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Second round of #Strongmont funding will focus on equity for businesses of color

Latino-owned businesses have yet to benefit from the Strongmont Fund, but a second round of funding will be dedicated to aiding businesses of color.
Taqueria Madero and Las Americas Tortilleria located at Ninth and Lashley streets. (Photo by Macie May)

So far, $223,000 have been disbursed to a total of 23 local businesses from the #Strongmont fund — a fund and campaign developed by the Advance Longmont Economic Partners to support small businesses and help mitigate the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first round of funds was awarded earlier this month, according to Eric Hozempa, executive director of the Longmont Community Foundation, managing entity of the fund. While this has served to inject a healthy amount of dollars to reactivate the local economy, the benefits were not spread evenly across the community.

“Unfortunately, no Latino businesses that we know of have received any money,” said Ricardo Cabrera, project manager at the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Boulder County and member of the managing committee for the Strongmont Fund.

“They have a certain amount of money for all these businesses …(it) doesn’t go very far, everybody has to make their case. The issue for Latinos is making the case given the criteria that was asked to qualify and get one of these grants,” added Berenice Garcia-Tellez, board secretary for the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Boulder County and economic sustainability specialist at the city of Longmont.

A second phase of the program, dubbed Strongmont 2, however, will solely focus on providing financial support to businesses of color that are experiencing hardship related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Unanimously, the (managing) board supported pivoting the fund to support businesses of color… We are working with community partners, the chamber, and others to ensure that we do an equitable process,” said Hozempa, who on Wednesday also issued a letter of apology for minority-owned businesses being excluded from the program's first round of funding.

Strongmont 2 will include a new application (in English and Spanish) created in partnership with a diverse group of community volunteers and organizations; the opportunity for applicants to share their businesses with the community through a short video; and tutorial Zoom calls or videos for applicants who have questions on completing applications, according to Hozempa's letter.

Those steps will remove some barriers, but acitivists say there also are deeper systemic issues in play for businesses of color. 

Among immigrant Latino business owners, large-scale banking represents one of the most prevalent barriers to accessing financial resources.

“The real issue is banking … bankers blame business for not establishing credit to get the initial infusion of cash. Latino businesses depend upon family for their startup capital and depend on credit cards. Credit history can go south very easily when you miss one or two credit payments. … We see a disparity in how capital can be made available,” said Ron Brambilla, longtime activist and board member at the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Boulder County. “Banks won't take the risk.

“Typically, we don’t have as much access to capital as other businesses. Our capital costs more and is not available from traditional banking sources,” Brambilla said, adding that Small Business Administration loans and venture capitalists investments are not always helpful. Restrictive requirements, such as established relationships with banks, nonexistent business credit scores or narrow interests, leave Latinos outside of the pool of traditional financing solutions.

Banking can be one barrier, lack of formal education is another. Low average levels of education among U.S.-born and immigrants is the most important factor limiting business income, according to a recent report by the U.S. Small Business Administration, which states that education may serve as a proxy for an individual's "overall ability or as a positive signal to potential customers, lenders or other businesses.”

For Latino business owners in Longmont, this manifests in a lack of formal training around marketing strategy, social media or other digital skills.

“Las personas especialmente en los negocios latinos no tenemos acceso o entendimiento de cómo funcionan (algunas tecnologías) por que tradicionalmente nos hemos ido por palabra, conocidos o cosas así y tenemos grabado esas ideas, pero ya teniendo otro tipo de plataformas accesibles, hemos podido expandirnos y crecer como negocios. (People, especially in Latino businesses don’t have access to or the understanding of how some technologies work because, traditionally we have relied on word of mouth, acquaintances or things like that, and those ideas are ingrained in us, but with other types of more accessible platforms, we have been able to expand and grow our businesses)," said Oscar Luna, owner of The Cleantastic Four and business consultant for small businesses.

Until recently Amado Carbajal, owner of AC Training, a local CPR training company, had not grasped the urgency of regular social media engagement to support his business. With the support from a friend, he increased his Facebook reach from 200 to 2,000 followers in a matter of days.

“(Mi amiga) me dijo que tengo que ser más constante, poner tres publicaciones por semana, el lunes algo nuevo para que la gente se de cuenta de lo que estoy haciendo, los martes información sobre mi negocio, y los jueves remembranzas, para recordar a la gente que ya les di clases… que la gente se de cuenta a qué lugares voy en mis fotos me abre más puertas. (My friend told me that I have to be more constant, post things three times a week, on Monday I post about something new so people know what I am doing, on Tuesday I share information about my business, and on Thursday I post memories of people who already took a class with me ... for people to see the places I go to in my pictures opens up more doors for me)," Carbajal said.

A similar story was shared by Amado Sosa, owner of Masterclean Carpet, who just recently was forced to create a website for his business: “Es un poco difícil entrar al mercado cuando la gente no te conoce, tenia que tener algo más real. Este año apenas puse mi página de internet, la mandé hacer. Es un esfuerzo, hay que hacer el sacrificio para el bien de uno. (It is difficult going into business when people don’t know you, I had to have something more real. This year I barely just created my website, I had it done for me. It takes effort, it’s a sacrifice that one has to make for one’s own good.)"

Lack of understanding and knowledge about supportive formal networks also keeps many Latino businesses from accessing information and resources..

“Not everyone is connected, just the concept of a chamber of commerce is a foreign concept. People do business with each other and have their own networks. Businesses share information with each other, like business practices, (it’s an) informal structure for sharing information,” said Peter Salas, founding member of the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Boulder County.

As with other systems, the commercial infrastructure in the U.S. is mostly unknown to those coming from other countries. Immigrant business owners discover rules that are new to them and many times confusing. “Culturally disconnected business education and training programs can pose an additional obstacle for Latino business owners,” according to an Aspen Institute report on Latino business growth, which calls for responsive models of education and training to unleash the potential for these businesses.

Salas added that accurate data on the presence and impact of Latino business is scarce.“That’s the million-dollar question: How many are there? Who are they? Where are they? One of the shortcomings of the system is that the data doesn’t exist for businesses that aren’t white ... nobody is collecting this data and limits our ability to access businesses to make things happen.”

It is not all negatives though; there are hidden opportunities in the way Latinos already conduct business.

“Todos los días desde que empezó la pandemia habló con (mis clientes) para ver cómo van, cómo se sienten, empezamos a platicar sobre cómo se adaptan sin trabajo, si tienen alguna necesidad que podamos ayudar… la mayoría vivimos al dia, no tenemos ahorrado un mes o tres meses para estar sin trabajar. (Every day since the pandemic started, I speak with my clients to see how they are doing, how they feel, we talk about how they are adapting to not having jobs, if they have any needs that we can help them with ... most of us live hand-to-mouth and we don’t have enough saved up to go one or three months without a job)," said Yvette Galindo, owner of Noa Noa Fitness Club.

She organized the sponsorship and delivery of 80 pantry baskets and a drive-thru event for Día del Niño to support clients and others in the community.

Sosa has pivoted his business strategy to focus on the customers.

“Cada día pongo imágenes de la compañía, pongo especiales, estoy cobrando algo justo porque la gente no está para gastar mucho. Cada día yo estoy tratando de hacer algo, ir a los restaurantes a hablar con los clientes directamente, me gusta personalmente ir a las oficinas, ir con los dueños y ofrecer mis servicios. Cuando me han dado la oportunidad me he quedado con el negocio. (Every day I post images of my business, I put up special offers, I’m charging what is fair because people cannot spend much. Every day I’m trying to do something, go to restaurants to speak with clients directly, I like going to offices personally, talk with the owners and offer my services. When they have given me a chance, I have kept their business.)"

By shifting their focus, these business owners have seen growth in their businesses and found more community connections. Carbajal is now working with another Latino business to use space for trainings. Luna’s business shifted from a 30% to an 80% social media presence and Galindo has seen a diversity of people seek out her business.

“Because of the current pandemic, this is generating a paradigm shift in our community causing us to see everything in a different light, things we were not quite aware of before … (there’s) a new sensitivity we are all getting from things happening in Minneapolis and across the U.S., an elevated awareness, which helps us make changes,” Cabrera said.