Isela graduated from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in industrial and labor relations. She is the founder of HERNÁN, a brand of premium Mexican culinary products. Isela founded the company in 2007 after working for a decade in the fashion industry.
Where did the inspiration for your business come from?
I was born and raised in Del Rio, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, just minutes away from Cuidad Acuña, Coahuila. I had the best of both worlds, exploring the opportunities of the U.S. while remaining closely connected to Mexico’s rich culture. After 10 years in the fashion industry as a merchant in New York, I had an internal quandary with my career. Around the same time, I moved back to my hometown where I became active in community development work. While in Del Rio, I was inspired by my cultural roots and by the popularity of Mexican cuisine on both sides of the border.
That got me thinking, if people wanted to make Mexican food at home in an authentic manner, how would they do it? I grew up with all the traditional prep tools and ingredients, but once I left the Southwest it became more of a challenge to make authentic Mexican food. My market research showed that even though Mexican food was a $50 billion industry, a lot of what was found in the U.S. was not actually crafted in Mexico.
Inspired by these experiences and observations, I was determined to find a way to use my talent as a merchant to start a business in my border town to capitalize on the popularity of Mexican cuisine and promote Mexican culture and traditions. And by doing so, open new market opportunities to Mexican producers and artisan groups.
Today, all HERNÁN products are made in Mexico. Our brand targets food enthusiasts who love Mexican food and those who wish to experience authentic Mexican culinary traditions.
If you could go back in time, before you started your business, what would you tell yourself?
Raise more money! And spend more time finding the right business partner!
What has been the greatest challenge that you have faced on your entrepreneurial journey?
One of the biggest challenges I have faced on my journey is trying to do the best that I can with the resources at my disposal: people, capital, and knowledge. When I started HERNÁN, it was rather serendipitous. I did not have the business plan and financials laid out, and I did not go out and raise capital: I just started it. I showed my product line to a retailer for feedback, and their feedback was that they wanted to buy it. That was the start of my business. I have been building the business organically ever since. I have done a friends and family capital raise and crowdfunding. As we continue to grow, it may turn out that we will raise additional funding and bring in outside investors.
What are you most proud of about your journey and/or company?
There are so many accomplishments, I do not think that there is a singular defining one. Here are a few favorites that stand out:
- Our line has nationwide distribution—specialty and gourmet stores, restaurants/cafes, and websites.
- HERNÁN Mexican Hot Chocolate and Mole Poblano have been awarded Sofi™ awards—the highest distinction in the specialty food and beverage industry by the Specialty Food Association.
- Our chocolate was the “secret ingredient” on the Food Network’s Iron Chef show.
Other notable media coverage includes features in: The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Food & Wine Magazine, Fine Cooking, CNN’s Your Money, Cosmopolitan Latina, Telemundo, Univision, and the Specialty Food Association’s “Craft. Care. Joy.” advertising campaign.
Along with being recognized by the U.S. State Department for my work with artisans and food producers, I am most proud of seeing the work of our partners expanding their reach outside of Mexico into markets that appreciate the products and stories.
And our first TikTok video received almost 300,000 views! Please follow us at HernanMexico.
Entrepreneurs wear many hats and must quickly become a master of all trades, so how do you find mentors and foster connections along the way?
Mentors bring a wealth of invaluable experience and information especially when you are starting out. I have had several mentors over the years. It is important during your educational years, throughout your career, and in life to network and nurture relationships, especially with people whose experiences resonate with you: people who you aspire to be like and respect.
Do you have any piece of advice for Cornellians starting out their own entrepreneurial journey?
Trust that you are going to figure it out. Believe in yourself and keep moving forward. There will be issues, problems, challenges, and times when you say ‘I cannot do this anymore.’ TRUST that you will figure it out. You are going to find the answers. Ask around—ask your mentors, your peers, other entrepreneurs. And have fun with it—do not take yourself too seriously!
What role has the Cornell network played along your career?
I remain close with many of my Cornell friends, many of whom supported my friends and family fundraising and crowdfunding efforts. I am also an active alumna—a member of the Cornell Club, Class Council, and a board member of the Latino Alumni Association. At the Virtual Reunion 2021, I joined Mike Harney ’77 of ‘Harney & Sons Fine Teas’ online, sharing beverages and educating at a Diversity Alumni Programs brunch. My ILR classmate, Jordan Berman ’95, founder and CEO of OFC Creative, produced a web series for AT&T called “Escape the Cube” that featured my entrepreneurial journey. It went viral and has been viewed over 170,000 times. I look forward to the day my Mexican hot chocolate is served in Cornell’s dining halls!