Marie Diaz, Entrepreneur & Author
Her Journey in Pursuit of Excellence
A Biography of Persistence and Positivity
Entrepreneur Marie Diaz lives by a personal motto: “You are an occasion, so rise to it.” It’s a phrase she now offers as words of wisdom to the professionals she trains as owner of the human resources consultancy, Pursuit of Excellence, Inc. More importantly, it’s one of many lessons she has learned as an industrious student of life.
Before landing a successful career with several Fortune 500 companies and launching her company, Marie faced a pursuit of personal success and, at times, survival. Although today she is a shining example of what persistence and dedication can bring, her business accomplishments are intrinsically linked with a long and difficult journey. Today, she taps into her experiences to guide others both in professional and private matters. “If I can do it, anyone can,” Marie says. “And it’s not just a cliché—I mean it.” When the odds were against her, Marie found herself with only one option—rise to the occasion and make something happen. She became expert at that skill and placed it at the core of her life and career.
Marie was born in San Antonio, Texas, the second of five children of Jesse and Virginia Diaz. The family moved to Mason City, Iowa, where they had relatives, and then back to Dallas, Texas a few years after Marie started school. Though she was still a child, Marie was already learning to overcome the challenges life presents. Marie’s biological father passed away when she was three years old, and her mother remarried a man who turned out to be an alcoholic and at times abusive to Marie’s mother.
At age 15, Marie started working as a restaurant hostess to help support herself and contribute to the family’s limited resources. At 16, she married and had her first child. A happy student, new mother and wife of a kind man she loved whole-heartedly, life was improving. But just three years later, her resilience would again be tested. Marie’s husband passed away unexpectedly, and she found herself a widowed, young, single mother at age 19.
No stranger to hardships, Marie was determined not to return home and to make it on her own. “My mother used to say, ‘You can come to me crying as long as your problem is worse than having nails run through your hands and feet, a crown of thorns on your head, and being dragged through the streets, humiliated by people you thought were your friends. Otherwise, there’s a solution, and I’ll help you find it,’” Marie says.
With those words as inspiration and her mother’s help caring for her son, Marie dropped out of her first year of college and took on three jobs. From 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., she worked at a car dealership, then at a restaurant from 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., and finally, at a gas station from 10:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., just to make ends meet. “After spending some time with that schedule, and coming from a modest background with no financial support, I was just thinking, ‘how do I get out?’ My mother encouraged me to go into sales and to go back to school,” Marie says. Instinct told her she would be good at sales, and she curtailed her exhausting work schedule to find a better paying job.
Her search began at the local mall, where fate stepped in. Hoping to secure a better-paying job, Marie went to a kiosk that sold electronics and music equipment. She liked music and felt confident that she could sell these wares. As she approached, Marie noticed that the phone at the kiosk was ringing, but no one was there to answer it. She waited for the employee to return, and the phone continued to ring.
Finally, when the phone rang again, Marie took a chance and answered. The voice on the other end asked who she was. “You don’t work for me,” the caller said. “Why are you answering the phone?” Marie explained that the kiosk was unattended, and it seemed rude to just let the phone ring. The caller, who was actually the kiosk owner, offered Marie a job on the spot, warning that the hours would be long. Compared to her typical schedule, working 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. would be a relief. She approved of the hours and inquired about the pay.
The owner offered Marie $24,000 a year. Marie hesitated as she calculated the number against her budget. Taking her silence as disinterest, the voice on the other end then offered $28,000. She began to recalculate, again with no response. The owner made another offer of $32,000, adding that this number was final. Overwhelmed and unaware of her own business acumen, Marie happily accepted the position.
Though she knew it wasn’t her ultimate calling, she liked the job because she was learning new things and paying the bills. She hoped to put some money away to give her son things she never had.
About six months later, opportunity rang again. Marie received a call at the kiosk from a stranger who knew her name and her annual income. A recruiter from a Fortune 500 Company happened to overhear the phone conversation that earned her the job and was impressed with her skills and deportment. The recruiter was looking for someone who could increase sales, remembered Marie, and called the kiosk to see if she had held the job. Upon discovering that she had, the recruiter offered her a sales position, which Marie again accepted.
She rapidly became one of the top sales people and developed the fastest-growing center in the country. The Dallas center where she worked went from $19,000 in sales per month to over $100,000 per month. From there, Marie climbed the ranks rapidly conducting business internationally as well. In that time, Marie had also remarried and had two more children. With her new responsibilities, she discovered the common dilemma of balancing work and family life.
In 1994, Marie found herself yet again at a crossroads. Following a divorce, she was a single mom of three and, this time, she was really on her own. Her most powerful inspiration—her mother—passed away the same year. One day, Marie returned from a long business trip to Australia to find the locks to her house changed and the furniture rearranged. Furious, Marie asked the live-in nanny for an explanation. The keys, it turned out, had been lost, so the nanny had to have the locks changed, and Marie’s sons had rearranged the furniture as a “welcome home” surprise.
As Marie calmed down and greeted her sons, she heard the nanny mumble, “It’s your house, but I’m the one who lives here.” Though stunned, Marie couldn’t deny what the nanny said. Marie felt disconnected from her own life and from what mattered most, her children. She fired the nanny and quit her job.
At that point, she was a leader in an international company, creating new business across the globe. “If I can do it working for someone else, I can do it for myself,” Marie told herself. If the worst were to happen, she could always get another job, she thought. She shared her plans to start a business with her sons, who were 9, 5, and 3 at the time. They had two questions: what was she going to do and were they still going to eat? Marie assured them they would still eat and explained that her business would help people develop leadership and accomplish goals. Soon after, the boys presented Marie with a drawing from school. The title was “My mommy pursuing excellence.”
When she officially launched in 1994, there was no question what the name of her business would be. Pursuit of Excellence, Inc., is a consultancy that provides a full scope of human resources services, including HRIS/HR consulting, Organizational development, Payroll processing and Employee benefit administration and recruiting. The services create the acronym H.O.P.E., which Marie incorporates in the company’s motto: Giving H.O.P.E. to businesses and industries worldwide. The company boasts more that 200 part- and full-time employees. Over the last few years, revenues have increased more than 300 percent, and the business is continually growing.
Reaching that point was no small feat. The same year that her mother died and that she became an entrepreneur, Marie fractured her ankle in a car accident. She was in a cast and unable to walk for much of the year. The damage was so severe that doctors gave Marie two options: they could fuse her ankle, which would cause her to walk with a limp for the rest of her life, or they could re-break, the ankle, which would cause excruciating pain. “Break it,” Marie ordered the doctors. “Just give me a lot of drugs,” she said, her sense of humor and optimism obviously still in tact.
Resetting the ankle was the only acceptable solution to Marie. “You don’t know where you’re going to go unless you try. If you never try, you just lose from the beginning,” she says. She would never know if she could walk into her first meetings as a business owner in heels, just as she’d imagined it if she didn’t try. Within weeks, she and her business were up and running, both figuratively and literally.
One of her first clients—and a most memorable one—was EMJ Corporation, a construction company with offices in Texas, Tennessee, and California. Marie trained the CEO, vice president, estimators, and project managers in Leadership Development. It was one of the most challenging, but watching the company grow from $25 million to over $1 billion brings satisfaction.
The early years were difficult, Marie recalls. More men than women still filled board rooms and C-suite offices in the early- and mid-90s when Marie was starting out. Being one of few women and a single mom only made her more creative, Marie says, and she has learned many significant lessons along the way.
Marie lives her life and bases her business on three key values: asking what can make a company/person better than they are today, seeking to lead and motivate other people, helping achieve goals, whether personal or professional. She also recognizes persistence, patience, the ability to listen, and the ability to see conceptualization through to implementation as essential success factors. Of course, the most important lesson Marie has learned is to never give up. There are times in life, Marie says from experience, in which giving up is simply not an option. It’s the actions you take at that point that determine the ability not only to survive, but also to succeed, she says.
She is an accomplished owner of a growing business, which already has offices in Dallas, Houston, Irving, Chicago and Sydney, Australia. She has been nominated for Woman’s Enterprise Magazine’s “Woman of Excellence Award” and Entrepreneur Magazine’s “Women of the Year” award, and she received Ernst & Young’s “Inclusiveness Champion of the Year” award and she received Latina Style Magazine’s “Anna Maria Arias Award,” which honors the top ten Latina Entrepreneur Business Owners. She also speaks with pride about her charitable pursuits, such as the small business mentoring, youth development and POE Licensing programs she has developed, and for which she has also been recognized.
She sees a purpose beyond making a profit, and that drives her to excel as a leader and as an individual. “My sons ask me what I’m looking for. I say, ‘World peace and serenity.’ I know it’s a ‘Miss America’ answer, but if I can do that, I’ve done my job,” she says with a laugh.
Giving back to the community is at the cornerstone of Marie’s business. She feels a sense of responsibility as a business owner to invest in the community by molding the next generation, and she often takes a hands-on approach in her charitable endeavors. For example, in December of 2007, she organized a toy and book drive that brought donations for every student at City Park Elementary School in Dallas. She has also personally provided scholarships for Dallas ISD students and funded Dallas ISD conferences designed to support and motivate youth.
Marie credits her mother, Virginia Diaz, for much of her strength, and perhaps her entrepreneurial spirit and desire to give back are also her mother’s influence. Virginia Diaz owned a beauty salon where she would occasionally give her services for free or for food instead of money. “They will pay me when they can, but everyone needs to look pretty,” Marie remembers her mother saying. Years later, Virginia’s funeral was filled with faces Marie didn’t recognize. “It was one of the biggest funerals I’ve ever seen. Everyone told me stories about how my mother helped them and how she made them laugh and how they made her laugh. It was amazing,” Marie recalls.
In much the same way as her mother, Marie has been able to touch lives, both through her professional and personal pursuits. Those who know her say that her natural optimism is contagious, and Marie effortlessly instills it in others by sharing the wisdom of her experiences and her instinct to give.
Marie’s neighbor, Pam Hatch, recalls that Marie started helping her before she even knew who Marie was. “In her giving, Marie doesn’t ask, she just starts to do,” Pam says. Early one morning, Pam was preparing for a garage sale when a stranger walked in her garage and began helping move boxes and arrange tables. Stunned, Pam asked who she was. Marie replied, “I’m your neighbor. You’re having a garage sale, aren’t you?” “Before I knew it, she was out buying coffee, bringing donuts. She sat with me the entire day,” Pam says. “I think, when you get to know Marie, she doesn’t just touch you or your business. She touches everybody who she comes in contact with. Her whole spirit is about reaching out and making a difference in the lives of others. She teaches all of us to get involved, not only by sitting back and saying it, but by actually doing it.”
As for her own personal sense of success, she is still striving. “In order to achieve greater levels of success, you have to make it worthwhile to yourself and to others. When you make it worthwhile, you can help others to grow. I feel you have to have a ‘bucket list’ and know the things you want to do and the things you haven’t done yet, so they are constantly in your mind. You also have to have no success limitations that, in many instances, are put upon you by other people. I think that writing down your goals helps to motivate.”
From her life, this Unstoppable Woman discovered a secret she wants to share: “The only person who can stop you is you.”
One thing is for sure: she hasn’t been deterred yet.