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Updated: October 16, 2023

Outstanding Women in Business: Hernandez champions Worcester's self-made entrepreneurs

a photo of Jennifer Hernandez Photo | Christine Peterson Jennifer Hernandez

Jennifer Hernandez had been working as a marketing manager for the University of Massachusetts for a decade when she left to start her own business.

“I said to myself, ‘It’s time to be about it,’” she said. “If I really care, then why don't I use my skill set in marketing to make a bigger impact? So, that's what I did.”

Hernandez was called to open her business largely based on her love of the Worcester community. She moved to the Main South neighborhood from Natick when she was 15, a culture-shock experience, she said, but “I wouldn't change a minute a bit because the city made me who I am today.”

She found it frustrating, though, seeing so many local businesses shuttering shortly after they opened. It was this cycle that motivated her to open GEM Marketing Solutions in 2016, a hyper-local, Worcester-focused company offering affordable services in social media, website design, and content creation.

Hernandez noticed a lot of small business owners get caught up in day-to-day operations and forget to promote themselves, a key aspect of spreading brand awareness and attracting customer base.

“They’re not really paying attention to how current their website is or how accurate their social media is, but these are the ways consumers make decisions these days,” she said. “They look at your review. They look at your social media. They judge you by your digital presence.”

She has worked closely with the Main South Business Association, which has helped more than 30 businesses in the neighborhood build an online presence, and she founded and hosts the Worcester Business Connect podcast highlighting local small businesses. She is chair of the City of Worcester Status of Women Advisory Committee and an advisory board member for the Center of Women and Enterprise in Westborough.

Hernandez’s main business model for GEM, which was named 2023 Small Business of the Year by the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, is to meet small business owners where they’re at by offering affordable, and often free, services.

“She walks the walk,” said Margie Breault, business development manager for the City of Worcester and a small business owner of Prism of Brilliance. “She shows people how to be authentic by showing up authentically. She shows people how to be a changemaker by making those changes. She shows people how to bridge gaps and build bridges by building them.”

Along with offering free workshops and mentorship, GEM’s Rise Women Entrepreneur Growth Program is one example of this mission: It allows women business owners to apply for a free website, which is given away monthly.

“As far as being a woman in business, I've made it a really strong goal of mine to make sure I'm opening up other seats at tables that I'm present at so other women don't have to work as hard to get to those tables,” Hernandez said.

In mid-September, she hosted her proudest accomplishment yet: the Self-Made Entrepreneur Conference at Worcester’s DCU Center. Two years in the making, the conference included local keynote speakers, a panel of four entrepreneurs who built businesses from nothing, and micro-mentoring sessions. There were more than 25 sessions about difficult aspects of business, like imposter syndrome and public speaking, and an entrepreneur resource center full of organizations supporting businesses, like banks and accelerator programs.

For the 500+ business owners in attendance, the entire event was free.

“She did that simply by having a vision,” said Breault. “She is one person, a one-man show, and she created such a beautiful, intricate celebration of all different types of people and entrepreneurs and small business owners. That's really Jennifer in a nutshell.”

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