Owner takes Caribe International to new heights, with the help of SBDC at FIU

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For Karina Vaguez, owner of a full-scale meetings and events production company, the pandemic could have been a time to retrench. Obviously, a business like hers was going to be hit hard with convenings shut down. But instead of wallowing in worry, Vaguez used this traumatic time to prepare her small business for growth.

Vaguez owns and runs Caribe International, based in Doral. The CEO brings decades of experience and vendor relationships in major cities around the world to her work organizing and producing meetings and events. Caribe’s team researches, sources, contracts and supervises staffing, transportation, events logistics, production, catering, entertainment, decor, audio visual and more at any destination. For six or seven years until the pandemic, her company had been working with corporate groups, from concept to completion.

When the pandemic hit, Vaguez thought: “Because my brain is so hyper, I’m not going to stay home doing nothing. I am going to start working to get my all my certifications to do business with the government.”

Vaguez had learned about doing business with the government while participating in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Goldman Sachs program at Miami Dade College before the pandemic. The more she looked into the opportunity, the more excited she got, but she didn’t quite know where to start.

She reached out to Florida SBDC at FIU, which offers no-cost business consultancy to small businesses in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties. This year the center was honored as the top small business development center in the nation by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Vaguez was quickly connected with SBDC at FIU business consultant Matt Block, who specializes in government contracting, bid preparation, certifications and cost estimation.

“Karina knew that the pandemic was going to hurt her scope of work due to the limitations of personal interactions at the time. However, she also knew that it was a perfect time to prepare her firm for government contracting,” said Block.

Vaguez kept on one employee and from then on their job was to figure out this complex world of government procurement and apply for and earn any relevant certifications. “Matt literally walked me through the entire process for two years. Because of him, I was able to get into this.”

What were keys to her success? “You have to spend a lot of time in researching and learning and putting yourself out there,” she said, adding that in the thick of the learning she was calling Block several times a week. “The support and the knowledge that he provided to us was priceless. I don’t think enough people take advantage of this resource,” she said, referring to SBDC at FIU.

Vaguez now understands why the vetting systems for government contracting are so extensive. Once a business has been approved and certified, they are trusted. She also learned how to effectively use government contracting to discover new opportunities and how to better position her business to be discovered by government entities.

“Karina was very diligent with all tasks I gave her. So diligent, in fact, that I had to stay on my toes. Karina registered as a vendor with the federal, state, and county governments, and obtained WOSB, CBE, DBE, and SBE certifications with help from our center,” Block said.

“And when she worked on her first RFP response, she made my job very easy since she had read and broken down the scope,” he continued. “She mainly needed my help to translate some government-ese from some of the documents. Karina kept me posted all steps of the way — from initial RFP response, to her eventual award [with the Florida Department of Transportation]. She is a model to follow for women and small businesses.”

Vaguez, originally from Venezuela, arrived in Miami at age 19 and received a scholarship to the University of Miami where she earned two MBAs, in finance and marketing. She interned with a production company and it was a gamechanger, she said. “The owner of the company taught me a lot about business and management.”

Her first business was as a distributor of haircare products and it was very successful. “I actually think that we had the best brush in the industry.” She later sold the company and took some time off to raise her child.

When a friend from her days working at the production company reached out seeking help with a client in the Bahamas, they teamed up and formed Caribe International in 2015.

Since the pandemic, Caribe International has grown far and wide. Vaguez has won contracts from branches of the US Department of Defense that is dedicated to water resources. The first contract was for a five-day event. “I did everything from hotel rooms, transportation, entertainment, staffing the trade show. I negotiated food and beverage with a hotel, room price, everything. It was an amazing, successful event.”

Then she won a contract to do a meeting in Southeast Asia, where she did logistics for the Department of Defense unit in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia as well as with the US Department of State. Now she is working on a contract for Africa. “Government contracting has been an incredible platform for me.”

To business owners seeking government contracting, she advises: “Ask questions, do research. Let them walk you through it because it’s not black and white, it’s not a straight line.”

Her advice to other small businesses looking to start a business: “They have to realize that the path is long, but it’s worth it. If you’re willing to put in the hours and love what you do, go after it,” she said adding that they should seek out resources such as SBDC at FIU and 10,000 Small Businesses. “The payoff is that you own your time and that you own your life, you own your destiny.”

“Every time I finish an event, I cry. I feel so much passion for what I do, I put my heart and soul into every event. All my clients are repeat business,” she adds. And no two days are alike. “I always tell people I’ve never done the same centerpiece twice.”