out. That can be the student being propelled into a better future. We just need more people to believe take a risk. It’s worth every penny.