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McALLEN, RGV – For Dalinda Gonzalez-Alcantar, the transition from educator to innovator was a lesson in self-realization; and after much perseverance, resulted in triumph.

Alcantar said the McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s programs to help young entrepreneurs catapulted her idea to success. A teacher by trade, Alcantar said she ventured out of her career comfort zone to become the winner of the McAllen Chamber Innovation Grant in 2012.

Working through the various programs established by the Chamber, specifically its Innovation and Entrepreneur Program, Alcantar said she found the resources available to bring her ambitions to life.

Dalinda Gonzalez-Alcantar
Dalinda Gonzalez-Alcantar

The grant awarded by the Chamber is reserved for those needing assistance in getting innovators’ ideas to a pre-launch stage.

As an educator, Alcantar said she sought to increase family engagement in schools via mobile apps. The small business she founded, eJucomm, established apps for the Android and Apple market for school districts across the country to support family, student, and school communication.

Alcantar said $7,000 from the McAllen Chamber grant went to securing intellectual property (IP), copyright and trademark. The Chamber also helped to find an attorney specializing in technology intellectual property, of which there are only eight in Texas.

“I always acknowledged the McAllen Chamber in the process of speaking about eJucomm,” Alcantar said. “If it wasn’t for the Chamber’s innovation grant, this would still just be an idea. In short, I would say that the Chamber was here for any question I had.”

A former teacher at De Leon Middle School in McAllen, Alcantar noticed an exceptionally large apartment population without access to Internet. However, when she surveyed the same people and asked how many had a smart phone, she realized the majority did have access to mobile apps.

The first step, Alcantar said, was learning to code. Acknowledging her past struggles with mathematics, she began teaching herself to program through videos on YouTube.

“I tell you all of this because I believe that anybody can learn to code. It’s just problem-solving. I did that while my daughter was three months old and my son was six. So, that’s when we first launched our app at McAllen ISD,” Alcantar said. “I started making them for free because I am an educator and that’s what we do. But then people wanted to start paying me for them. At that point, they sent me over to the McAllen Chamber even though I really didn’t know what I was doing.”


For the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, which has taken on the task of being the catalyst for spurring innovation locally, it amounts to a model that has branched out to the surrounding communities in the Rio Grande Valley, according to Chamber president Steve Ahlenius.

In an exciting turn of events, those same communities have enacted their own unique programs that work hand in hand with those in McAllen, Ahlenius said.

Steve Ahlenius
Steve Ahlenius

“This is something that the McAllen Chamber has been working on since 2005, and we recognize the struggles with manufacturing and with what the future holds in the U.S.,” Ahlenius said. “In this post-industrial world, what is going to drive communities? What will be those critical factors you want to see in communities?

“It’s about wealth creation and how you create additional wealth in a community. It’s a part of an overall economic development strategy for a community. I think it’s critical, long-term, for everybody to succeed,” he said.

Ahlenius speaks about the challenges and the benefits of setting the bar, or the tone for entrepreneurship. Efforts by the city, he says, have enabled innovation and creativity to be the cornerstones of success in the community.

“I always tell folks, do you want to be the place that manufacturers the iPhone, or comes up with the iPhone? Obviously, you want to be the place that comes up with those new ideas,” Ahlenius said.  “To be able to take an idea from a napkin drawing to the shelf, to the marketplace is a huge challenge. So our purpose has been finding out how we can help them, these inventors and creators, to help move their ideas forward.”

Chamber programs for innovators

The Chamber utilizes an array of programs at its disposal to foster this movement. Its signature Innovation and Entrepreneur Program is the city’s “AA meeting” for inventors and entrepreneurs, Ahlenius said.

Just like it assisted Alcantar and countless others since its inception in 2005, the idea is to establish the support system so innovators can find the answers to bring their creations to life.

It culminates with the Chamber’s 9th round of funding this year for participants in the city’s innovation grant program. More than $50,000 is set aside, and awarded in $10,000 increments, to entrepreneurs who are seeking assistance with patent searches, development, prototypes, market feasibility, legal fees and other costs, Ahlenius said.

Past winners of the grant include FibeRio, a local nanofiber production company; Sam Shipp, inventor of the popular “Knife Glider”; and Lamar Jones, inventor of “The Jank” gourmet barbecue sauce, which has recently become available at all H-E-B stores.

“What we found out is you need an entire ecosystem that can help drive innovation. So, we have set out to create that ecosystem that can help folks,” Ahlenius said. “It’s about being able to bring people together and creating that culture where they feel comfortable and have the trust to move ideas forward. That is the role that we set out to establish.”

Later this spring, the Chamber will hold its Good Pitch Competition. During the event, competitors vie for the best 20-second or two minute “elevator pitch” or 20-minute presentation. Winners receive a $500 cash reward for first place.

The city will also commence its Business Plan Competition. Modeled after similar programs at Harvard University or MIT, the competition is a $5,000 grant to prospective businesses located in McAllen. The program has been established for new entrepreneurs with new ideas, Ahlenius said.

“There a very few chambers not only in the State of Texas but in the country that are doing some of the things that we are doing,” he said. “When it comes to the Creative Incubator and programs like Tech Place and Idea Place, you are not seeing a lot of chambers doing these type of things. You see a lot of innovation stuff being housed at universities…we just felt like there was a great opportunity back in 2005 to move in this direction.”

Housed at incubator space at the old McAllen library facility on 15th Street, Idea Place and Tech Place essentially refer to the free exchange of ideas between entrepreneurs all collaborating under one roof.

Idea Place is an eight-session program that literally propels an idea from a “napkin drawing” to finished product. Participants present their ideas visually, and through a collaborative process eventually create a working prototype to take to market.

Tech Place refers to the open-design workplace created for technology startups that may include programmers, coders and small tech businesses. The program is the city’s attempt to spur technology innovation in a collaborative environment.

“The other thing we do is crowd-funding catapult, which is a GoFundMe or Kickstarter campaign,” Ahlenius said. “We have the software and the cameras that can help people launch their funding campaign. We will work with them and help edit it and get it fine-tuned. We also coach them because the last thing you want to do is start a Kickstarter campaign where you’re giving a different reward and you don’t have it ready to go.”

Online tools: Latina Hope and Size Up McAllen

The Chamber has just unveiled a website dedicated to at-risk women who are eager to set up their own microbusinesses.

In collaboration with Wells Fargo, Calvary Baptist Church, and United Way-McAllen, the Chamber has created Latinahope.com. The program is designed to help women come up with additional revenue for their families.

“If they can make another $50 to $100 a month, it’s a great way to support their families,” Ahlenius said.

Another online tool is Size Up McAllen, which assists small businesses via software that can identify competitors, market size, benchmarks and potential customers.

“We work with folks who are looking to start businesses and they say something like ‘Well, I’m looking at doing a chicken restaurant’. Well, we go back and see how many chicken restaurants there are before they start,” Ahlenius said. “It gives them a list of all the restaurants that sell chicken for example. It gives them the location and the size and numbers of employees. It gives them a dashboard to see how they measure up or how they think they will measure up against the competition.

“Information in today’s world is a huge advantage. So, Size Up McAllen is what we use to help launch them,” Ahlenius said.

Future prospects

Utilizing all the tools at her disposal, Dalinda Gonzalez-Alcantar reflects on the role the Chamber has made on her success.

In May 2015, she sold eJucomm to Campus Orb, a technology startup based in San Francisco. As part of the purchase, the company acquired the concept and the IP. Alcantar said she has now become the face for Campus Orb’s K-12 sector.

“For somebody who didn’t know anything about business whatsoever, if it wasn’t for the McAllen Chamber, we wouldn’t have sold our business last year,” Alcantar said.