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From Picking Cotton To Owning A Business: Fort Worth CEO Achieves American Dream

Doualy Xaykaothao
Yolanda Cuevas is CEO of Cuevas Distribution in Fort Worth, Texas.

Yolanda Cuevas knew one day she’d work in an air-conditioned office.

She went from picking cotton in the fields of San Marcos to owning a successful family-run business in Fort Worth. The company sells microcentrifuge tubes, gauze, and bio-hazard waste bags. It's done so well that Chase Bank gave it a $150,000 grant,  and a trip to Google for a marketing seminar.  

It’s not obvious when people first meet her, but inevitably someone asks the 67-year-old executive about her hands.   

“Well, they’ve had a rough life,” Yolanda Cuevas says. “My fingers have always been crooked like that. And I wonder if, you know, I didn’t have proper nutrition. I don’t know.”

Or maybe it had something to do with working in cotton fields, just outside of San Marcos, as a kid. She was one of 13 children. Back then, Cuevas was a third of the size of the sack she carried, and daily, she says, she filled it with 100 pounds of cotton, often in 100 degree heat.

“It was very, very hot out there,” she says. “And no breeze. So when we did get that one breeze, every once in a while, it was kind of like somebody throwing a bucket of water on you. It just felt so good.”  

Daughter Of Mexican Immigrants

It also felt good when she could give her little fingers a break, drinking at the barrel of community water with her parents, siblings, and other migrant workers. Each summer, they’d pack into a covered truck, drive to the cotton fields before the sun was up, and work until the sun went down. Each row, she says, felt like 100 miles long. As she got older, the trucks took the workers farther, to Lubbock, to Ohio. Every truck stop was a lesson for the daughter of Mexican immigrants.

“And in the restaurants, we had to use the backdoor,” she says. “And I’m thinking well, we’re going to take it to go anyway. It’s not like we’re going to eat here… those were years of learning. And I kind of realized, I needed to get an education.”  

She got herself through college, eventually learned the ropes at a bank, and at the age of 46, she started a medical distribution business in Fort Worth.

“Her dream was to, believe it or not, was to work in an air-conditioned office,” Pete Nardo says.  

He’s senior vice president of Chase Bank’s southern region. Yolanda Cuevas’ story is inspiring, says Nardo, and her business, a success story.  

“Her whole business model is based on service,” he says. “When there’s a problem with a delivery, a problem with a product, they’re there right away, fixing it. And basically you call her.”  

'I Don't Even Know What A Tweet Is'

That’s why Cuevas Distribution won the grant from Chase. The 21-year-old company is a family affair. Kirsten Stafford works with her mother at the Fort Worth office.   

“Technology changes so fast,” she says. “We haven’t had the resources to keep up with it.”

Before the grant, Cuevas Distribution had no Facebook page, no LinkedIn account, no Twitter handle. 

“I don’t even know what a tweet is,” Stafford says, laughing. “And I don’t understand why you’d want to tweet something out.”  

Credit Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News
Yolanda Cuevas (center) runs a successful small business in Fort Worth with her daughters (Kimberly Chapple and Kirsten Stafford).

She and her twin sister, Shannon Chavera-Kruse, just got back from Google headquarters in San Francisco, where they learned about social media. The older twin, who’s the VP of operations, is based in Austin.

“We’re going to have to change the way we think, to a certain extent because we’ve been so used to a fax machine, and email, and now we’re going to be able to move away from that,” she says.

Credit Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News
Just back from Google headquarters in San Francisco, Shannon Chavera-Kruse and Kirsten Stafford are learning about social media to improve their business in North Texas.

Chavera-Kruse is still faxing vendors, doing things old school. Like many small business owners in Tarrant County, Cuevas Distribution didn’t have money to hire an IT person or upgrade its software. 

“That has been one of our goals… more web presence and e-commerce,” she says.

Back in the Fort Worth office, Yolanda Cuevas admits she’s not computer savvy.

“Even now, they have trouble getting me to just do an order online,” she says. “I have a tendency to resort to the old ways.”   

Her third daughter, Kimberly Chapple, is the office manager.

American Dream

“A lot of people’s American dream is to start their own business,” she says. “Mom started the business a long time ago, and of course now, she says in five years, she wants to retire, pass it on to the daughters. I believe she said the other day, possibly the grand-daughters (laughs).”      

Until then, as she did in those cotton fields years ago, Yolanda Cuevas says she’ll continue to give 100 percent to her company.

“This is easy compared to what I was doing back then.” 

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.