When one of the chairs of Steer Fort Worth’s civic engagement committee moved out of state, then-president Tracy Cliburn asked Erika Ramos if she was interested in joining the board.
Cliburn wasn’t really surprised when Ramos didn’t hesitate to say yes, despite working at the time to open Game Theory.
“We bonded that evening over all things civic – all things voter turnout – all things DEI – and not surprisingly – all things ‘Hamilton The Musical,’” said Cliburn, community and public relations director at Kids Who Care Performing Arts.
Ramos, 31, admits she has enthusiasm to spare and is a natural “joiner.” It’s how she met her husband, Patrick Lai.
At the University of Texas at Austin business school, Ramos found herself joining clubs and other organizations. She would introduce herself as being from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. When she met her future husband, he said the same, then they drilled down to find they were both from Fort Worth. Although they had not known each other previously, one of Ramos’ cousins asked her, “What, are you dating this guy that I’ve known since kindergarten?”
She shouldn’t have been surprised. A third-generation Fort Worthian, she grew up in the Worth Heights neighborhood near Hemphill Street and Bolt Street, where her parents and grandparents had also grown up.
“There is no getting away with anything in school because it was going to get back to my mother one way or the other, but it was a lot of fun,” she said.
When Ramos graduated from UT, she began work for a large corporation in Dallas, but she and her husband knew they had the entrepreneurial bug.
Her husband is a foodie, but Ramos wasn’t sure they wanted to open just a restaurant.
“It needed to have something unique to it,” she said.
When they were getting to know each other and their respective families, Ramos recalled that they played a lot of games together.
“Our relationship started around food and games,” she said.
When her husband met her parents, they played a game of UNO. When she met his family at Thanksgiving, they got out board games after the meal.
“Since we were both working in Dallas, we knew we would do it and use it as our way of moving back here,” she said.
“We thought, ‘Why not, instead of making that such a holiday thing that happens once, maybe three times a year. Let’s bring that out of the home, create a space where people can come together with family, friends, and have that good meal, have a great time and build those memories together,’” she said.
That was the genesis of Game Theory Restaurant + Bar, which carries the tagline: “Eat. Drink. Game on.”
They moved back to Fort Worth and began working on the plan for Game Theory, settling on a space at 803 S. Main St. in the fast-growing and entrepreneurial-friendly Near Southside. Construction began in 2018 and officially opened in July 2019.
“We bootstrapped everything,” she said.
As with most entrepreneurs, they learned a lot along the way.
There was, for instance, their first host stand, which was made of an IKEA bookshelf on wheels with a plank of wood screwed on top.
“Like a lot of small businesses, you go through your growing pains and you do your best and just try to get better each day,” she said.
But the typical new business growing pains went into overdrive when the pandemic hit.
Both Ramos and her husband come from a finance background, so they had modeled their best- and worst-case scenario for the business.
“We opened and the amount of support we got from the community was incredible, better than our best-case scenario,” she said.
When COVID hit, they were forced to shut down operations and eventually lay off staff.
“Having to go through the process of informing the team and then feeling the emotions of what you’ve just done to a group of 15, 20 people that have really rallied behind your leadership and your concept and believed in it,” she said. “I tell people I have never felt anything worse than that.”
Ramos and her husband got creative and reached out to partners like Whole Foods to help former employees find work. She remembers sitting at her kitchen table calling former employees to help them get their unemployment application in.
“We did board game rentals for a bit to see if people wanted to rent games and play them at home, which then turned into a whole lesson in sanitation of board games and the different types of materials and games and all that,” she said.
But they – and Game Theory – made it through with plenty of lessons learned.
“I don’t wish that kind of scenario on anyone,” she said.
Ramos got involved with SteerFW, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that helps motivate young leaders in Fort Worth, when she and her husband decided in 2017 to move back to their hometown.
“We had been gone about eight years, and it felt like things had changed so much,” she said.
She joined the organization and completed a leadership program with the group, eventually leading the civic engagement committee, which works to get young people more involved in city affairs.
“I loved getting to know what developments were heading to Fort Worth, how voting impacted that and wanted to get involved in that a little bit more, so I led that committee and now serve as president for the organization this year,” she said.
She likes that the organization introduces people to others who are similar in age and who are going through the same life milestones.
“When I got pregnant for the first time last year, it was really fun for me to go through pregnancy with two other board members and just being able to have a discussion of, you know, we’re also women who are trying to be involved and how do you continue to do that with a child,” she said.
Cliburn, the former president of SteerFW, is a fan of Ramos’ leadership skills.
“Erika is tenacious beyond measure, a servant leader, and a fierce advocate for all those who need a voice – and she does it with the grace, wisdom, and confidence of someone who has been doing this a lot longer than she has,” she said.
Ramos also works with the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas.
Sandra Garcia of Fort Worth is the state chair of the organization this year.
“We both went up in leadership this year, me at the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas and Erika with SteerFW,” said Garcia.
She has been great to work with,” she said. “Whenever I need help, she’s more than willing.”
Ramos even has a game she recommends for those looking to be a leader: Captain Sonar.
“It’s really fast-paced and makes you make decisions and use leadership skills,” she said. “It will make you think.”
Patrick Lai, husband; Luca Lai, son
Education: University of Texas at Austin, bachelor’s degree in business.
SteerFW, Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas, Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Current: Co-founder, owner of Game Theory
Walnut Creek Country Club in Mansfield. “I worked in the daycare center and we played the movie “Elf” for the kids over and over. I can’t watch that movie without thinking of that job or the kids I spent time with.”
Advice for someone learning to be a leader:
The two pieces of advice I could give someone is: Embrace your fear. I know a lot of times things are scary, but if you are honest with yourself and address where that fear is coming from, it’s a lot easier to make the game plan and overcome the fear and then know that failure is inevitable.
Also, fail fast, but learn a hell of a lot faster. I think I’ll be honest and say growing up, I always thought failure was a bad thing, and I definitely aimed to be a perfectionist and learned that that is not the way to go in life, a little bit unrealistic. So, as long as I was able to learn from my mistakes and ensure that I didn’t repeat them, that life would get better, things would get better. So, those are my two pieces of advice I’d leave people with.
Best advice ever received:
Probably one of the best pieces of advice was, probably a saying most people are familiar with: Teach yourself to fish. When you want something done or you need to get something done, ask for help and seek out that help, but at the same time, teach yourself how to do it. Because the knowledge you gain of how to do something or learning about a process, whatever it is, that will stay with you and you can apply it to so many more instances or experiences you’ll go through and then it becomes one more skill set that you have in your tool belt.
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.