This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.

“When I see waste, I see opportunity,” Maria Rios begins. “That’s my slogan.” She’s calling from the library of her alma mater, the University of Houston, where she’s now a board member.

The university is where she wrote the business plan for her now-multimillion-dollar company Nation Waste Inc., the first female Hispanic-owned waste removal company in the US.

“I always wanted to be a business owner,” Rios says. “My parents were farmers and business owners, and I never wanted to work for anybody but myself.”

Rios came to the US from El Salvador at 13 with her parents, who were determined to escape the civil war and provide a better life—and education—for Rios and her siblings. She didn’t know a word of English upon arrival. “My job was to go to school and learn English.”

After high school and starting a family (“That could have been the end of my career, but I decided to keep moving forward”), she took classes at a community college before transferring to the University of Houston.

There, she wrote a business plan on waste management for a graduation project. She remembers thinking that trash would always be there, and somebody would always need to pick it up. Why not be innovative about waste management?

She started Nation Waste Inc. with a focus on commercial waste, then expanded into industrial, recycling, and portable toilets.

Last year, Rios partnered with IBM to launch the Nation Safety Net. Powered by Watson IoT, the solution uses environmental sensors and wearable devices that identify potential dangers and help employees avoid injury.

“Safety is the most important thing for me, especially for my employees,” Rios says. “We already monitor how many steps we walk each day. This was a natural extension: why not utilize technology to help keep workers safe?” Nation Waste Inc. is currently piloting the Nation Safety Net with select clients, and then plans to launch globally.

“I want every employee to be safe and secure,” Rios says. “I also want to make a positive impact on my community—not just for profit, but for social impact.”

That love for community is evident throughout her life and career. She volunteers with Girl Scout troops and Little League organizations, and frequently mentors young girls and women.

“I have to jump in and tell this story,” Mark Madrid, CEO of the Latino Business Action Network, chimes in.

A few years ago, he was contacted by a group of students from Texas State University in San Marcos. Part of the Hispanic Business Students Association, they had a question for him: “Do you think it’s possible for us to meet with Maria Rios?”

Maria Rios with Texas State Hispanic Business Student Association, 2016

Rios hosted the students on a Saturday, catering breakfast, lunch, and a reception complete with a celebration cake. The students took part in a simulated boardroom meeting, and Rios walked them through a day of operations. The students learned about entrepreneurship, business operations, sales, accounting—and possibility.

“It was a glorious moment,” he says. “That experience changed some of the students’ lives.”

“It’s crucial for young people to see that they don’t have to limit themselves,” Rios explains.

Mark agrees: “It’s important specifically for young Latinos and Latinas to realize there are bona fide rock stars in spaces beyond entertainment and sports. A lot of times these students may not know about the top Latino leaders in the country beyond the very famous few we know about.”

When they hear Rios’ story, he sees the twinkle in their eyes: “It’s a confidence booster,” especially when she tells them: “If I did it, you can too.”

The fact that Rios is doing it—and succeeding—in the waste management industry, traditionally dominated by men, is also notable.

“Her type of confidence and competitive fire, wanting to win by playing the rules certainly distinguishes her,” Mark says. “It’s amazing that a woman entrepreneur, a Latina, is saying, ‘I also can. I can operate and prosper and show the big boys how it’s done.’”

Another area of impact for Rios and where she’s leading the charge is the environment. She wants to make an impact not just in individual neighborhoods but throughout the US. To that end, she encourages her clients to perform waste analysis: What can be recycled? What can be reused?

“I want to find ways to not put anything into landfills,” she says. “I want to bring things back to life.”

Her ultimate goal is zero waste: everything gets recycled and nothing goes to landfills.

“If I can do it, anybody else can.”

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