Across The World
Born in Bogota, Colombia and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Velasco’s parents moved the family to Paramus, New Jersey when she was 13 years old so that her father could pursue a post-graduate degree at New York University. Moving to a new place can be difficult on any child, but leaving her childhood friends and moving to a completely new continent proved to be extremely challenging. Velasco moved to New Jersey with her father, Roberto Velasco, a Peruvian international banker, and younger brother, Daniel. Her mother, Margarita Parra de Velasco, a bilingual international realtor, stayed behind in Venezuela temporarily to wrap up the family’s affairs there. The family moved from a penthouse in Venezuela to a second-floor apartment in a two-story home in New Jersey with a shared bathroom. In Venezuela, it was common for many middle-class families to have help, but the family had to start over in New Jersey. “We went from having a lady make fresh-squeezed orange juice for us each morning in Venezuela, to using empty orange juice boxes as garbage bins in our apartment in New Jersey,” Velasco remembers. The family slept on the floor in the beginning because they had no furniture, and Velasco prepared the family meals. “I hated being in the United States at first,” Velasco recalls. “It’s wasn’t so much the language that was hard, because I attended bilingual school since I was 2 years old, but it was the culture that was so different. I had different clothes, spoke with an accent and the other students gave me weird looks.” Velasco wasn’t use to having to make friends, and spent lunch time in the bathroom at her new school. “I came to the U.S. in the middle of eighth grade, so the other kids had already found their friends and groups,” she says. “It was hard to be accepted.” When she was about to turn 15, Velasco told her family that she didn’t want to have a quinceanera, a traditional Latin birthday party for 15-year old girls similar to a Sweet 16 party in the U.S. They didn’t have family close by, and Velasco desperately missed her missed her life in Venezuela. She opted to spend a month back in South American instead of having the big birthday party. The night before she was to return to New Jersey, Velasco’s mother told her that the family would be moving to Orlando, Florida, for a better quality of life. “I was finally making friends in New Jersey, was playing sports and talking to a guy at school, and now I was moving again,” Velasco says. “I did not want to get on that plane back to the U.S.”
The transition to life in Florida was much easier, than her first move. She started her sophomore year at Lake Brantley High in Altamonte Springs. “I got involved in school, continued to run track, a sport I had practiced since first grade, and played volleyball again,” Velasco says. “I realized that if I didn’t get involved, I wasn’t going to make friends.” Velasco ended up become elected as student government president at her school. “That was my first exposure to politics-I campaigned, wrote and delivered speeches and developed a platform,” she says. “I never knew that this experience would help me in college and in my future career.” Keeping her Spanish language skills was very important to Velasco. When she entered high school, she took Spanish in addition to French, plus Advanced Placement courses. “Though I’m a native speaker, it was really important to me to be able to read and write Spanish fully,” she says. Later when she enrolled in college, Velasco earned a certification in Spanish translation to keep her skills sharp. Velasco’s parents made sure to provide traveling opportunities and exposure to different cultures to their children. “Maybe we didn’t have fancy watches and name-brand clothes,” Velasco says. “But we’ve traveled all over Europe, the Caribbean, Asia, Canada, and Hawaii. We even enjoyed a five-week trip in a motor home.” It was these kinds of experiences that led Velasco to pursue a career at the University of Central Florida.
Velasco’s interest in business stems from childhood, when she and her brother would find ways to make money. During one summer at a friend’s home, they noticed a big construction site at one end of the road. Seeing an opportunity, they made stuffed empanadas, and brought chocolate chip cookies to sell to the workers traveling to and from the construction site. “We’d stick the store-bought cookies into the oven to melt the chocolate a little,” she says. After completing her two years of general education classes at the University of Central Florida (UCF), Velasco learned that the business college had gotten rid of the international business degree. She opted to study economics, which had an international track. “Coming from a developing world, I saw first-hand the reality of people living in cardboard boxes and under bridges after being displaced by guerillas,” Velasco says. “I became fascinated in the ways that economic development could change a village and even a country. I learned how trade can empower a nation to be more sustainable.” In line with her dreams of working in international business, Velasco wanted to participate in an exchange program and study abroad during college. When she learned that her college did not yet have an exchange program in place, Velasco research options and met with her dean to discuss establishing one. She was told that the school she researched abroad wasn’t accredited, and that the credits wouldn’t transfer. “Basically I was told to give up,” she says. “But, I was ready to drop out of my university and use my savings to enroll in the university in Europe to fulfill my dream.” After she and her brother left to Barcelona, two weeks before starting the program, Velasco received an email from the international relations department at UCF notifying her that the exchange program was active. The email also contained a list of study abroad scholarships that were going unused. “We didn’t pay anything to study abroad, and through the scholarships we actually ended up getting paid to study abroad,” Velasco says. “We were the only two students out of 47,000 at UCF studying abroad that year.” Velasco’s persistence was instrumental in the implementation of the first foreign exchange program for the UCF College of Business. Through this study abroad program, she and UCF students got the opportunity to complete a Bachelors of Arts in International Business Administration from a university in France.
Velasco stayed an extra year in college to study abroad, and when she returned from France, she was selected for an internship in the International Business Development Department of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission (EDC). Meanwhile, most of Velasco’s friends had already graduated from the university. Entering the “real world” many couldn’t find a job in their program of study, got a job but realized it was completely different from what they envisioned, or got a job completely unrelated to their program of study. “If my friends had mentors and professional opportunities like the ones I had, I believe that their experiences would be different,” Velasco says. “As minorities we don’t always have access to them, much less influenced by them, so we much make an extra effort to be involved and connect with them.” Velasco realized that this is what she did naturally, and wanted to create a program and organization on campus to create pathways for other students. She founded Future Minority Leaders (FML) at UCF to foster diversity by promoting the development of minority students and recent graduates in Central Florida through educational, professional, and networking opportunities. “Internships can help students get acquainted with their field, and help them realize if they want to change course while there’s still time,” Velasco says. “Internships can also help students gain the connections they need to get hired upon graduation.” After six months of paper work and other challenges, FML was officially born in December 2006. Today FML has created connections with key companies and professionals in the area to fulfill its mission. Velasco serves as an advisor to the group, and wants to help the, obtain 501c3 non-profit status. Students from other universities in Florida and Georgia have approached the UCF organization wanting to expand FML to other campuses.
Upon completing her internship and before graduating from UCF with a B.S. in International Economics, a certificate in Spanish/English translations, and several minors, the EDC hired Velasco full-time. While there, Velasco was responsible for the logistics of high-profile inbound delegations, events, and trade missions as well as managed the development of the EDC’s Minority Channel Initiative. She supported the Chief Operating Officer/ Executive Vice President of the Business Development Department, developed proposals, did market research, and assisted with the creation of the organization’s strategic plan.
In July 2010, Velasco was recruited by the Executive Office of Gov. Charlie Crist to serve as the Governor’s Special Assistant for the Central Florida and Tampa Bay Regions. Velasco supported the Governor by advancing his public appearances, advancing his schedule, and acting as liaison for the Governor with local constituents. During her six months of service, Velasco covered 24 counties out of 67 in the state. “Looking as young as I do, sometimes people wouldn’t take me seriously, but I learned not to take things personally,” Velasco says. “I would get asked if I was an intern, and people were surprised to learn that I was a special assistant. Some people would ask me directly how the heck I got the job.” The experience taught Velasco about government and politics. “In that role, your bottom line is to provide the best services to the people whom the elected official serves,” she says. The experience with Gov. Crist benefited Velasco in her current role with Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. “I’m responsible for economic development initiatives, and was later asked to serve as a liaison to Hispanics,” Velasco says. “Mayor Jacobs values diversity, and makes it clear that I was hired primarily because of my experience in economic development and international affairs. The fact that I am Hispanic is an added asset, but I was not hired simply because of my heritage.” Velasco is in the process of assisting in the creation of an economic development plan for the county, and she focuses on international relations and international business projects. She accompanies Mayor Jacobs on meetings with foreign dignitaries and attends international events on behalf of the mayor if she can’t be present.
Velasco also does Asian outreach for the mayor’s office. In addition to her full-time job, Velasco operates her own translation and consulting services firm, ZV Enterprises, and assists with the operations of Zyndrome Surf Company. A small business owned by her fiancé, Omar Carmona-Sanchez, Esq., who works full-time as a Puerto Rico and Florida licensed attorney here in Orlando. In the future, Velasco dreams of working for a global non-profit, or serving as the global social-responsibility officer for a company.
Velasco was nominated for the National Hispanic Leadership Institute’s Rising Star Award and for the Lighthouse Awards/Premios El Faro. She was also a nominee under the Visionary category for the Girl Scouts of Citrus Council Women of Distinction Award, is the recipient of the Women of Achievement Awards for the Women’s Executive Council, and is the youngest recipient to ever obtain a Beacon Award, celebrating diversity.
Velasco is most proud of the impact she’s made on the community through groups like FML, Rotary E-Club of the SE USA & Caribbean, the Hispanic-American Professional and Business Women’s Association (HAPBWA) in which she serves as founding co-chair of their young professionals group Aspiring Latinas Ahora Simpre (ALAS), and the Hispanic Chamber. She serves on the President’s Multicultural Advisory Council at UCF, the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s Florida Advisory Committee, the Central Florida Partnership’s Young Professional Advisory Council, among others, and was a founding member of the Peruvian American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida and Rotaract of Metro Orlando. Velasco advises other up-and-coming young professionals to remember where they come from and give back to the community. She volunteers with numerous charitable organizations from the Heart of Florida United Way to the Orlando Ballet to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. “Follow your passion, be true to what you believe in and be honest with yourself,” she says. “Remember that there’s always someone who helped you get where you are. Paying it forward is our civic duty in society.”
Ashley Cisneros is a co-founder of Chatter Buzz Media, an Orlando Internet marketing firm that helps companies and organizations engage with their target markets through inbound marketing via the Internet. Chatter Buzz Media, which won the Social Madness competition for the Orlando small business market, is a full-service digital marketing firm specializing in website design, search engine optimization (SEO), social media marketing and content creation. Prior to founding Chatter Buzz, Ashley worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, technical writer, marketing manager, public relations practitioner and freelance journalist. To see Ashley’s content writing, visit www.ashleycisneros.com. You can also reach Ashley on her Google profile.