Denisse Lamas and Her Team
Help People Feel at Home
Denisse Lamas is the founder and executive director of Hispanic Family Counseling, which is based in Orlando. This article is one in a series of interviews with honorees of the GrowFL Companies to Watch. For information, visit www.GrowFL.com.
What inspired you to start your business?
I am a licensed clinical social worker in Florida. While working for different agencies, I consistently saw misunderstanding of how to serve the Hispanic community. For example, when people are angry or emotional, they tend to speak their native language — that’s how our brains work. So in stressful situations, having a Spanish-speaking social worker can make an enormous difference.
But it’s not just about speaking the clients’ language — it’s also about understanding their culture. When we do home or school visits, Hispanics greet each other with a kiss on the cheek.
That’s common in Latin American cuture but was seen as inappropriate at the agencies I worked for. On the other hand, Hispanic people sometimes consider a handshake as overly formal and detached, and they take that personally.
Another example involves drinking a cup of coffee. When I go home to visit family in Puerto Rico, I have to drink a coffee at every single home I go to. That’s part of the culture – it’s how we grew up and how we were trained. Ignoring those cultural norms in the agencies where I worked often created a disconnection between the clients and the therapists. What I could normally do in a month took three months because I didn’t have that rapport with the people we were trying to help.
My husband is from Venezuela, where many people have experienced distressing political and social problems. Coming here is a challenge for them – they might not understand the culture and can feel lonely and afraid. A therapist must understand that.
Cultural differences like these made me decide to open Hispanic Family Counseling.
How long have you been in business, and when did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I started the company nine years ago. My grandparents and parents owned supermarkets all their lives. That’s a lot of work, seven days a week, but it helped me understand that I wanted to provide jobs for other people.
When I left college, I knew I wanted to do something for the Hispanic community, which was growing in Central Florida. I think it was at the point when I had a conversation with my supervisor about the importance of the coffee tradition, and the supervisor said “No,” right then I felt compelled to make sure that people with the same background as me could get the services they need.
What did you want to be when you were a little kid?
A teacher. My siblings and I always played like we were in a classroom. I worked for Orange County Public Schools for a while, and then for the University of Central Florida for a few years, but once I opened the business it required so much time that it was hard to do anything else.
How many employees do you have, and what is the culture like inside your organization?
I love my job! And I think everyone who works there loves it too. When we went into COVID-19, I had to let go of most of my new staff members. When I was able to rehire them later, I thought some wouldn’t come back, but they all did. I was humbled and very glad. I’m proud of our team. Today we have 84 people, including administrative staff, therapists and case managers.
What makes your company different?
We have a very Hispanic culture. I want us to help people in the Hispanic community, especially those who come to Central Florida with fear or trauma. And I also want people in Central Florida to understand Hispanic culture. There’s a lot of misconception about Hispanic people.
It was important for me to create an environment in the company where everyone feels at home. Many of us left family members behind in our home countries, and that can make you feel lonely. So we create a family atmosphere, with a fun team-building activity once a month that’s not related to work.
“We have food all the time at the office that people make and home and bring in to share. That’s part of who we are – it’s more like a family environment than work.”
What keeps you up at night as a business owner?
The biggest challenge has been to provide quality services to our clients while also supporting our employees. One of the hardest things for me was having to let go of my admin staff early in the pandemic. I just wanted to make sure everyone was OK. Not every entrepreneur was able to survive COVID-19. It was challenging and emotional.
It’s always a challenge to make sure you have good people with good intentions. My mantra is, “Hire values, train skills.”
“I always tell my staff that it’s not my company, it’s our company. We’re here to make a difference.”
What challenges do you see the company facing in the next three years?
The biggest challenge is the uncertainty surrounding COVID. Sometimes it feels like we take one step forward and three steps backward. Part of my job is to make sure my therapists and other team members are OK. Many of the people we help suffer from anxiety, and sometimes my staff are suffering from the same thing. Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re suffering from anxiety until you’re having a panic attack. To support employees we have training, team-building activities and holiday get-togethers. We try and maintain a family atmosphere.
One thing we’ve learned during the COVID pandemic is that mental illness can affect anybody. In the past, we typically helped kids with behavioral issues, or adults with mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. With COVID, we’ve seen an increase in educated professionals suffering from anxiety related to the pandemic.
What are your goals for the business in the next three years?
I want us to be a one-stop shop for mental health — whether it’s seeing a therapist, medication management or providing transportation to get to your appointment. An important goal is therefore to open a psychiatric evaluation and medication management agency. We also want to have a better electronic health records system.
I would also like us to provide cultural competency training. We already provide training for our personnel on the various Latin American cultures — we might talk about Mexico today, Venezuela next month and Peru the month after. Even though we’re all Hispanic, we have our own belief systems and cultural differences. I’d like to be able to teach the community about those.
What was your proudest moment as the CEO?
One of the proudest moments was when we won a Don Quijote Award, which is a big deal in Orlando’s Hispanic community. We won it when Puerto Rico was going through one of the hardest moments in its history, right after Hurricane Maria. We dedicated our award to Puerto Rico.
What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
It’s going to be challenging. It’s going to be hard. There are times when you don’t sleep because you’re thinking about what you’re going to do or how you can improve. But it’s fulfilling to provide employment and comfort to others. When you do something you’re passionate about, and that you love doing, then it doesn’t feel like you’re working. You’re just living your dream. That’s what’s happening with me. I love being a social worker.
It’s never going to be easy. Every year I say, “This is going to be easier than last year, and it’s going to be the greatest year ever!” and then there are bigger challenges. But it’s worth it when you see an employee buy a house for the first time. When people thank you and say, “You changed my life,” there are no words to describe that feeling. That’s when I know I’m fulfilling my purpose.