The ties between Central Florida’s business community and Latin American countries are undeniable. Many businesses look to emerging markets in South and Central America as potential growth areas and just as many companies in Latin America look to Florida as an entry point to markets in the U.S.
For anyone, it takes time to learn about these new markets, from the language people use to the unique customs in business. When expanding into those new markets, there isn’t a lot of time to learn.
That’s where Volusia County Business Incubator site manager Connie Garzon comes in.
She has been a learner for life and her experiences bring a wealth of knowledge and advice to her client companies, especially in this realm.
“I learn from our clients and the economic development practitioners in the area,” said Garzon, who credits Carol Ann Logue, Rob Panepinto and the UCF Business Incubation Program for her success. “The way we collaborate with everyone is incredible.”
Garzon has led the Volusia County Business Incubator since it opened in 2011. She has always felt it was her perfect job, pairing her love of learning and the campus environment with her experience in business.
But getting to this point was a long road, over thousands of miles between homes.
Garzon was a successful bank executive in Bogota, Colombia, becoming a turnaround expert in the industry. That is, she would visit low-performing branches, work with the team and make it successful.
But across the street from her office was Citibank, among the largest international banks in the world.
“It was my dream to work for Citibank,” Garzon says. “I applied for a job there but was turned down, one of my first times being rejected. I asked why and it was because I didn’t speak English. Every one of their executives were bilingual.”
It must have been fate when she received a call from Mauricio Bernal, whom she had dated. He asked her to move to Jacksonville and marry him. He was an architect with the design-build firm The Haskell Company there and he missed her.
She received a student visa moved to Jacksonville, married in 2000, and started studying English at the University of North Florida.
From there, the couple moved to Michigan and then to Mexico City, where they stayed for four years and started to raise a family. Garzon loved being a student and received her MBA while in Mexico.
The couple returned to Jacksonville. When the Haskell Company asked for the family to move back to Mexico, the family decided to stay, and in 2007, Mauricio was hired by NASCAR. They relocated to the Daytona Beach area.
Always the learner, Garzon went back to school at Daytona State College and decided she wanted to work there, too. The big moment came when she saw a job was posted for someone to manage the Small Business Development Center. They specifically sought someone with a background in banking and finance.
“It was like that job was sent from heaven just for me,” she says. “I loved this opportunity.”
Almost four years later, the opportunity to lead the Volusia County Business Incubator came about and she jumped at the chance to build something new.
“Connie’s work in Daytona Beach truly impacts the community by helping these businesses grow and understand how to utilize the assets of the region,” says Carol Ann Logue, director, of programs & and operations, at the Innovation Districts and Incubation Program, University of Central Florida. “When you look at the ecosystem Volusia County and Daytona Beach has built to help economic development, it’s great to see how the Incubator – and Connie – is at the center of it.”
Like so many leaders of the UCF Business Incubation Program, Garzon is an entrepreneur as well. She is the founder of My School Tech Hub, which provides tech summer camps for children 7 – 12 years old. Today the company is operated by Connie’s oldest daughter, Sofia Bernal.
Sofia was 12 years old when the company was started, and now Sofia is pursuing her computer science degree at Florida State University.
During the pandemic, Connie started a business with her sisters focused on helping Latin American people learn about healthy living.
“My ventures have been an amazing experience to learn about the challenges of being an entrepreneur and how God sends you things so you can learn,” Garzon says. “I made all the mistakes and I certainly understand the experience that our clients go through.”
Today, Garzon has set out to find new life experiences. She is a talented artist and has sold her oversized, abstract canvases for thousands of dollars.
“When I feel stressed, I go to Michaels and buy a big canvas, oils, and brushes and tell everyone to leave the garage and let me be,” she says. “Painting oils on canvasses is an extremely therapeutic and expressive outlet during my challenging times. It is a powerful coping mechanism and a way to process my emotions, thoughts, and experiences.
Once, Garzon held an exhibition of her paintings. “When I told the story of one of my paintings, people were crying,” she says.
It’s just part of her new life as her daughters leave the nest. Her youngest daughter is about to graduate from high school, looking to become an architect.
She hopes the community she has helped build in Volusia County will bring them back to the area once they start their careers.
“I love just being in this environment, working for the community, with the mindset of leaving the world a better place to be,” she says “We’re helping Volusia County diversify the economy, and creating the type of community we all want to live in.”
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