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Veronica Rodriguez dreams up new business for Caribe Food Corp.

Veronica Rodriguez dreams big -- and is working diligently to make those dreams a reality.

The 28-year-old vice president of sales and marketing for Caribe Food Corp. in Miami is a third-generation member of the family-owned importer- exporter-distributor.

"My grandfather Guillermo Rodriguez started this business in 1970 sending Latin crops north to his brother in New Jersey," she said. The company, which is preparing for its 40th anniversary, today features a product line of more than 200 items.

Ms. Rodriguez returned to the family fold almost two years ago after spending several years working and living in Texas. "I came here and put together a marketing plan in order to take the business to the next level," she said.

After graduating from Florida International University in Miami with a double major in marketing and international business, she attended the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where she earned both a master of business administration and a master of sports business management.

"Sports was a big part of my life," she said. "I did intramural sports and worked with the Orlando Magic [of the National Basketball Association] when I was completing my master's; then I moved to San Antonio [TX] and interned with the San Antonio Spurs," another NBA team.

She remained in San Antonio after receiving her degrees, but there was not much opportunity for sports-related jobs there, so she turned her business management skills to use with United Parcel Service, where she rose through the ranks from sales to a position as a pricing analyst.

But she missed her family and friends in Miami, which prompted her decision to return to Florida.

At Caribe Food Corp., one of her accomplishments has been bringing in people with different ideas. Borrowing from her knowledge of sports, Ms. Rodriguez said, "What makes a good team is taking people of different strengths and putting them where their strengths are." Having brought in some sales representatives and sales assistants, "I am trying to build my team while of course growing sales."

Caribe Food has its own ripening rooms to stage plantains and bananas. The company still handles a lot of Latin products, as well potatoes and onions, which are brought in by railcar.

Ms. Rodriguez said that her family's commitment to the business has helped it thrive.

"My grandfather came from the countryside of Cuba as a political refugee," she said. After initially living in New Jersey, he moved to the Miami area "looking for opportunity." He found it in the climate, which was similar to that of Cuba and therefore ideal for growing commodities similar to what was grown there. These Latin products had a growing consumer base in the New York metropolitan area at the time.

The business was formally incorporated in 1970, with Ms. Rodriguez's grandmother and father helping out in those early years. Her father, Guillermo (Bill) Rodriguez, is now president of Caribe Food Corp.

"My dad went to the University of Florida and got a degree in engineering ... and worked writing computer software. He came back to the company, and one of the first things he did was create a computer software system for the produce industry," even selling a few copies commercially, she recalled.

Ms. Rodriguez appreciates the continuity. Although her grandfather, at age 79, is now retired, he still comes by a few times a week to check up on things, she said.

She sees the positives in change as well. Coming from different industries and still fairly fresh out of school, one of Ms. Rodriguez's goals is to bring new trends to the table.

Ms. Rodriguez started a green initiative at Caribe Food, including a recycling program and the use of biodiesel in the company's trucks. "Produce comes from the earth so it makes sense to protect it," she said.

Beyond produce, Ms. Rodriguez has another long-term goal that she is pursuing passionately. "I grew up horseback riding. I love horses," she said. "My mom used to drop me off and I'd help out at the barn cleaning out stalls and grooming horses for riding time. I began doing that when I was about 10 years old."

She stopped riding in high school when she became more involved with other sports, but with the move back to Miami, "I picked up riding again, with the same trainer I had when I was a kid. My goal is to make it to the 2016 Olympics - the games Chicago is bidding for. So far, everything I've set my mind to I've achieved, so I think it's worth fighting for."

Besides riding several times a week, Ms. Rodriguez enjoys time spent with her boyfriend of six years, Mike Clovis. Another faithful companion is her dog, an Argentinean Dogo named Ice.

Perhaps closest to her heart, she tries to spend as much time as possible with her family. She has two brothers, Gaby, 25, and Andres, 16. Her mother, Lucy, a dental hygienist, is also a native of Cuba who came to the United States at an early age.

She is committed to carrying her heritage forward into the next generation. "Our future goal of the business, with Miami being a key port of entry for Latin American growers, is we would like to continue to serve the Hispanic population throughout the U.S.," she said, noting that demographic shifts out of Miami in search of job opportunities and lower costs of living are resulting in ethnic niches in a variety of geographic markets.

While acknowledging the challenges she faces, Ms. Rodriguez is turning a determined face toward the future.

"Being young and female in this industry, sometimes the initial reaction is not one of respect. But it's the same in the sports industry," she said. "So you hold your ground and earn your respect. Once you earn it, it doesn't go away."