I was born September 12, 1979, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. My mother was a New York born Spanish/Puerto Rican, and my father, a native Puerto Rican who had only travelled outside the island once after marrying my mother. The earliest memories I have of life in Puerto Rico, are those of playing in the chicken coops under my great-grandparents’ house in Ponce and eating native pastries from the local bakery. At the age of four, my mother and father divorced; my mother and I then moved to Washington Heights, New York where a lot of my family had lived since the early 40’s. The neighborhood back then was familiar, since I only spoke Spanish it wasn’t so much of a culture shock. However, public school in Brooklyn gave me the first taste of the melting pot that Brooklyn was.
For the first time I had kids in my class that weren’t mostly Hispanic. Unfortunately, several children in class had awful influences at home and were less than respectful when it came to my ethnicity. This reciprocated behavior led my mother to enrolling my brother and I into Tae Kwon Do classes, which we attended weekly.
After a year, my older brother dropped out, transitioning to Little League baseball, and of course, I wanted to follow suit. I learned a lot that year, mostly that I didn’t like playing baseball. It felt like I was not contributing anything to the team and even when we would win I didn’t feel accomplished. My mother knew I had a tendency of becoming complacent when things weren’t going smoothly, so she encouraged me to train, regardless of how I felt that day. After three years of training, at the age of 9, I began to assist in kids classes. I helped beginners by teaching them basic techniques. That was the first time I felt like I was contributing something to someone. Watching a child learn a new move, due to my assistance, that made me feel accomplished as I was being prepared for what was to come.
I graduated high school and decided to give full time competitions a shot. The competition circuit was time consuming, taking ten months out of the year. During this time I bounced around to several academies but found they wanted to use me more than support me. Competitions were expensive, yet everyone wanted me to work for free. One day I was walking by a local academy owned by an Israeli ex-military sergeant. I decided to stop in, asking the owner if they had some free mat time for me to practice. He allowed me to train and soon after I was offered a part-time position at the academy. I jumped at the opportunity, but his current staff wasn’t as accommodating. The all Israeli Jewish staff had difficulty coming to terms with the idea of welcoming a Puerto Rican Taekwondo guy in their academy, and within a month the entire staff quit. The owner didn’t try to keep them there because as he said “anyone that closed minded doesn’t deserve to work here.”
I took over the head instructor position, and within three months the roster grew from 45 students to over 200. Within six months, there were so many students the owner decided to buy the neighboring building to develop a new academy three times the size of the prior academy. The academies growth made sponsorship a reality for me to compete, and at the end of 1999 I was ranked top three in the United States in competitions and was appointed to US National Karate Team. Team America travelled to Sydney, Australia in 2000 to compete in the millennium games, an event, which I ended up bringing home five gold medals and four world titles, more than any other competitor in Team America history. Upon my return to the states I continued competing with great success for the next two years—until suffering a severe injury to my knee.
Half way through 2002, I tore my ACL and MCL on my right knee. After my injury, the difficulties ensued, a series of unfortunate events led me to leave the academy I had helped to build. It was no longer my home. I was back where I was four years prior because I had made the fundamental mistake of believing that my best interest was on someone else’s mind—a mistake I’d learn and grow from.
I used this time to refocus my energy on teaching. Ultimately, I found a new dojo. I had a following of around ten students who trained wherever I was teaching, so I made a deal with the owner that these ten would continue paying me tuition, and then I’d take a paycheck for teaching the classes at his dojo. As time went by the program grew exponentially and the stress of organizing a bigger program weighed heavily on the owner, so he offered me a deal. It was a good deal at the time, but a year after I renegotiated with the landlord, taking full ownership of the academy. With no capital, no down payment, no security, and no guarantee of success I took on the challenge of finally owning my own business. It hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies, as anyone who owns a business knows. It’s a combination of comfort in knowing you’ll always have a job, and the stress of hoping the job is worth it. However, here I am, remembering the struggle of not knowing where my next dollar would come in—fast-forward 13 years later I’m gleefully writing an article about being a business owner.
If there is one piece of advice I can give anyone looking to start a new business it’s this – believe in your business, and believe in your ability to do it better than the next guy. There will be more setbacks than leaps forward, but in the end the pride and honor in having a successful business will outweigh the days where things just don’t go your way.
JAO MARTIAL ARTS ACADEMY
609 Ave X, Brooklyn NY