By Leila Melendez and Bianca Cervantes

The timeless transfer of the leadership baton with El Paso’s economic growth dates back eras well beyond the designated March celebrations for women leaders across the world.

Leila Melendez, left, and Bianca Cervantes are hosts of a podcast for Workforce Solutions Borderplex.

Surrounding the Franklin Mountains are historic female-led pockets of pursuit in community development, civil rights, education, housing and more that contribute to the environment in which women can thrive today. A labyrinth of footprints from different backgrounds, experiences, and occupations shares the common trait of today’s leaders building on the same ladder of equity: perseverant public service. 

Workforce Solutions Borderplex, a proud leader in the growth of the regional economy and brightening of El Paso’s quality of life, rounded up present-day trailblazers working to propel a local economic takeoff. 

Fusing the immersion of aerospace and defense, business development, philanthropy, technology innovation and most importantly, feminine grit, they reveal the vision that fuels their efforts in the Women’s Series of WSB’s Workforce Situation Room podcast. 

El Paso is unique in that many economic development organizations are led by women. The passion for economic development comes from a personal history, experience, or instinct to nurture and support our community. 

“I think that just comes from an inner passion to love what you’re doing, and love doing it better than anybody else,” said Cindy Ramos-Davidson, CEO of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber. “I’m very competitive, and in order for us to be able to stay ahead of the curve as best we can, we have to stay competitive. Especially as women, and as Hispanic women in economic development.”

Ramos-Davidson has carved her name into all things small business. She was rejected for the Minority Business Development Agency grant five times before receiving the award, daring them to tell her no each time until they realized she wasn’t going to let it go. 

The tenacity for chasing grants doesn’t stop there. Susie Byrd, executive director for the UTEP Aerospace and Defense Center, is part of a collaborative that is paving the way for the manufacturing market to access developing industries. 

Her group was awarded a federal $40 million grant benefitting the aerospace and defense industries in El Paso. Reigniting the manufacturing industry and its subsequent small business circuity is at the heart of the economic charge.

“I think really what this community has taught me and so many people that really needs to teach the nation is that we are a community that values all talent,” Byrd said. “We’ve opened doors for women, for Latinos, Latinas, and we want to make sure everybody has a chance to succeed. We’re taking that lesson and the soul of that to our economic development efforts.”

Mary Helen Aldeis, director of the Women’s Business Border Center at the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, has a team ready to coach, mentor and guide these and all new small businesses through every step of their growth. Over 17 years of serving El Paso with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, she is one of the loudest cheerleaders for business development in El Paso. 

At the core of her leadership is understanding that some aspiring entrepreneurs need support in dissolving the doubts and fear of starting a business. She works to cultivate the confidence necessary to take the first step by providing clarity in business planning, access to resources and consistent guidance to ensure their success. 

“There are close to 50,000 businesses in El Paso that are women-owned or minority-owned,” Aldeis said. “They’re growing tremendously and El Paso’s a very great place for business. There’s so much potential and growth.”

The city also boasts a fertile ground for innovation and aspiring entrepreneurs with big visions, thanks to Pioneers 21.

“We are a nonprofit organization and business incubators, we support both tech and non-tech businesses,” said Executive Director Laura Butler. “Since 2011 Pioneers 21 has housed and supported over 145 Ventures, and we’re a participant in the development of our emerging economy by encouraging startups to innovate and launch ideas, into self-sustaining businesses.”

Pioneers 21 is among the first and longest-running incubators in the region, providing an affordable, welcoming space with resources and connections. Butler believes that an ample space for convening innovative minds is where the magic happens.

“You create genius with a collective, and that is what the intent of an incubator should be.” she said.

The potential for growth is only further nourished by the business development innovation from the Better Business Bureau.  Mary Beth Stevens, the BBB’s executive director, has brought in modernization of traditional BBB tools to help expand reach and guide business decisions.

“We’re helping them transition to working smarter and making better decisions and giving them tools to be able to do that,” Stevens said. “We know how hard it is for businesses to find resources and is somewhere they can find loads of information.” 

A strong resource foundation for businesses bolsters the economic development momentum, and El Paso’s support system offers a variety of tools and lifelines to ensure continuous success. A theme among some wishful or novice business owners holding back that economic development impetus is rooted in apprehension and doubt. Fortunately, Terri Reed, senior vice president of the Hispanic Chamber, sits on the front lines of business development at the organization and is the first to challenge the notion.

“I would love for our business society to be less afraid, less timid, and to know that they’re worth it, and they can get what they dream of,” Reed said. “There is a way to get there, a lot of them don’t know it or think that they can do it or qualify. They need to go in strong and confident, and that’s what I do for them.”

In part, economic development revolves heavily on the attraction and expansion of local business. In whole, however, economic development is human investment and the countless hats that support the community body. 

From education, health care,  infrastructure, workforce and so on, investing in the livelihoods of human beings is at the core of an upward economic trajectory. At the Paso Del Norte foundations, that investment runs in the tens of millions of dollars for the community.

“We wind up getting involved in varying elements of economic development in the community, either directly or indirectly, as a family of foundations here in El Paso, southern New Mexico and also Juarez,” said Tracy Yellen, CEO of Paso Del Norte Health and Community Foundations. “We are the largest set of foundations in the region, making grants to nonprofit organizations to improve education, health, and social services, economic development, quality of life. So much of what we do touches different components of either someone’s individual life, their family, or their business.”

It’s history in the making for our current economic era, and the leaders in place have colossal visions for the future, including the amplification of El Paso’s voice across Texas.  

Andrea Hutchins, CEO of the El Paso Chamber, stresses the importance of connecting local needs and values to top level decision makers to accelerate the growth of El Paso.

“Having a thriving business climate and a thriving business economy usually comes from having business friendly policies and laws whether that’s from the local, state or federal government,” Hutchins said. “We’ve been partnering a lot with some other entities around the community, as well as from the state and the federal side, to make sure that our policies here in El Paso and in the state of Texas are appropriate for El Paso businesses. El Paso being very, very far west doesn’t always have a strong voice when it comes to the business side of things.”

At WSB, the workforce and economic development tentacles are influenced by the female-led forces among our current partners and throughout the collective career history of its leadership. The likes of Joyce Wilson, former WBS CEO, helped light new torches for current staff in igniting the fire for equity and prosperity. 

Listen to the conversations at