In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Nebraska Today talked to Edwin Mendez-Rodriguez, a junior management major from Grand Island, Nebraska. After helping his family work hard to overcome struggles, he started his own business that celebrates the hustle.
Were you always interested in entrepreneurship?
Growing up I always had big dreams. I wanted to be an architect since the second grade. Something about buildings and architecture amazed me as a kid. It still does to this day. My family and I went through some struggles when I was in my middle school years. It was something that changed my perspective on life, and it was something that caused me to grow up fast.
Coming out of the situation, I just felt like there was something bigger and better I could do to make sure something like this wouldn’t happen to my family again. Not just my family; I didn’t want anyone to go through circumstances like that. In about the eighth grade, I fell into the world of business. Something about building something out of nothing really amused me. From that moment forward, I knew I wanted to start a business. Around the start of my senior year of high school, I felt like I could just start something now. In my head, I was like, "Why wait?" I had nearly no money, but neither did so many entrepreneurs when they started their businesses. Some people said, “Well, you haven’t finished school.” I told myself that was fine. I can learn as I go. If I fail, I will learn from the setbacks and move forward. I started 5am:Hustle at the beginning of my senior year of high school. I’ve been working on that since.
You said the struggles you faced when you were younger inspired you to start your business. Talk a little more about that.
Yeah, I come from a working-class family. My parents are “first-gen Americans.” My dad was born in Texas, but he was raised in Mexico for most of his life. My mom was born and raised in Mexico. In the late ’90s, they moved to Nebraska, and I grew up in a town called Grand Island. They knew little English. Spanish is my first language, and it’s what we speak in my household. I like to tell people I learned Spanish and baseball before I even knew a word in English. My parents worked at a meat processing plant. It was factory work, long hours. They did everything to provide for me and my younger brother. They never complained about work or life and always told me to work hard for everything I wanted.
We made a good life in Grand Island. When I was in the sixth grade, my mom got injured at work, and she was out of work for a while. During that time, I had to grow up really fast. My dad was at work for most of the day, picking up extra hours to make ends meet. My mom was hurt, and she had trouble getting up some days. I would ride my bike to school or get a ride from family members. During the day, I would check up on my mom, making sure she was okay and giving her anything she needed. I couldn’t cook so my brother and I ate anything we could find. Most of the time it was just cereal. Eventually, we fell too far behind on bills. We lost our house and had to sell many of our possessions. It was a hard time for my family. We lived in Grand Island for a few more years but ultimately decided to move to Lincoln. To this day we still struggle sometimes. But we are way better off than we have ever been. The sad thing is it took us about eight years to get back to this point.
Where did the idea for 5am:Hustle come from? What is the mission of your business?
After my family struggles, I knew I wanted to do something in business. In the eighth grade, I promised my dad that when I started a business, I was going to name it after him. 5am comes from the time that my dad has to be at work—he works insulating pipes, which is basically a construction job. The hustle part comes from what he did while my daily life was struggling and what he continues to do for us to this day. In my high school years, I was introduced to sneakers and streetwear. It was crazy to me that shoes and clothing were something people really wanted and were willing to pay an excessive amount of money for. Not having money to buy these products, I looked for alternatives that I could sell. I found some sneaker keychains and I used my $10 to buy as many as I could and that was the start of 5am:Hustle.
You started the company with $10, and there were some months where you were taking losses. What has running your own business taught you about patience and perseverance?
I made a website because I felt like it would make me look more professional. It took about a year for me to get my first order online. Before that, all my sales were through word of mouth. I like to say that you have to just keep working on what you want, and you have to be passionate about it. Eventually, everything will start coming. People think starting a business is posting some things on social media or on a website and then sit back and watch the money come in. That’s not the case, trust me. Patience is key, and it’s something you have to try to have, not just in business but in life.
Is there anything you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
I want to fulfill and accomplish my personal goals and be happy in life. I want to make sure my family is okay. I also want to help people and families in need. I want to make some kind of impact on people’s lives for the better. I am not someone who needs something in return. I’m just happy knowing I did something that could have made someone’s day.
What or who inspires or motivates you?
My family. Being Hispanic/Latin, we are told family is everything, and they help me be a better person every day.
What is your advice to other Huskers looking to start a business?
Do it. It’s definitely a scary thing. You wonder: How are people going to see me? Where will I get money from? What if I fail? I had those same thoughts go through my mind when I was 17. We are still young. If we mess up, make sure to learn from it and move on. Setbacks are part of life, and they are part of business. Starting a business nowadays is as simple as starting an Instagram and just selling by word of mouth. You don’t always have to start big. Make sure whatever you do that it’s something you are passionate about. Always remember where you came from and where you want to go.
Huskers can get help starting their business at the Center for Entrepreneurship. Learn more at: https://business.unl.edu/entrepreneurship.