When Yuliana Martinez came to the United States from Colombia in 2014 to study environmental engineering, she never imagined she’d become an entrepreneur in a completely different field.
Today, she not only runs a successful, expanding business, she prioritizes helping her immigrant employees navigate their lives in the U.S. She and her husband, who is also her business partner, just welcomed a baby girl into their family.
As a successful immigrant entrepreneur, Martinez credits her own hard work and the opportunities that come with living in the United States.
The road to her current success was anything but smooth, however.
In Colombia, Martinez worked as an environmental engineer for the government, but faced intimidation by what she called dangerous, armed factions.
And though she was part of Colombia’s professional workforce, her income wasn’t enough to make ends meet.
“Having a house, having transportation and having food, for the majority of people, that’s a luxury,” she said of Colombia. Her own salary was so low, she said, that Martinez had to decide whether she wanted her own place to live, or to have a car.
Feeling that her life was increasingly in danger because of her work, Martinez made the difficult decision to leave her job and family. She secured an F-1 student visa to earn a master’s degree at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Once here, Martinez worked as an environmental engineer while studying to complete her degree. She got married. She thought her path in life was set.
Losing it all
But the marriage became abusive and Martinez knew she had to get out. The turmoil forced her to drop everything, even graduate school, which she was close to completing. She was let go from her engineering job.
At age 28, she found herself in a foreign country with nothing — no job, no home, no family. She applied for other engineering jobs, but to no avail.
Finally, desperate, Martinez turned to cleaning homes. But rather than fret that the work was not in her field, or beneath her somehow, she found cleaning homes calming.
“I felt tranquil and it helped me forget about what I was going through,” said Martinez. “Cleaning became a therapy to face that difficult process I was living internally.”
She was also able to lean on her Colombian family, who were able to travel to the U.S. on visas and provide her with the emotional support she needed. With that support, she said she was able to keep the faith.
“I lost everything, including my job,” said Martinez. “I didn’t come all the way from Colombia and I didn’t make all this effort for nothing. If I have to start again, I will start again.”
As she healed with her family by her side, Martinez made a business plan. She posted her services on Nextdoor and Facebook, and said in just the first week of cleaning homes in San Antonio, she was able to replace her weekly salary as an engineer — and she had more time to spend with family and friends.
Eventually, Martinez met her current husband, Andres Martinez, who is also a Colombian immigrant. The two joined forces and created Chabod Cleaning Services — chabod means ‘full glory of the lord’ in Hebrew. Business began to boom. By 2018, the couple began to hire people.
Today, they have two cleaning groups made up of 10 employees, most of whom are also immigrants. Her Colombian family has relocated to San Antonio permanently. Her brother is an investor in the business, and her sister is studying at Baptist University of the Américas.
Meanwhile, Martinez has continued to innovate.
“I didn’t come [from Colombia] just to be cleaning.” Martinez said. As the engineer-at-heart cleaned each home, she used that time to think about ways to expand her business and help her employees.
Martinez’ entrepreneurial drive is common among immigrants, studies show.
According to a 2022 paper published in American Economic Review: Insights, for example, found that, per capita, immigrants are 80% more likely to start their own company compared to U.S.-born citizens.
“The findings suggest that immigrants act more as ‘job creators’ than ‘job takers’ and that non-U.S. born founders play outsized roles in U.S. high-growth entrepreneurship,” the authors wrote.
“There is a lot of evidence that shows that immigrants tend to have high levels of entrepreneurship activity and high levels of self employment,” agreed Rogelio Sáenz, professor of demography at UTSA.
Sáenz, who was recently appointed to the Census Scientific Advisory Committee, researches immigration, the sociology of Latinos and demographic trends.
He said research has found that immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy more than they take from it — one of a number of common misperceptions about immigrants and immigration held by some Americans.
“Immigrants are much more likely to pay taxes, for example,” Saenz said, adding most undocumented immigrants aren’t even eligible food stamps and other social services. “They contribute much more to the economy than they take out.”
Immigrants like Martinez, and the people she employs, will play a critical role in the country’s current and future labor shortage, he said: “Those are the workers that that are going to be needed so desperately in the coming decades.”
Giving thanks, giving back
Martinez wants her workers to succeed. When the COVID pandemic first hit in 2020, she provided them with an online financial literacy course to help them manage their finances and to learn how to save. She urges them to take free classes at the library to hone their English skills, helps them through their immigration processes, and how to understand and file their taxes.
Martinez doesn’t limit her assistance to financial and legal matters, either.
As a survivor of domestic abuse herself, when she learned that one of her employees was experiencing domestic violence, Martinez connected her to a local family violence resource center to help her get out of her situation. She connected another employee to resources for their drug addiction.
She’s also continually refining her business.
Using her engineering background, she has tested natural chemicals and essential oils as part of her cleaning process, creating products with a unique smell.
Her clients like to say their homes “smell like Yuli” — Martinez’ nickname — after she’s done cleaning their homes, she said. She doesn’t plan on selling those products, instead using them as a differentiator to keep the cleaning side of her business unique.
But she has branched out into specialized cleaning tools — another byproduct of her engineering background. As she worked in homes around San Antonio, she thought about ways to make cleaning easier, eventually developing tools for hard-to-reach areas, including pipes, drains and ventilation ducts. That work has now become a separate company, Chabod Home.
As she finally completes her master’s degree while navigating life as a new mom, Martinez is also seeking to have her tools manufactured in Colombia — another way she hopes to pay it forward.
Martinez said she’s grateful for the opportunities she has taken advantage of here in the U.S., and hopes Americans will see her story and understand the value immigrants like her and her employees bring to this country.
“I came with the conviction that I was going to do the right things,” she said. “I love this country. This country has given me what my country couldn’t give me. I owe this country everything: I owe my family, my baby, my business.”