miguel smiles in front of a white background

Venezuelan Entrepreneur and YLAI Fellow Uses Success to Support Peers Through Philanthropy

  • Jun 3, 2021
  • Jenan Taha

Since he was a child, Miguelangel Rivas Vargas has always enjoyed crafting unique pieces by hand. Trained as a chemical engineer, the Venezuelan business owner overcame numerous financial obstacles to found his own lighting design company, Exito Corp, and is leveraging his knowledge to help other displaced Venezuelan entrepreneurs launch their ventures.

Rivas was one of 15 participants selected to learn skills and best practices to grow their businesses in the 2021 Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) at UT. Rivas says the experience he gained from the program has helped him forge new partnerships and develop his network in the industry.

“My favorite part of this program was collaborat[ing] with new partners,” he said over Zoom from his workshop in Colombia. “With my host organization Santangelo Lighting, we are now making new eco-friendly lamps made from Seje which is a fiber from here in Colombia. We even exchanged numbers and are talking every day about new ideas, new designs and how to deal with challenges.”

Miguel holds a brown lamp and stands next to cardboard boxes

The son of a craftsman and painter, Rivas grew up in Merida and studied engineering at Universidad de los Andes in Venezuela. He began designing lamps during his time at the university and fell in love with the craft, selling them to local shops and eventually establishing his first company, Lamparas Venezuela, in 2013.

“I really love my lamps—each one is different,” he said. “I try to make the perfect lamp, to select the best raw materials and offer the best service. When we ship them to the United States and worldwide, I feel that each piece we make is a part of a new life.”

Miguel holds a machine and stands at a table Due to financial challenges in Venezuela, Rivas had to file for bankruptcy and leave his home country in 2017. He moved to Colombia and renamed his company to Exito Corp, starting anew with little support or resources. Rivas says the YLAI program interested him because it was an opportunity to strengthen his business practices and learn from some of the most successful brands in the U.S.

During his time in YLAI, Rivas says he met like-minded individuals and established long-lasting business connections with his host in Austin. He also formed a strong personal connection with his State Department mentor in Washington D.C., who guided him on professional development, U.S. culture and personal growth.

He was even selected by other Fellows as a top ten pitch finalist at the YLAI Closing Forums, where he presented his business challenge solution among the hundreds of Fellows across the U.S.

“It was amazing—I never imagined to be selected even in the top 20 finalists,” he said. “[I felt] extra responsibility since I was representing Colombia and I am from Venezuela.”

In the next five years, Rivas wants to be the first brand of lighting products made 100 percent in Colombia.

“We believe that we have amazing craftsmen here and we have much potential. We are going to start a physical location here in Bogota, and we are currently doing market research.”

He is also determined to support other Venezuelan refugees in finding entrepreneurship resources and starting their businesses. He recently established a philanthropic venture to mentor and help his Venezuelan friends sell their products online.

“Here in Colombia, there are many people that are suffering,” he said. “I will find a way to [help them] get over those problems because when I came to this country, I faced many problems. I didn't have money. I didn't have a network; I didn't have anyone to support me. I would like to teach my fellow Venezuelans how to grow in a new economy.”

After seeing how successful his friends and fellow craftsmen were with his support, he decided to organize a larger mentorship program for entrepreneurs looking to begin selling their products online, and he plans to launch the program in June 2021.

miguel poses in front of a warehouse of cardboard boxes His advice to other young entrepreneurs starting their enterprises? Take a photo.

“Something that really helped me during this journey is to know where I come from,” he explained. “When you think you have achieved a milestone, take a picture! In the future, when you continue in your venture, you will see that picture and remember where you came from, and you will realize all the things that you have achieved during this year. So, my advice for those new entrepreneurs is to remember this moment, because when you finish your project, you are going to see how you've grown. And when you feel bad, just go back and see what you have achieved during this journey.”