Two decades ago, Carlos Perez lived on the streets in Houston. Today, he owns Express Cool Air, an air conditioning company in Bonita Springs. Perez’s rise from penniless immigrant to small business owner is an example of the opportunities available to all races and economic classes in Southwest Florida. “I had no money. I was broke. So I took the ride from Houston to Naples,” Perez says. “[Success] just happened little by little.”

Perez worked in tomato fields after arriving in Southwest Florida, before getting a job at a luxury hotel in Naples. Unfortunately, he didn’t own a car. Consequently, Perez walked two hours—each way, every day—to and from the hotel.

But simply being employed wasn’t enough for Perez. He started taking vocational classes, spending two years learning English and another learning air conditioners.

While attending classes, Perez worked as a stock boy at Publix to support his wife and three children. “It was very hard,” Perez says. “There were words in class that I never heard before.”

Due to his difficulty with English, it took Perez four tries to pass the air conditioning certification test, before finally getting a job with Willis Air Conditioning, and then opening Express Cool Air in Bonita Springs.

At the same time, Perez and others opened Iglesia Fuego Fresco, a church in Bonita Springs, where Perez serves as the pastor.

“He serves as an example to the community,” Carmen Santiago, a teacher with the Lee County Public Schools and a member of Fuego Fresco, says. “It’s possible to come from nothing to become a business person. How he’s worked his way up … building a better life for his family.”

Express Cool Air has quickly become a pillar of the local Hispanic community. Even if poorer families can’t pay for his services, Santiago says, Perez completes the work and arranges different payment arrangements.

For his efforts, the Southwest Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Affairs Advisory Board of Lee County recently named Express Cool Air its small business of the year at the 11th annual Hispanic Achievement Awards and Hall of Fame Banquet.

“It surprised me,” Perez says of his success. “I was walking to work and now I have this company.”