Photos courtesy of Leotha Stanley

In the company of greatness. That is how I felt while interviewing Ms. Vanessa McDowell-Atlas, and Mr. Lino Ruiz for this April’s Business Issue of UMOJA. These two personalities help keep Madison on the map when it comes to purpose, mission, and business. First let me say, in the spirit of transparency, that I am a novelist and not a journalist, so I was honored to be asked to write this article. Now let’s get into it.

Just a few months ago the YWCA, led by CEO, McDowell-Atlas, entered into joint ownership of 2040 S. Park Street with Ruiz. He is the owner-operator of El Pastor restaurant located in that building. El Pastor has been at the same location for twenty-four years and has served our community some of the city’s best Mexican cuisine. My personal favorite is the whole fish, which I was introduced to by Mother Gaddis of Fountain of Life Church, circa 2011. It was delicious. And the restaurant’s atmosphere was both welcoming and comforting. We went several more times before her passing in 2014.

When I sat down to talk with Mr. Ruiz, I was immediately impressed by his affable and generous demeaner. I knew right away that this interview would be a pleasure. The first question I asked him was why he wanted to own, rather than just continue to rent. This is what he expressed to me: Madison is changing rapidly, lots of high-rise buildings are going up. Some of which are owned and controlled by outside interests. These people and companies are making money while the local people are not. He had begun to wonder what would happen to his small business and the community he had come to serve and love. Would he lose his location and start over? Would he lose his connection to people like Mother Gaddis and me who had come right from church up the road to visit? Would Venessa (Ms. McDowell-Atlas), who had become a friend and frequent customer at his restaurant, relocate the YWCA, also housed in that building?

While sitting at a table near the front door of his restaurant, we noted that 53713 is among the most diverse zip codes in Wisconsin. So, it seems fitting that El Pastor, located in the heart of it, has managed to be popular among Latinos, Hmong, Chinese, African Americans, Whites, college students, hospital workers (and dare I say anyone who has eaten here). Mr. Ruiz being able to own not just his business but also this property helps to protect his, and our, legacy of diversity. He likes that people like Vanessa, who grew up in this neighborhood, can come to enjoy his authentic, affordably priced cuisine for many generations to come. 

Hospitality is a natural fit for Mr. Ruiz. Working his way up from dishwasher, at age sixteen, to being employed by the Four Seasons Luxury hotel, Ruiz has always loved serving and communicating with people. Having studied Business in Mexico City, specializing in hospitality/restaurants, and working for years at El Pastor, he was happy to buy the business from his wife Maria’s uncle in 2009.

Owning the property that housed his business was the next logical step for Mr. Ruiz. This allows him to anchor his connection to this community and secure his future while setting up generational wealth for his family, and his children. The eldest of which plans to run the business one day.

But how did all of this come to pass? 

Enter Intersectionality: 

In 2017, Ms. McDowell-Atlas, was asked by her predecessor to find a new location for their YWCA Empowerment Center. Their previous one was an impediment to their participants. Located in an area with no sidewalks, hidden among factories, and lacking bus stops, it was just plain inaccessible to the people who needed their services.

McDowell-Atlas, a self-proclaimed “doer,” went to work. Determined to make a stand against the gentrification she saw occurring on the South-Side, she intentionally looked to Park Street. She found the 2040 location. Perfect. In the center of everything, it was convenient, visible, and their people would be able to get there. The YWCA of Madison entered a rental agreement with the building’s owner. However, right from the beginning, McDowell-Atlas declared that the YWCA was going to own this building.

When the owner of the property approached her, she already knew the answer was: yes, we want to buy it. And they were positioned to do so. Being the recipient of unrestricted dollars from Mackenzie Scott, the YWCA had the money and was ready to move.

That was 2022. 

Enter the Angel:

Somewhere in the whirlwind of these events, Vanessa had a conversation with Lino, the friend she met while frequenting his restaurant, El Pastor: the other tenant of the Part Street building. As referenced above, Lino expressed his concerns for his business and hers. What would become of them as the South Side, and Park Street, in particular, was being reshaped?

At the end of their discussion, she responded simply, “Well, let’s figure this out. We’ll see what we can do.”  Sometime later she came back to ask him if he’d like to be joint owner of the property with the YWCA. His response: a resounding, “Of course. That’s what I’m dreaming of!”

Vanessa McDowell-Atlas has intricate knowledge of the systems, agencies, funding, and resources available to this community. In addition, she wants to see people like Mr. Ruiz have access to what is necessary to achieve meaningful participation. 

So, after many starts, restarts, and negotiations with the City, County and private investors, McDowell-Atlas found funding for Lino Ruiz and his wife Maria to purchase half of the building. 

With this novel setup completed and the path to Mr. Ruiz’ dream being paved, he says of her, “She did everything. She made it happen. It could never have happened if she wouldn’t –have been—there. She was willing. She embraced it. And she executed and did it. She pushed everyone so they can, so we can come to this closing. —she is knowledgeable and she knows everyone. And she pushed and she pushed hard—She has a big heart. And that is the reason I was able to purchase it. I don’t think this would ever have happened if she wasn’t there. So, she was my angel here, working with me and for me. I’m always gonna be thankful to her. I will never forget this.” These are the words of Mr. Ruiz regarding Ms. McDowell-Atlas.

When I asked Ms. McDowell-Atlas why she did this, she said: “God…” She sees this as part of her mission to prevent gentrification, to have commercial property ownership (for us all), to have generational wealth, and to create lifelong relationships. She and Lino will forever be connected. She also said, “I’m hoping it can be an example of what we can do as community together–particularly Black and Brown.” 

The mission-minded McDowell-Atlas was determined to get this done before she left her role as the YWCA’s CEO. And the South Side is better for it. 

She is currently the Chief Operations Officer of Black Girl Ventures. During this interview, I learned so much about Ms. McDowell-Atlas. Her accomplishments, her connections, and her sincere commitment to seeing her community be better and do better–her words. She warrants a business article dedicated just to her accomplishments and future ventures.

This super impressive and confident woman also exudes sincerity. Her response to hearing that Lino referred to her as his angel, in this process, was that she felt humbled. Her goal in life always, she says, is to please God. Whatever the assignment her goal is to hear, well done.

My parting question to Mr. Ruiz was to ask what his most challenging time as a business owner was. He talked about the 2008-09 downturn in the economy. To combat its effects, he started catering. One of the hallmarks of a successful business is to find workarounds when needed. Mr. Ruiz said, “I always find a way.”

Conversely, when I asked him about his best moments in business, he of course beamed about being able to own the property in which his business resides. Then just as quickly he adds, “and the people, I love to serve the people.”

His advice to future entrepreneurs: become familiar with resources in this community and with those that support it: city, county and state. Visit their websites. He’s excited to see that the HUB has moved into the neighborhood. They are an asset ready and willing to help those wanting to be part of this forward momentum.

For me, as writer of this article, this joint ownership is a sterling example of Community Forward Business Practice (my term). It makes sense to me that people living together in one country, state, city, and zip code, should strive for the betterment of us all. We do this by making sure that every member of our community, and each people group, has the opportunity to own a piece of the pie. That way no one goes hungry or has to look over into the other person’s plate for survival and significance. This, to me, is BUSINESS at its best.