Investing in Community Impact

Erika Ortiz ’16 looks back on a journey from Finance student to JUST program manager

Do you want to change the world this summer?

Erika Ortiz came across an internship posting in Hilltop Careers that caught her eye. “At the time, I thought, 'Oh yeah, right. That sounds amazing, but I really don’t have time for that. I’m about to graduate. I need to take life seriously and do the responsible thing,'” she said.

Erika continued to apply to positions in the financial services industry but couldn’t commit to any company.

She kept coming back to the “change the world” ad and decided to take a chance and apply for the internship at JUST, a company which invests locally in low-income entrepreneurs and provides access to resources, coaching and peer support.

Inspired by JUST CEO Steve Wanta and moved by the company’s mission, Erika viewed each internship project as a challenge to conquer and an opportunity to learn and grow. In November 2016, she transitioned from JUST intern to JUST program manager. Looking back at her academic career and journey to social enterprise, Erika shares the following insights and reflections.

Start your journey somewhere

As a freshman at St. Edward’s University, Erika joined the Leadership Living Learning Community and received advice from Professor Catherine MacDermott that she carried with her throughout her undergraduate career — go out and find experiences.

After declaring a major in Finance, Erika attended the spring 2013 Job and Internship Fair and landed a summer position at Cornerstone Financial Education. Although she had little knowledge of financial education, the experience helped her learn the importance of budgeting and gave her a crash course in program development — she worked with the Cornerstone team to create a summer finance program.

Make your time count

As a junior, Erika became the accounts and funding coordinator for Student Life’s Recognized Organizations Council, where she outlined what student organizations needed to do receive funding. Armed with questions like:

  • What are the details of your purchase?
  • Why do you need this?
  • You’ve gotten this amount before — how did that work out?

Erika gained tangible skills on fund management and evaluating loan applications. In May 2014, she started working as a bank teller at BBVA Compass and eventually became a commercial banking intern. Over two years Erika excelled in the industry, but, most importantly, she learned that she did not want to become a banker.

Set goals

In May 2016, Erika accepted the internship at JUST and set the goal of becoming a full-time employee before the year ended. At a young company, having a clear path of action or knowing where to provide value can be daunting, but Erika found a way.

“What really helped me the most was this state of mind that I put myself in — just trust the process,” she said. “Go with the flow, do your best in whatever they ask of you, and if you see more room to grow, just go for it.”

If her ideas were rejected by leadership, Erika would not get discouraged. She kept creating and learning and stayed invested as a member of the team. When the CEO mentioned to Erika an idea to form an eight-week leadership program, she immediately started benchmarking other outreach programs and drafted a report on how a program like this would look. A few days later, she was hired full time.

Follow your passion

As program manager, Erika felt connected to JUST’s strong values and the community of female entrepreneurs. She conducted business meetings in Spanish with JUST CEO Steve Wanta and Community Director Ivonne Salinas. She attended workshops on liberating structures, which helped her train and support program participants. She launched the eight-week leadership program, empowering women to become facilitators themselves and host community conversations around finance and setting goals.

“My favorite part of this whole thing is when we’re going through these programs, we start off the class with one word and then we end the class with one word about how you feel,” Erika said.

“Usually, the words [the participants] start off with are kind of negative — it could be ‘stressed’ — and then, at the end, you’ll hear ‘de-stressed,’ which blows my mind because finance is never relaxing," she said. "It makes me feel like we’re doing something right.”

Find a solution

What Erika enjoys about the JUST experience is the ability to constantly innovate. With new ideas comes unexpected results, and Erika has learned to take each challenge day by day, with the same positive attitude. A new loan system for program participants? No problem. She has tasked herself with learning the software and finding the right solution. A new program with varying sessions? No problem. It was trial and error and eventual success for her and the team.

“Professor [Mark] Poulos always talked about if you don’t know something, go figure it out. Don’t just say I don’t know and then forget about it, which really just encourages me to this day to always find a solution,” she said. “As long as I give it my all, it’ll come together eventually.”

As of 2021, Erika is Director of Service and Product Design at JUST. She oversees and leads program solutions and operations, and experiments with inclusive financial technology solutions that creates real user value through data-driven research and design thinking practices.