By Barrett Baker
Growing up in the Ocean View section of Norfolk, Radlyn Mendoza knew at an early age that she wanted to be an attorney. “I made the decision when I was 8 or 9 years old,” she says. “I didn’t know what kind of lawyer I wanted to be, but I knew I wanted to help people.”
Her parents, who were Filipino immigrants, owned an international grocery store that attracted a wide variety of ethnic people looking for the comfort foods of their homelands. “Our grocery store was like a community gathering place, and we would hear the stories of the people who shopped there,” Mendoza recalls. “We would ring them up, and they would tell us about their problems. My mom would invite them for tea and a bite to eat, and I would hear these stories about people entering into contracts and not knowing what they were doing or thinking that a handshake was as good as getting something down on paper. Then there were small businesses like ours that had issues with paying taxes and things like that. So that was the impetus for becoming an attorney and actually starting a law firm. I wanted to give back to the people who supported us.”
Mendoza met her husband, John Gardner, in law school. The two started dating, fell in love and eventually got married. In 2000 they started Gardner & Mendoza, PC and were rewarded four months later when President Clinton signed into law the LIFE Act (the Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act of 2000 that extended the cutoff period for eligible people to file an immigration petition or labor certification to be eligible to adjust their status in the U.S.). Mendoza estimates that they got close to 150 clients overnight thanks to that Act.
“I didn’t really know what kind of law I wanted to practice when we hung our shingle,” she says. “I had a friend at the time who ran a local Hispanic newspaper, so I put an ad in with my picture in probably 20 different practice areas. The one area of the practice that kept the phone ringing after those ads appeared was immigration. So I had to jump into that fire and learn it.”
As a young minority, she went to court a couple times for clients and found the experience a bit unnerving. “When I went to Juvenile Domestic Relations Court in Virginia Beach, I remember feeling uncomfortable when I went up to the bench to argue the case for my client,” Mendoza says. “I had this feeling, whether it was true or false, that everyone was looking at me, and I felt uncomfortable because I was different. I never felt that way before because my parents never emphasized, ‘you’re different.’ They actually wanted me to just blend. I had friends from all different races, so this was new for me. I felt like everyone was looking at me and if I made a mistake it was going to stick out because I looked different from everybody else. But that was actually a good thing because I found immigration law, which is an amazing area of practice with so much area of impact for the people we want to help.”
In addition to charitable acts, working with groups like Physicians for Peace or raising money to buy books for kids in Norfolk public elementary schools, Mendoza believes that giving back to the community is vitally important for any business. “The impact of our business is massive,” she says. “For example, think about an undocumented Mexican male doing construction here in Coastal Virginia who is able to become a lawful permanent resident of the United States. He’s then able to bring his wife and children to the U.S. who may be living in poverty in Mexico. To think that the work we did could impact this man, his wife, his children, his future grandchildren, and make their lives a lot better than it would have been, that, to me, is pretty massive. That’s what helps keep me going.”
As for advice for other minority-owned business, her words are simple: “Do not look at yourself as a minority-owned business. If you do think about it, think about it in a way that’s going to be an advantage for you, not a disadvantage.”
Learn more at GardnerAndMendoza.com.