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Modeling a Life with Purpose

Nairda Hernández

Woman Entrepreneur Succeeds at Business Ownership with Great Faith, Perseverance and SBA Assistance

When she was five or six years old, Nairda Hernández dreamed of someday becoming a supermodel.

She would saunter out in her mother’s high heels, slide a rubber band on her small wrist with a nail-clipper hanging from it like a medallion, and beg to be introduced to her parents’ friends visiting their home.

“I would ask, ‘Mami, Mami, introduce me!” Nairda recalls. “And she would say ‘ladies and gentlemen, with you, Nairda Hernández! I would walk out shaking my wrist and striking a pose.”

Time and again Nairda would plead with her mother to enroll her in modeling classes, and each time she got the same response: “when you’re a little older.”

“Since I was so little, I thought that meant when I was in the sixth grade, so I asked then, and again when I was in the ninth grade.  I never got a different answer, so I decided to wait until I graduated high school, thinking that I was old enough by then and that my parents would agree to pay for modeling classes.”

Much to Nairda’s surprise, her parents didn’t enroll her in modeling classes. By then they thought she would have changed her mind.  Disappointed but never discouraged, Nairda found a part-time job at a cosmetics counter to pay for modeling classes at a well-known modeling school in San Juan. It was a seasonal job, however, and her earnings would not be enough. She approached the school’s owner and begged for a payment plan. Seeing the passion in Nairda’s eyes, the woman agreed.

“I would take two buses and walk many blocks in my sneakers and ponytail to get to the school,” says Nairda.  “Just before arriving I would change into heels, let my hair down and blot my face, so nobody would know what I went through to get there.”

That would be Nairda’s routine for a long time. Also, she was so grateful to the woman who would become her mentor that she would help her out in any way possible, whether cleaning the mirrors, sweeping, or answering phones.  One day, the opportunity arose for Nairda to teach a class, the turning point in her new career.

In the years that followed, Nairda graduated college with a degree in Advertising, found a job as an account executive at an ad agency, and became the most sought-out teacher at the modeling school. She won a local modeling competition and went on to win the national version representing the U.S., which resulted in teaching job offers from world renowned modeling schools.  Her mentor wouldn’t let her leave, so Nairda offered to buy shares in the modeling school and become her business partner. Her offer was declined, prompting Nairda to sadly say good-bye and start a modeling school of her own.

In 1987, at the age of 25, Nairda founded Escuela de Modelaje Infantil Nairda Hernández, becoming the first modeling school for children ever to be established in Puerto Rico, a pioneering effort followed by all other talent and modeling agencies to have opened before and after on the island.

Upon opening, the school had 60 students on its roster and the numbers just kept climbing, prompting Nairda to open talent casting and event production divisions.  In less than five years she was one of the most sought-out talent managers in the local TV and advertising industries.  Needless to say, the building she had leased was becoming too small for comfort, and Nairda found two houses that were available in a commercial section of San Juan.  She leased them with an option to buy, and began working on getting the permits needed for construction and commercial use.

“That has been, perhaps, the greatest challenge I have faced,” Nairda says. “I had to deal with much bureaucracy and petition the neighbors. It was an uphill battle, but one day I stood in front of the property and told it ‘you will be mine’. I grabbed a fistful of dirt and declared it would be mine.”

And so it is. With help from the U.S. Small Business Administration in the form of a 504 loan, Nairda purchased and remodeled the buildings, converting them into one. Also known as the Certified Development Company (CDC) program, the 504 loan is designed to promote economic development in the community by creating jobs.  Its main purpose is to provide long-term, fixed financing to purchase land, machinery and equipment and for business expansion. 

A 504 loan originates through a CD, a non-profit corporation that invests in its community’s economic development and helps generate jobs—together with a bank. In Nairda’s case, her partners were the SBA, Marketing Small Business Finance Corp. and Banco Popular de Puerto Rico. The project allowed Nairda to operate her three divisions in more comfortable facilities and take on additional students.

Through the years, Escuela de Modelaje Infantil Nairda Hernández and its talent management division have helped launch the careers of local and national sensations, such as Roselyn Sánchez, Luis Fonsi and top model Anne Marie Kortright. Its event production division also helped raise the ratings of popular TV shows like Súper Sábado. Nairda has also produced big events, acted as emcee, judged competitions, and written industry articles for magazines and newspapers.

But her school’s principal mission is “modeling with a purpose” to strengthen young girls’ self-esteem, values and manners, reinforcing positive attitudes to be emulated in society. Among its workshops aimed at behavior modification and healthy interpersonal relationships, are leadership, frustration management, image projection, and spiritual balance, to mention a few. Also, students can take lessons in singing, acting, photography, dancing and, of course, modeling.

“It brings me great satisfaction to see the transformation in a young girl, from insecure to happy and confident,” Nairda says. “To be a part of that, help them connect with their true potential, is what fulfills me as a businesswoman.”

Nairda’s solid reputation as a self-image coach led Dove to recruit her as the local resource for its “Real Beauty” campaign. She is also called on to give motivational speeches at schools, pharmaceutical companies and other private-sector organizations, for which she has prepared as a counselor.

“There is a reason behind our ‘Modeling with a Purpose’ concept,” the businesswoman says. “We want to help develop girls that are sure of themselves, proactive and that make a difference with the true beauty that never goes out of fashion, the one from within.”

Nairda’s objective to develop self-confident women also led her to become a founding advisor of the Puerto Rico Women’s Business Institute. Established in 1997 under a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of the Sacred Heart, the WBI provides women entrepreneurs with business training and counseling, technical assistance, mentoring, and access to SBA programs and services. Since then, Nairda has also become a WBI client, attending workshops and using business counseling services to help improve her business operations.

Nairda has a second modeling school in Bayamón and 12 employees.  Classes take place on Saturdays only and in the summertime two four-week summer camps are held. Currently, the schools have close to 100 students. 

“I was underestimated so many times throughout this journey,” she says. “Every time someone said ‘No’ to me, I worked even harder to prove that I could. I am a woman of great faith.”

When you walk into Escuela de Modelaje Infantil Nairda Hernández the walls are not covered in glamour shots, rather affirmations written across each; the first to catch your eye is “A courageous person is a person who is afraid but dares to try.”

Nairda is proof of that, and she continues to reinvent herself each day.

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Company Name: 
Escuela de Modelaje Infantil Nairda Hernández
San Juan, Puerto Rico