By Ray Rico

From September 15 to October 15, we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month. This is a time to recognize the contributions Hispanic Americans make to our community and the work we do, and to celebrate our culture.

Starting from the bottom

As a young LGBT Mexican-American boy, I always aspired to build myself up. I valued others who helped me excel. And I appreciated those who challenged me – whether they meant to or not. As I grew older, I recognized that equity is something that had to be earned but that wasn’t always present, even if you had proven yourself. I experienced subtle holdbacks in employment, often being bullied because I was different, and it seemed that I had to work harder for what I earned.

As a young professional trying to make a career for myself and discover what I truly wanted to do, I made my way into graphic design. During school, I worked for the school newspaper and helped with the yearbook. I was from an era where we were just getting computer layout programs, and in most cases, still used old-school cut and paste (literally with wax) layouts. Technology has really helped advance us in that respect.

After school, I worked for the local newspaper for a couple of years. You see, in school, I had the opportunity to learn those design layout programs and kind of had a knack for it. When I graduated, I was seen as an asset for having that skill. I appreciated that.

After a few years working at my local newspaper, I wanted more. So I made a goal to find a bigger city to move to with the ambition for developing my skill sets further. I drove to Memphis and had an interview with the newspaper here. I remember the drive down here and how nervous I was coming to a bigger city. Would I do ok? Would I fit in? Would people like me?

Luckily, a few weeks later I got a call back and was offered that job. I recall in my interview, this man who would later be my boss, put me in front of a computer and said “lay out this ad on the computer.” That was his test for me. I did it with ease and really surprised him. So, they hired me.

I worked at The Commercial Appeal for almost nine years. I moved around in my roles, always trying to build more knowledge of the industry as a whole. I worked in classifieds, retail, automotive, and real estate advertising, and I managed our special sections. I applied for higher-up jobs and would always get passed over. It annoyed me to no end. I knew I was better than some of these applicants but still the other person would get the job.

After enough time enduring the rejection, I’d had enough. I told myself I could do this on my own and gave my notice. I took a loan out to get my first Mac computer and started with one client. That was in November 2007.

It all began in a one-bedroom duplex

In November 2007 after having had enough of the corporate world, I took the chance to open my business, Ray Rico Freelance. With a loan for a new computer and a hand-me-down desk, I started my freelance business in a one-bedroom duplex.

Over the course of the next few years, I earned more projects and grew my client base. Lots of times I did work highly discounted and sometimes even free just to make connections, grow my portfolio, and learn more about what I loved to do.

As the years went by, I began getting bigger clients who needed more services so I started collaborating with others in the area. I built relationships with creatives who helped me mold and sculpt the business that we now have today.

I learned lots of great lessons along the way. When I grew to the point I couldn’t operate out of my home anymore, I decided to take the plunge and go find some office space. 

Luckily, I didn’t have to search too far. I was so fortunate to find a modest 500 sq. ft. space on Young Avenue, just a few blocks from my home that had just come up for rent. I made an appointment to check out the place and shortly after, I negotiated the lease.

It was one of the most memorable and happy moments of my life. We did a build-out construction phase for a couple months and finally opened officially December 10, 2012.

Thank you my friends. Today my dream came true.

Posted by Ray Rico on Monday, December 10, 2012

Growing up and out of space

As time continued to progress, I slowly built the company. Growing business. Adding jobs. Learning new things. It was beautiful and organic. I learned a lot as a business and myself as an entrepreneur.

One thing I was quickly learning was to work on the business and not just in it. I had to scale. So in 2015, after adding more jobs and running out of space, I acquired the space next door that became vacant and doubled our space.

Our grand re-opening party was such a huge moment for us all because our work was really showing that I could continue to grow (even during tough times). The party was widely attended. Many memories were made. It was just wonderful.

The birth of Focus

During 2015, marriage equality was passed. As I geared up for celebrations, I thought back to my previous days in corporate America pitching an LGBT magazine to our Special Sections manager. Of course, the company was pretty conservative and they quickly nixed the idea.

As I continued to think about Memphis and the community, I knew there was something that was missing that gave our LGBT folks a voice. So, I decided. Let’s start a magazine! Why not, right? I had the training. I had the resources. I had the vendors. I had a trained journalist on staff as well as designers. I had the community. I had a need for it. Everything made sense.

We began working on the Focus brand. I engaged my team who all had specialties that lent themselves to working well with the task of pulling this off. We all did lots of planning and started working on our very first issue!

Our debut issue was appropriately called “The Coming Out Issue,” and hit stands that summer. 

This August, we celebrated our 5th year; we’ll host our annual Focus Awards on September 25, streaming on our social media channels.

Looking back and smiling

As I write this, I look back and am happy with the way things have turned out. I’ve worked hard to build my businesses and hopefully a legacy for Memphis with Focus.

Did things always go my way? No. 

Did I always get what I wanted? No. 

Did I get everything I rightly deserved? Also no.

What I’ve done is make sure I look at things in a different light.

Was I in charge of changing my destiny? Yes.

Did I have to make tough decisions? Yes.

Was I able to grow above what others said I couldn’t do? Claro que si!

I have to say I never thought I’d be here. I guess in retrospect, I didn’t really know where I’d be. I must say that I’m glad I pushed through and continue to learn and grow. I know I’m not perfect. I have many more lessons to learn. I’ve learned much as a Latinx person: it will not always be easy but you still have to put the work in; never be afraid to ask for some help; and most of all, be true to yourself in all you do.

During the next month, make sure you appreciate and celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Join in the local festivities LatinFest 901, Focus Awards and Mid-South Pride. All are virtual this year. 

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