Inspired by his Refugee Parents, Cuban Entrepreneur Builds a Successful Liquor Business

When Rick Martinez’s parents sought to leave Cuba in the 1970s, the government punished Martinez’s family. Later, the regime relented and allowed them to leave with only the clothes on their backs. “I look back at everything they did, and I can’t fathom leaving my country like that,” says Martinez, who was born in the United States and now runs Señor Sangria, a thriving wine company with two employees and revenues of around $3.5 million a year. “I’ve had times when I’ve struggled with my business,” he adds. “I pause and I think, ‘Okay, Rick, your parents went through a lot worse and were able to figure it out — you’ll be able to do this.’”

Martinez’s parents built a new life in New Jersey, where his father worked as an accountant for 25 years. “They did the American thing — worked hard, saved money, bought a house,” Martinez says. The risks they’d taken left a big impression on Martinez. “I learned a lot from my parents,” he says. “If you put your head down and work your butt off, you can accomplish things.” Martinez says he was able to fuse his parents’ work ethic with a thoroughly American zeal for finding success on his own terms. While studying at Rutgers University, Martinez landed a job working nights at a fledgling Internet company. Soon, his studies were on the back burner while he learned to program and got hooked on start-up culture. “I fell in love with what I was doing,” he says. “I got that little taste of, ‘Hey, you can do things differently here’ and I realized that I loved the idea of running my own business, the challenge of it.”

After a successful career in the Internet sector, Martinez struck out on his own, using his house as collateral for a Small Business Association loan and $189,000 of his own money to turn his favorite sangria recipe into a full-scale liquor business. In 2009, his first year on the market, Martinez sold 1,800 cases of sangria from the back of his SUV. Now, Señor Sangria employs two full-time salesmen, has a distribution network that spans bars and liquor stores in six states and the District of Columbia, and sells around 70,000 cases a year. Martinez hasn’t yet taken outside cash, but is in talks with investors with a view to hiring more sales representatives and expanding into major markets like Florida and California by 2018.

From a young age, I saw my parents struggling, and saw how they figured things out, and that hunger [to succeed] is inside of me, too.

Martinez credits much of his success to the drive he inherited from his parents, something he shares with many other immigrants. “I think I have a huge advantage,” he says. “I’ve got a hunger. From a young age, I saw my parents struggling, and saw how they figured things out, and that hunger is inside of me, too.” That’s the key thing immigrants bring to America, Martinez says, and is the big reason why he thinks immigration reform is important. Martinez’s parents benefited from an immigration system that made it easy for Cubans to get legal residency, and Martinez believes America should extend a similar welcome to all immigrants. “Immigrants benefit America,” he says.

There will always be a need to keep tabs on the people coming to America, and to make sure U.S. infrastructure can cope with the number of new arrivals, Martinez says. But he believes America, as a melting pot, can harness immigrants’ entrepreneurial ambition while absorbing them into its culture. “I’m Cuban, and my wife’s Portuguese, so my kids are a mix — but their kids are going to be just plain old Americans,” he says. That’s precisely why the country needs a constant inflow of new arrivals, to keep replenishing the supply of driven, hungry people eager to build better lives for themselves. “My kids aren’t going to have that same grit that I had,” Martinez says. “The United States needs a steady flow of immigrants to keep that fire lit under our butts, so we keep growing, and don’t get complacent.”

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