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Omaha Magazine

AIM Institute Paves the Way Out of Poverty

Dec 01, 2021 12:26PM ● By Brody Hilgenkamp
Itzel Lopez holds yellow jack aloft

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

 The smell of the meatpacking plants was the first thing she noticed, and she thought Omaha would be miserable. Yet, Itzel Lopez’s story defies its humble beginnings.

Lopez is the vice president of advancement and community relations at AIM Institute, a nonprofit devoted to educating, recruiting, and developing diverse tech talent in the Omaha area. It’s a role in which she provides opportunities to people looking for stable employment or career advancement, and many of those people are from vulnerable populations.

Whether it’s fundraising, program coordination, volunteer activities, or recruitment, the work she does provides access to a field that’s highly skilled, pays high wages, and is in high demand.

“It’s full circle to me,” she said. “I know that the work we’re doing can literally break the cycle of poverty in someone’s life.”

Lopez’s story began in Mexico in the state of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City. Her father brought the family to Omaha when she was 12, whisking them away from the Mexican cartels. She felt at home in South Omaha despite the culture shock—and the meatpacking odors—because its flavors and colors reminded her of her childhood. 

Her parents worked two jobs each to make a living, and Lopez graduated from Omaha South High School in 2004. During her senior year, she realized her lifelong dream of attending college might be out of reach because she was undocumented. She got married out of high school, had a daughter, and college dreams evaporated.

“I got into this American thinking of, ‘I’m going to go into higher education,’ and as I was trying to Americanize myself, I realized I couldn’t,” she said.    

That was, until Gina Ponce from Bellevue University insisted she attend and made arrangements for Lopez to receive a South Omaha Community Outreach Scholarship. The private college welcomed her with open arms. She graduated with a degree in business administration, and during her time there, she started interning with Cinco de Mayo Omaha.

Marcos Mora, the group’s executive director, said Lopez had positive energy and a willingness to familiarize herself with all aspects of the annual celebration. She worked at Mora’s right hand for more than a decade, going to meetings with elected officials, business leaders, and consulate representatives. During that time, Cinco de Mayo grew into one of Omaha’s largest events, attracting more than 125,000 attendees annually, according to the Greater Omaha Chamber.

Mora said Lopez’s experience there and eagerness to network launched her future success and prepared her for leadership roles. 

“You can’t stay in the box,” he said. “If you stay in the box, you limit yourself, and Itzel wasn’t afraid to go out of the box. She wasn’t afraid to network, she wasn’t afraid to talk to people.”

Lopez takes pride in her role in highlighting Mexican heritage to those who attend Cinco de Mayo from around the region.

“We get to bring all of that, and I get to relive that experience in Omaha,” Lopez said. “That, to me, is priceless. I get to do that here in Omaha and expose people to things that they would not otherwise be exposed to if I didn’t do that.”

Lopez started at AIM in 2014 as an executive assistant and has climbed the ladder to her current role. In that time, she has continued to lay the groundwork for other young people of color to follow the same path.

“I get to live this story again,” she said. “When I go and recruit at South [High School] I say, ‘I did it. I’m telling you, I was in these shoes. I came to South, I want you guys to do it too.’”

Visit aiminstitute.org for more information.

This article originally appeared in the November/December  issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann