i’m not sure any of us can appreciate – in the moment – the influence or impact we could have on someone down the road, especially when it happens within the ordinary stream of life.

today, i felt an overwhelming wave of gratitude for the start i got in the professional world. at 16, i had short stints as a preschool teacher assistant and shoe salesperson, but by the summer of my 17th year, i started working as a receptionist for a tiny swimming pool management company, owned by my childhood neighbor, Michael Bratton and his partners Paul Wells and Oscar Beltran. that first summer, answering phones and handing out paychecks to a horde of tanned, young lifeguards was a primo gig.

but it didn’t take long before i did what i always do: look around and find other things i could do while i was waiting for the phone to ring. during summers and after school, i saw gaps and tried to fill them. i cannot express how meaningful, in retrospect, it was to have an arena in my teenage life where no one put limits around me – where my own drive and initiative allowed me to progress, where people didn’t seem to check my to-do list against my age, where i felt like an integral and important part of something.

after going to the University of Texas for a whole semester and flunking out due to being completely unengaged, i came home to Houston feeling pretty lost. then, in stark contrast to the seemingly enormous waste of time that was college, i came back to work at Avant-Garde Aquatics full-time and returned to doing meaningful work that challenged me to grow. (editor’s note: it’s not that i think college isn’t important and – unfortunately – an imperative step…i just wish there were other legitimately acceptable paths for people who learn differently)

bit by bit, i learned about how to facilitate various aspects of managing the office and paperwork. i organized the filing system. i built databases from the ground up to give us digital access to all our critical information and designed reports and a UI that any of us could easily use. i learned graphic design by creating flyers and posters for pool events. i learned accounts receivable, accounts payable and all the ins and outs of processing payroll and paying payroll taxes. i read up on HR practices and helped create the most basic framework for compliance. i facilitated the flow of the hiring process and training logistics.

from the ages of 17-23, i learned more about running a business than i ever could have in school. these three young entrepreneurs (my god, were they really in their mid-20s when it started?!) gave me the opportunity to discover that i thrive in an environment where things aren’t all spelled out for me. perhaps because they, too, were learning everything from scratch, they were compassionate and patient when i made mistakes, encouraging when i expressed interest in taking on something new, and always treated me as a capable person who brought value to their business.

i don’t think many young adults, much less young women, get to have that petri dish to develop in, and i will always be eternally grateful for that – because it has deeply influenced everything that came after in my professional life. not only have all of those business management skills been pivotal to my success in running my own business, but my time working for these guys gave me a baseline for what i expect out of bosses, peers, corporate culture and my own role in all of it. i have spent my career choosing places where i can grow, where my peers and bosses value me, where encouraging people to stretch and learn is standard, and where caring about the people you work with is the norm. even more importantly, as i’ve built my own small business with a growing number of employees, i have tried to create a similar environment for a new generation of people starting or growing their careers.

i was incredibly fortunate to start my professional life working for men who treated me with respect and fostered an environment that rewarded initiative. i was young and made mistakes and wasn’t yet able to grasp the nuances of professionalism that experience offers, but they never made me feel anything other than a badass.

Facebook allows me to enjoy seeing Michael’s daughters growing up, and it struck me that they should know what a difference their father made to a smart girl who didn’t particularly thrive in a traditional education system. i don’t really keep in touch with Paul or Oscar, but i hope each of these 3 men would smile to know just how much they did to start me on a path to an amazing life.

One thought on “Influence”

  1. Belen, I am honored – thank you. You are one of the brightest minds and wonderful spirits I have ever known. Those years working together were awesome, and we never had anyone so capable and productive as you. Seriously, it took 3 people to do what you did after you left, and not near as good! Your systems, procedures, accounting, and database designs helped us run our business successfully for decades – thank you so much!!

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