Meet Michelle Cruz

Michelle Cruz

Director of Economic Development 

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What brought you to Union Settlement? 

In 2008, I opened the East Harlem Café. The café was known as a community hub, hosting anything from fundraisers for non-profits to Open Mics for local community artists. Unfortunately, I closed the restaurant in 2016. Financially, I was in a position where I could not hold on any longer. That was a traumatizing time for me because I genuinely loved what I did and whom I served. I know the money, effort, and the energy it requires to run a small business and how important small businesses are to the fabric of their community. When I closed, my vow was to assist in any way I could to ensure no other East Harlem business met my same fate.

Prior to and while operating the café, I received services and support through Union Settlement’s Business Development Center (BDC). I have always been in close contact with the BDC, now expanded and renamed Union Settlement’s Economic Development Department. Shortly after I closed my business, Union Settlement was planning a pilot program called WEST, the Woman Entrepreneur Success Training Program. Sandy, the BDC Deputy Director at the time, invited me to be a part of the program to share my experiences with aspiring entrepreneurs, and offer the do’s and don’ts of running a small business. I focused a lot on sharing what businesses should not be doing—sharing the lessons I learned.

Are there any personal/professional accomplishments in relation to serving our community?  

Around the time I joined WEST, Union Settlement and East Harlem Community Alliance (EHCA) launched a pilot program called Buy Local to help small businesses break into the supply chain and become vendors to anchor institutions in our community. I joined the Buy Local team where I used my networking and entrepreneurial skills to help small businesses connect with larger East Harlem organizations. I ran the program for about two years at Union Settlement.

During my tenure, we were able to help grow small businesses, realizing more than $700,000 in sales generated from relationships with major East Harlem purchasers like Metropolitan Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital, and Union Settlement.

This success is one of the proudest moments in my career, and small businesses were extremely grateful. Giving back to the community, giving back to small businesses, and being able to do that through Union Settlement was and still is a blessing for me.

I have always been actively engaged in my community. I have been part of the Holiday Tree Committee for many years, where our focus was to create a festive time for our communities, for the residents, and our children. It was a wonderful way to get the community engaged in celebrating the holidays. I also volunteered for a few local non-profit organizations, such as East Harlem Preservation, preserving the rich culture in East Harlem. Currently, I am a member of Settlement Health, a health care institution providing excellent service for our most marginalized residents.

I volunteer my time with these institutions because they are very personal to me, Settlement Health in particular. When I had my small business, I could not afford insurance for myself, so I used their services for a minimal fee—and if I could not afford it, sometimes no fee. It was important for me to do what I could to give back to an institution that gave me so much. I have also volunteered my time for excellent institutions such as El Museo Del Barrio, East Harlem Community Organizations in Disaster (EHCOAD) and one of our local faith organizations, Metro Hope Church. I can talk all day about what I am most proud about in my work with this community.

Congratulations on your appointment as Director of Union Settlement’s new Economic Development Department. Why did you choose the name Economic Development for this new department? What is your vision and goals for the department and its future?  

I am so thrilled to be running this department—how fortunate am I to get to fulfill my vow to our local small businesses. It is a blessing. It is hard for me to describe a specific vision for the department because I feel that our approach should always be community driven. As I begin to have conversations with local businesses and stakeholders, I will have a better understanding of the needs and challenges of our community. If our readers and residents have thoughts and ideas on how to move Economic Development forward, they can reach out to me at

I want to enhance East Harlem and create this robust community with continued development and growth, where we can all participate and generate successful economic sustainability.

What does that mean and what does it look like? It means becoming a healthier community, creating better jobs with livable wages.

I have chosen to rebrand this department as the Economic Development Department because it allows me to take a comprehensive approach to business development. My goal is to create a more inclusive, community driven approach that acts as a catalyst in developing innovative ideas, programming, and solutions for a more equitable community wealth.

I am also excited to be supporting the next phase of EHCA. The goal of the EHCA is to gather community stakeholders to share ideas, resources, and purchasing power to grow the East Harlem community. Building on the framework set out by the previous Chair, I hope to continue to build equitable and sustainable partnerships that lead to mutually beneficial collaboration by aligning the mission of our members to create short- and long-term goals that produce healthier outcomes for the East Harlem community.  

What do you like best about the East Harlem community? 

I was born and raised here in East Harlem! I went to school here, opened my business here, and worked for the New York City Council member here— everything and anything about East Harlem I love. There is this passion, community, love, and culture here, and it is the reason I am still here. I love being a part of that, and I want to make sure this community not only survives, but flourishes. I look forward to doing that as Director of Union Settlement’s new Economic Development Department.