The lawyer left Puerto Rico after losing a well-paying job. She started life anew as a paralegal in Florida, and later on became a business owner.
Lawyer Sheila Báez knows exactly what it takes to start over in a new city and achieve success.
She had a solid career in Puerto Rico. Báez was director of legal affairs at the Department of Agriculture. When Alejandro García Padilla became governor in January 2013, she was laid off because her cabinet position had no continuity with the administration of the opposite party.
Her husband, Eddie Cardona, had always dreamed of moving to the United States. He owns the Puerto Rico franchise of the Molly Maid cleaning company. They had an apartment in Orlando, where they would go on vacation and bring their son to Disney World.
Báez’ mom died in November 2012. When she lost her job four months later, it was the perfect opportunity for the family to move.
“We had to decide whether to start from scratch because by then Puerto Rico was practically bankrupt. When we decided to move, I immediately started applying for jobs. Before leaving Puerto Rico I already had a job interview lined up with a law firm specializing in personal litigation. Two days after arriving in Orlando, I started working with them as a paralegal. From earning $7,000 a month I went on to earn $10 an hour,” Báez said.
Instead of feeling discouraged, she saw the experience as an opportunity to become familiar with Florida laws.
A year and a half later, her husband suggested they should open a business, so they would have the opportunity to spend more time with their son, Eddie Dave.
The couple decided that a childcare center would the perfect situation for them to start a new business. Sheila had always liked children. When they saw a childcare center called Apple Academy on Jordan Avenue, they thought it was a good opportunity.
The place was deteriorated. It has a capacity for 113 children but only 22 were enrolled. The couple renovated the place. Florida regulations for daycare owners are very strict, so Báez took courses at the Florida Department of Children and Family Services and got the necessary permits.
Since opening the business, Báez and Cardona established a policy of providing service from 6:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m.
“In both Puerto Rico and Florida, only a few childcare facilities operate at night. We are located next to the Florida Mall. So we serve parents from the Florida Mall, International Drive, Universal Studios, and hotels. We wanted to offer an alternative to those parents. We have video cameras streaming live so they can see their children from their cell phones,” Báez said.
She said the childcare center also represents a work opportunity for Puerto Ricans and all Latinos. She employs 15 teachers. Twelve are Puerto Rican; three others are from Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela.
Still, Báez also works as a lawyer. She provides legal advice to the Department of Agriculture and also works for the Carmona Law firm, where she’s in charge of the Puerto Rico case division.
“Many people had to come here from Puerto Rico, many of them deal with family cases, inheritances. There is a great need for lawyers who serve in their language. The person who tends to clients here in Florida is usually a paralegal; sometimes you don’t even know the lawyer. Mr. Omar Carmona is also Puerto Rican, and we have managed to bring that culture here,” said.
In her field, Báez has met very educated Puerto Rican professionals who lack the confidence to speak English.
“At school, I meet many teachers who are excellent professionals. They come to Florida and think they don’t know English. The vast majority do not speak English, actually. They doubt themselves because they’ve never practiced it. I have teachers with Masters degrees who start working as teaching assistants. I hire them, and within a year I tell them ‘you’re ready to go to the classroom.’ They say no, but I push them,” Báez said.
A year and a half ago Sheila and her husband bought a franchise of the Silbar Security company. That was another dream of her husband’s dreams, so they established a branch of the Virginia-based company in Florida.
“We have been able to achieve our dreams, but that requires a lot of work and a lot of dedication. I’m playing five roles at the same time. It’s not like people think that in the American Dream they’re going to receive it all with little effort. Here you have to try, there isn’t as much nepotism as in Puerto Rico. You have to keep evolving and looking for new alternatives. You should not be afraid of opportunities. There is work, but people have to commit, be responsible, and seek jobs.”