Rodrigo Salas is determined to increase NWA entrepreneurial opportunities

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,319 views 

Rodrigo Salas is the executive director of Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll) Northwest Arkansas.

A key aspect of entrepreneurship is connecting with others, which requires empathy.

“I think that [empathy] is the most important part for any person who wants to be a mentor or help somebody,” Rodrigo Salas said during a recent interview.

That’s one of many lessons Salas has learned during a successful marketing and advertising career, but maybe more importantly, as a small business owner. Using that know-how, he’s mentoring other aspiring entrepreneurs in Northwest Arkansas.

Salas, 49, is the executive director of Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll) Northwest Arkansas. The business accelerator is an affiliate of Massachusetts-based nonprofit Entrepreneurship for All, a national entrepreneurship organization with offices across the country. Its mission is to make entrepreneurship accessible to anyone with the drive to start their own business and create opportunities to build generational wealth for their families.

EforAll was founded in 2010 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande. He believed that the best way to close the opportunity inequality gap was to support would-be entrepreneurs in the communities on their journey. He established EforAll to help entrepreneurs launch ventures, particularly entrepreneurs beyond the tech sector who may have limited access to startup capital or the traditional “incubator” or accelerator programs.

Funding from Bentonville-based Walton Family Foundation supports the Northwest Arkansas accelerator, which launched in March 2021 as the state’s first EforAll community. The nonprofit hired Salas later that year.

“Rodrigo is an entrepreneur himself and understands the challenges and barriers in an entrepreneur’s journey,” said Yee-Lin Lai, a senior program officer with the Walton Family Foundation, whose support of the EforAll NWA chapter tops $1 million. “Being an entrepreneur of color, he proved to be a relatable mentor to the Hispanic communities in Northwest Arkansas, in terms of language and his entrepreneurial experience.”

Lai said increasing access to entrepreneurial programming in the region is a core focus of the foundation’s 2025 strategy.

“EforAll’s EparaTodos [Spanish language] program helps to do this by establishing a program accessible to the community of underserved current and aspiring entrepreneurs — minority, low-moderate income, women and residents who lack educational attainment and English-speaking capabilities,” she said.

Since Salas joined EforAll in 2021, he has helped establish a four-person staff to manage activities that support the region’s entrepreneurs in building skills and social capital. They do that through accelerator programs (offered twice annually in English and Spanish), mentoring, pitch competitions, deep-dive workshops that provide ongoing education on business topics and networking events.

EforAll NWA’s Winter 2023 business accelerator, its third, begins this month.

“Rodrigo is building and championing an impressive network of diverse leaders in Northwest Arkansas,” said Jeannette Balleza Collins, the Northwest Arkansas Council’s entrepreneurial development director. “To operate the bilingual accelerator program, there is a significant volume of personalized community outreach, volunteer recruitment and event management that happens alongside the steady entrepreneurial support for the founders. Rodrigo spearheads those efforts cheerfully, methodically and intentionally.

“He and his team bring great joy to the important work of inclusive entrepreneurial development.”

Salas was born and raised in Mexico City. He described his family as typical middle-class. His father was a marketing manager for a small grocery chain. His mother stayed at home to raise two boys.

Salas earned a marketing degree in 1997 from Tecnológico de Monterrey, where he met his future wife, Leticia Castellanos. He was a brand manager for Nestle when he and his wife decided to move to Austin, Texas, in 2003 to further their education, and they have lived in the U.S. since.

Salas earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business in 2005 and then continued his career in various CPG marketing, strategic and directorial roles.

“And then I decided to start my own business, which was the craziest idea,” he joked.

Inspired by their Mexican heritage and love of cooking, Salas and his wife launched Molli Sauces in 2013. The family-run business, now based in Bentonville, makes cooking and hot sauces that can be used on traditional dishes from different regions in Mexico.

Molli is sold online and in over 400 grocery stores nationwide.

“Starting a business sounds so easy and so dreamy, but it’s so hard,” Salas said. “Especially when you have to run everything through yourself. I didn’t know what I was doing in many aspects. I knew the marketing side. I didn’t know sales, finance, operations.”

Salas said he had to find mentors. The U.S. Small Business Administration and SCORE, the nation’s largest network of volunteer, expert business mentors, were helpful. He also did a lot of reading and took several entrepreneurship courses.

“Initially, I couldn’t find a co-packer,” he recalled. “So, I took a course at Texas A&M on how to [safely] process food and not kill people. Which is very important if you’re selling food.”

Salas said he rented a commercial kitchen for the first three years and made the products himself.

“Bottling, labeling, packing and distributing it to stores … it was many things I didn’t think about and a huge learning curve, but I loved it,” he said. “And I still love it. It was painful because sometimes you have wins, and sometimes you have losses. And that’s the way business is.”

Salas’ wife went to work for Walmart Inc. in 2019. A promotion led the family from Dallas to Northwest Arkansas the following year.

Salas began mentoring other entrepreneurs while living in Dallas and looked for a similar opportunity in Northwest Arkansas. He found it at Fayetteville consultancy Startup Junkie, where he learned of EforAll’s Northwest Arkansas plans through that work and was intrigued.

“I didn’t know who they were, but when they said they were looking for a bilingual executive director, I was intrigued,” he said. “Ever since I started my business, I have seen how hard it is to start a business. Helping people in any way I can is what I’ve tried to do.

“The most important [aspect] is giving opportunities for people who have been in this region for generations to move up economically and socially instead of pushing them out. It’s vital to the region.”

Collins said Salas is adept at staying resilient as the EforAll NWA team learns more about the region’s targeted needs of idea- and early-stage founders.

“He has been very responsive to those needs as he’s attracted board members, mentors and funders,” she explained. “He took the initiative to raise support for adding a team member specifically for outreach activities to expand the reach and impact of the program. That’s a unique differentiator for this particular EforAll location.”

Collins also noted that Salas’ marketing background helps him tailor EforAll’s engagement levels to appeal to a broad base of stakeholders.

“He has a deep love for helping people tap into their own personal agency to exact positive change, which is a beautiful character strength,” she said. “I’ve seen him present numerous times, whether at a chamber leadership event or Creative Mornings, and his passion for supporting underserved entrepreneurs shines through every time. He is fantastic at creating the conditions for more leaders to grow and take their seats.”

Salas said EforAll NWA has established good traction and developed collaborations with the region’s other entrepreneurial support organizations. He said Northwest Arkansas is an excellent place for entrepreneurs for many reasons, and he mentioned several, including the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Arkansas, Walton Family Foundation, Tyson Family Foundation, NorthWest Arkansas Community College, Startup Junkie, Forge, Communities Unlimited and Kiva NWA.

“We’re finding our niche and supporting each other,” he said. “Some people see us as competitors, but we all support different entrepreneurs.”