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How Immigrating From Argentina to the Bronx at 11 Prepared Her For Life as a Franchisee Vanesa Ellis was no expert in mosquitos or lawn care, but other experiences made her a perfect fit for two home-care brands.

By Carl Stoffers Edited by Frances Dodds

This story appears in the September 2023 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Courtesy of Conserva Irrigation

Vanesa Ellis had no pest control experience. She'd also been out of the workforce for 15 years, having left a job at Wells Fargo to raise her kids. Then she opened a Mosquito Squad franchise in 2016, and it's thrived ever since. How'd she make the transition so easily? Because, Ellis says, her background helped prepare her in unexpected ways.

"I wouldn't change the experience of immigrating to the U.S. for the world," she says. Ellis moved from Argentina to the Bronx at age 11. She didn't speak English at the time, and had to quickly learn how to navigate new situations and take care of herself. That, she says, turned out to be a massive learning opportunity — and it helped her master Mosquito Squad, a pest control brand that's based in Maryland and has more than 200 locations, and then open a franchise with its sister company, Conserva Irrigation, which provides sprinkler systems based on water conservation principles. Here's how she did it.

Related: More Women Are Entering Franchising -- and It's Changing the Industry

Are there things you learned growing up as an immigrant in the Bronx that translate to your entrepreneurial career?

It made me tough. I was living in this little coastal vacation beach town in Argentina, and then at 11 I was thrown into New York. The street smarts had to come out. I think it got me ready for being in this male-dominated business.

What's that been like — being a woman in your industry?

Everyone I've worked with in the industry has been really respectful, but a handful of times I did show up with a technician because a client needed to see the owner. And if the client was a gentleman, he would inevitably look past me and say, "Well, where's the owner?" That type of thing.

What led you to choose franchising instead of starting a business from scratch?

Flexibility. My family's always been a priority and I wanted to make sure I could be at home with my kids in the mornings to take them to school, and be home when they got home. Mosquito Squad offered me that flexibility. It was also appealing to have an established business model to follow. We knew we'd have to invest our time and effort, but we didn't have to reinvent the wheel.

Related: The Role and Responsibilities of a Franchisee, Defined

Could you describe what your typical day looks like now?

After spending the morning with my children, I head to the office. My goal over the past few years has been to delegate more and empower our employees to get the job done. So everyone sees me every day, but I am focused on building a competent team with a reliable office manager, operations manager, and sales manager now. We are still really young as a business, so it's step by step.

What kind of marketing do you use to promote your franchise?

We started with HomeAdvisor in the beginning but have since stopped. We also did some direct mail. Our growth primarily comes from our online reviews and word-of-mouth referrals. We are fortunate to have over 200 five-star reviews, which have been extremely beneficial. And since the footprint of both my franchises is nearly identical, there's opportunities to cross-market. So I'll tell an irrigation client, "Hey, if you have a mosquito issue…" or vice versa.

What is the biggest challenge for your business?

The biggest challenge is finding the right people. The younger kids these days don't want to be outside sweating and digging, and it's a bit like a lost trade. We're hoping to bring that back and get those kids who can't or don't want to go to college and show them they can make good money and have a good future to take care of themselves and their family.

Related: He's Opened 15 Ben & Jerry's. But First, He Learned a Hard Lesson: 'I've Never Worked So Hard to Lose $100K In My Life'

Carl Stoffers

Entrepreneur Staff

Senior Business Editor

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