In recognition of the tremendous contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs to the Commonwealth, The Immigrant Learning Center (The ILC) honored four Massachusetts-based immigrant entrepreneurs during the 10th annual Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards Benefit on November 8, 2023, at the Royal Sonesta Boston. This awards program is the only one to celebrate immigrant entrepreneurs in New England. It highlights the crucial contributions immigrants from all backgrounds make to society. All proceeds benefit The ILC.
This year’s nominees were 21 entrepreneurs from 15 countries who run businesses in 14 Massachusetts cities and towns from Lawrence to Ludlow to Martha’s Vinyard. Collectively they employ more than 1,100 people across the Commonwealth.
Winners were selected by a panel of experts in four categories representing sectors where immigrants have an outsized impact. Wendy Estrella, who is from the Dominican Republic and the founder of Estrella Law and Estrella Enterprises LLC, was the winner in Business Growth. The Neighborhood Business winner was Son Vo, who is from Vietnam and the founder of Chashu Ramen + Izakaya restaurant; he also received the Worcester key to the city. Frank van Mierlo, who is from the Netherlands and the founder of CubicPV, was the Technology Business winner. The Life Science Business winner was Isabelle Aznarez, who is from Uruguay and the founder of Stoke Therapeutics. Although they created four very different businesses in different industries, they all shared a desire to have a positive impact on their community, employees, industry and the country.
Themes for the evening included the value of diversity, the sacrifices immigrants often pay to pursue their dreams and the United States as the perfect place to achieve those dreams. Wendy Estrella accepted the award, “on behalf of all the immigrants, like my mother, who left their children behind with the hope that one day they could be reunited in the United States and pursue their dreams.”
She further stated, “Without this country’s open arms, my dreams would never have been able to come true. America is a place where dreams can be transformed into reality through dedication and hard work.”
Frank van Mierlo observed that there are a million immigrants coming to this incredibly welcoming country each year and, as a result, “The United States attracts the best and brightest out of the eight billion people that live on the planet, and it’s fantastic to be part of that.”
About the Winners
Wendy Estrella, the youngest of nine children, was born in a rural town in the Dominican Republic. At age 13, she moved to Lawrence, Mass., a majority Latino city. Estrella earned degrees from Northern Essex Community College and Merrimack College while raising her children, and she later went on to Massachusetts School of Law. When she opened her practice, Estrella became one of the very few Latina lawyers in Greater Boston. Since then, she has built not just one, but two valuable, vibrant businesses in Lawrence. Estrella Enterprises, a real estate development and property management firm, has a $30 million real estate portfolio. She has invested heavily in the city of Lawrence with the express aim of rebooting its economic and cultural vitality. Estrella Law has more than tripled its staff since 2019. Estrella is a model leader in her community, serving as chair of the Lawrence Partnership and a board member of North Essex Community College.
Son Vo’s mother ran a restaurant in their native Vietnam. After serving in the U.S. Army, he followed her example and opened his first restaurant, Kaizen Sushi Bar & Grill, in Sturbridge in 2007. His second restaurant, Pho Sure, opened in Shrewsbury in 2014. After a million-dollar restoration, Vo’s third restaurant, Chashu Ramen + Izakaya, opened in downtown Worcester in 2019 and quickly became an anchor business in that neighborhood.
Vo prides himself on being a mentor to his employees, encouraging both their professional and personal growth. He was one of five recipients of the Worcester Business Journal 2019 Business Leaders of the Year awards.
Frank van Mierlo’s first business success, the autonomous underwater vehicle company Bluefin Robotics, positioned him well to do just about anything. He wanted to help transition the energy sector, and CubicPV (in Bedford) was his solution. The company owns more than 300 patents, and its technology portfolio promises to underpin the next wave of solar growth, reducing cost while increasing the power output of solar installations.
Not satisfied with one company’s success, van Mierlo wants to see the whole industry succeed. To that end, the U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded CubicPV and MIT a multimillion dollar grant to establish the ADDEPT Center at MIT to accelerate the commercialization of tandem solar technology. CubicPV is also focused on building a U.S.-based silicon wafer facility that is expected to be the largest outside of China.
Dr. Isabel Aznarez co-discovered Stoke Theraeutics’s Targeted Augmentation of Nuclear Gene Output (TANGO) technology. Her Bedford company’s unique scientific approach aims to address a broad range of severe genetic diseases by increasing, or stoking, protein output from healthy genes to compensate for the nonfunctioning copy of the gene. Aznarez and her team have identified approximately 6,500 genes that might be amenable to TANGO. She holds 29 patents.
As a woman, a lesbian and a Latina in biotech, she is vocal about topics of diversity and inclusion and has been a mentor to many. Stoke’s staff is one-third people of color, and more than half are women. Aznarez credits the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as key to their success.
More info about all the nominees for The Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards can be found on The ILC’s website at www.ilctr.org.