maria rios, headshot
Maria Rios, president and CEO of Nation Waste, knew from a young age that she wanted to be her own boss. — Nation Waste, Inc.

Maria Rios always knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur. As a child, she and her family made a harrowing escape from civil strife in El Salvador – an experience that created a strong desire to control her own destiny. All she needed was the right opportunity.

That opportunity came during her time as an undergraduate at the University of Houston. As a student, she worked as an analyst for a local waste management firm. Rios soon recognized a gap in the marketplace and decided that she was the right person to fill it.

Immediately after graduating, Rios purchased two trucks and started Nation Waste, a Houston-based waste collection and recycling service that specializes in portable toilets and commercial sanitation. In addition to operating in both Houston and Austin, Nation Waste recently launched a global business division called Nation Safety Net, which leverages IoT-powered technology to identify potential dangers that could cause workplace injuries.

CO— spoke with Rios about launching a successful business right out of college, and how she continues to thrive more than 20 years later as a female business owner in a male-dominated industry.

CO—: How did your work in the waste removal field during college help you discover your niche market?

M.R.: While earning my degree, I was also raising a family. To make everything work, I applied for an analyst position with a local waste management firm. Almost instantly, I was fascinated with the industry. I thought to myself, "There will always be waste; therefore, there will always be a business opportunity."

Consistent with anything that I am passionate about, I immersed myself in the job and created the flexibility and discipline to learn several aspects of the business, including operations and finance. I consider this time as my "seed-planting stage," in terms of realizing my dream to become my own boss.

CO—: A lot of new college graduates are afraid to jump right into entrepreneurship. Did you have any fears or hesitations, or were always you preparing yourself along the way?

M.R.: Considering all that I went through as a child in El Salvador, I was more determined than ever after college to embark into entrepreneurship. From the bottom of my heart, I aspired to control my own destiny, and the best path toward this destination was entrepreneurship. I dove right in. Sure, I had doubts, as I was a woman entering a male-dominated industry. However, I had prepared myself – through rigorous study and my professional track record – for that moment to go for it.

From the bottom of my heart, I aspired to control my own destiny, and the best path toward this destination was entrepreneurship.

Maria Rios, president and CEO of Nation Waste

CO—: What was the biggest challenge you encountered during the early years of your business, and how did you overcome it?

M.R.: One of the most prominent challenges early on was access to capital. When I was signing the documents for my first major business line of credit decades ago, the loan documents were printed with the name “Mario Rios.” I stood back for a moment, then instinctively, like a reflex, I said firmly, but with respect, "You are going to have to re-print these docs. My name is Maria. I am the signer and the woman owner of this business." This moment was the confidence booster I needed to continue to build relationships with bankers before we needed the money.

CO—: What are your future growth plans for Nation Waste?

M.R.: We recently launched our newest division called Nation Safety Net, which is powered by IBM Watson IoT and is revolutionizing the safety industry. My plans are to continue to cultivate and nurture this product and service suite. We are looking forward to landing major industry clients in the near future.

We are also making good on our goal to go global, a marker of significant growth for the company. It's a milestone moment for us to truly influence and transform the world of safety.

CO-: What is the most important lesson about starting or running a business that you wish you had known when you started?

M.R.: Be your authentic self. I did not feel like myself sometimes when I tried to conform to what people thought a woman owner of a waste management company should look like or act like. Many did not expect to see a proud Latina dressed in a fancy tangerine suit and high heels on the job site. But guess what? If I want to show up on the job site looking like this, I will, because this is who I am!

CO—: Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

M.R.: Don't judge yourself by others' standards. If you operate like this, you are living your life for others, not for you. Take heart in what you have accomplished and be unapologetically proud about it! And remember, if it starts with the heart, then market it to the fullest extent.

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