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Columbia Business Monthly

Accounting for Community

Part three of a series in partnership with the Hispanic Alliance

By Jennifer Oladipo

Photos provided by the Hispanic Alliance

If entrepreneurship is a test of resilience, vision and grit, the era of Covid-19 feels like an elimination round. It’s the kind of time when Mahler Nuñez holds fast to the advice of his 97-year-old grandfather: if we impact one family at a time, we’re doing our job.

Nuñez lives that ideal day-to-day as head of his own State Farm insurance agency. In the midst of a pandemic, that includes his own staff. How can they safely do their jobs well while protecting customers? How can he mitigate the stress of working from home? For Nuñez, these ongoing challenges must be met with equal doses of pragmatism, compassion and creativity — skills he’s honed while building a life in the United States.

Investing in community

Mahler says he and his staff of six have regular discussions about how his company can best serve a recovering community. 

“The business community needs to figure out how to deliver. The boutique, the pharmacy, the dentist—we all have to readjust,” says Mahler. “We also rely on the state level. We need to come together and create some sort of direction, not everyone just pulling their own weight.”

Such agility and drive to seek new paths have long been a part of Nuñez’ story. So has the sense of responsibility to the greater good. That’s why he has invested countless volunteer hours helping secure the financial futures of people who might never become clients. In 2014 he began lending his expertise to the Hispanic Alliance, which opened his eyes to a gap in service to Greenville’s Hispanic community. 

“Latino families trying to understand banking in the U.S., budgeting, taxes, dealing with school administration, sometimes they feel ashamed or intimidated about the language,” says Nuñez. 

In response, he helped the Hispanic Alliance launch its financial stability team, which remains one of the nonprofits’ four pillars of service. He later served as board chair. Recently, he and his staff have been buying and delivering food baskets to families feeling harsh economic impacts of the pandemic.

“I feel blessed that I didn’t have it as tough as some people who come to America with nothing. But, some things I learned the hard way.”

Student becomes teacher

Even after 29 years in Greenville, the struggles of newer immigrants echo his own experiences immigrating from the Dominican Republic. Both his grandmothers were American citizens, so Mahler took advantage of the chance to move to the United States to pursue a college education.

“I wanted to study business. That was my forte,” he says. He’d planned to return home to help run his father’s business, but instead “fell in love with Greenville.”  

However, staying demanded understanding a new financial system. 

“I knew about finance and budgeting and that sort of thing,” he says. “The hard things were how to build credit, taxes, and how that affected me as a single person versus a married man.”

Sorting it all out laid the foundation to build a business — and a community — helping others make sense of personal finances. Today, he continues teaching monthly classes for new homebuyers through the Greenville Human Relations Commission. 

“I want to make sure people feel empowered to make the best decisions for their business and for themselves and their families. The plan for one family might not fit another. I hold their hand. I’m a resource for them,” he says.

Surviving a tough time

Nuñez is thankful that while the agency didn’t grow, it didn’t lose business.

“We made it through the year, but I did lose a lot of friends, clients, that passed away because of Covid-19 or the stress of life right now.” 

He mourns the loss of one client with whom he’d developed a special relationship over the years. The life insurance policy he had with Nuñez was cashed in too soon when the man died from Covid-19. He’d seen his client grow financially from a confused new immigrant entrepreneur to one with solid plans and systems, much like himself.

“The rewarding thing for me, even though I hated to see him go, was to deliver that check to his wife and children so that they could celebrate his legacy, because he always thought only of them. Those are the things that fuel my fire.”

Everyday excellence

As a business leader, Mahler sees every day as an opportunity to pursue excellence. But that doesn’t necessarily mean achieving perfection.  

“Excellence is getting up every morning and basically taking every day as a blessing, learning, and being willing to make mistakes,” he says. “What can we learn from mistakes? How can we impact others? What can we celebrate? Excellence is being willing to improve every day.”

It’s also a willingness to do as much as possible for others, a trait he admires about American culture.

“One thing I love about this country is how even though we’re divided with the political discourse and all that, in the end, we’re Americans. And, Americans have a huge heart for everybody. The people who have the ability are helping as much as they can; the people who receive are really appreciating what they’ve been given.” 

After three decades in Greenville, these are traits he can clearly claim for himself, too.