Maria Rios’ American dream started with a nightmare.
She was 13 years old when her school teacher was shot and killed in front of her. That was life in civil war-torn El Salvador. A life her parents were desperate to separate her from. The family emigrated to Texas, a lifetime away from the strife of her home. And for the budding entrepreneur, it changed everything.
In America, Rios taught herself English, put herself through college and opened her own successful waste business. As a Latino and a woman of color, Rios represents two of the fastest growing groups of entrepreneurs in the U.S. according to U.S. Census data.
“When I see waste, I see opportunity,” Rios told Free Enterprise from the headquarters of Nation Waste, Inc., her successful commercial and industrial waste and recycling services company. “I turn trash into treasure.”
She founded the business in 1997 after graduating from the University of Houston, purchasing a pair of steel-toe boots and two garbage trucks. That was just about all she could afford at the time, even with a small business loan from a local bank.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’ Trash will always be there. It’s not going away,” she said, impeccably dressed in a bright red business dress, matching stiletto high heels and pearls, a pink hard hat perched on her golden hair.
“We started with one customer, then two customers, and I was the salesperson, I was the accounting person, and I was everything for the company,” she said, seated behind her business award-covered desk in the back of the small Nation Waste main offices, off a rural stretch of West Mount Houston Drive. “We had one full-time driver at first, and that was my first employee.”
Today, the self-proclaimed “Queen of Trash” — the proud first female Hispanic waste removal company owner in the U.S. — owns dozens of trash trucks and scores of portable toilets and waste and recycling containers. Not only does the longtime Warren Buffett mentee hold the exclusive waste removal contract for the City of Houston, the barrier-smashing Nation Waste president and CEO sits at the helm of a $30 million dollar-plus entrepreneurial empire that employs dozens of workers across the city and beyond.
“Coming to America at 13, and then becoming a U.S. citizen for this fabulous country,” she said, “creating Nation Waste, Inc. — and creating jobs for more Americans, and contributing millions of dollars to this country — that’s a dream come true. It’s such a good thing when one of my employees is applying to get a new house, for a loan to send their children to college.”
Giving back to her community, Rios frequently volunteers with area Girl Scouts of America troops and the local Little League organization. She encourages the young girls she mentors to “be bold and take risks,” and, of course, to bravely launch their own businesses.
“I love doing great things and making a difference,” Rios said.
The number of U.S. businesses owned by Hispanics has grown by nearly 50 percent in the past decade, with nearly half of those firms owned by women. “I love showing Latinas and other women out there that anything can be possible,” she continued.
Recently, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Rios and her team — several family members including her husband and son among them — were quick to make a difference by providing emergency assistance to fellow community members. They provided the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Coast Guard with critically-needed handwashing stations and portable toilets at the George R. Brown Convention Center, helping thousands in need, even as much of Rios’ own business’s property was floating away.
“We responded in full force with our team,” she said. “It was crazy. But we worked many hours assisting with cleanup efforts, delivering sanitation services wherever needed.”
“It’s not about just the money in business, being an entrepreneur is about what you do for others,” said Rios.
In addition to rolling up her sleeves and caring for her local community, she is also deeply passionate about caring for the environment.
“It’s my business to make America’s waste removal system more sustainable and greener and cleaner, and that’s why Nation Waste’s motto is ‘Working for Our Environment,’” she said. Doubling-down on green business, her company is developing an innovative, new program that will transform food waste into sustainable bioenergy, organic fertilizer and mulch.
“It can be done and it needs to be done,” she said. “Recycling waste and turning wasted food into clean energy is important for the environment. At the same time, it enables us to create more jobs, contribute to the economy and open up more opportunity.”