Latino entrepreneurs gain ground in local business community

BIG DREAMS: Adriana Chavela, publisher of the Spanish lifestyle magazine Hola Carolina, says, “The American dream is alive and well within the Western North Carolina Latino community." Photo courtesy of Chavela

“It is extremely difficult to acquire financing when you are a single mom with no money and no job, so I bootstrapped my business,” says Adriana Chavela, who launched Hola Carolina, a bimonthly Spanish-language magazine, in 2015 with more determination than capital. “With my last $200, I printed an eight-page media kit and started knocking on doors.”

Today, the Asheville-based publication has a steady readership and stable advertising revenue. The key was being extremely smart with the little money she had.

“It requires strict discipline on cash flow, managing costs very closely, and trying to get the company up and running as cheaply as possible,” she explains. “Without any debt repayments or obligations to shareholders, I can afford to be more flexible with my ideas. I now have about two years of solid financials, proof of concept and evidence of demand. I’m in a better position to seek traditional bank or SBA loans at more favorable rates.”

Chavela is part of the Asheville area’s expanding community of Hispanic and Latino entrepreneurs. According to census data, Hispanics account for 6.5 percent of Buncombe County’s population and own more than 2 percent of its businesses (605 out of 28,498 registered businesses in 2012). In comparison, African-Americans (6.5 percent of the county’s population) own 858 businesses (3 percent), and Asians (1.2 percent of the population) own 459 local businesses (1.6 percent).

‘Con dinero baila el perro’
(With money, the dog dances.)

Although the overall numbers are still relatively small, there’s a growing desire in the local Hispanic community to own a business. Accordingly, Mountain BizWorks is now offering classes conducted in Spanish and designed to help potential business owners navigate the American entrepreneurial landscape. The local nonprofit also makes loans to promising startups and existing enterprises.

“Many Latinos know how to run a business, but we often have to teach them things like how you build a cash projection, profit-and-loss statements, those kinds of financial things,” notes Executive Director Patrick Fitzsimmons.

Rosanna Mulcahy, the local nonprofit’s Latino program coordinator, says the community has great potential that just needs to be developed. To that end, she holds workshops on marketing and the various legal issues business owners need to be aware of. “Not only do we teach them the skills to run their business, but since I’m also a lender, we’ll be getting them loan-ready in case they were to need a loan from us,” she explains.

The city of Asheville spends millions of dollars annually on contractors and specifically tries to find minority-owned businesses to work with. In the past, the focus was more on enterprises owned by women and African-Americans, but Brenda Mills, an economic development specialist with the city, says she’s seeing more Hispanic-owned businesses getting involved. “For example, there was a Hispanic prime contractor, and out of that grew another Hispanic business. The other gentleman learned from him, started small and grew another business. Now he’s bidding on contracts,” she says.

In the 2009-10 fiscal year, Asheville reported spending a mere $380 on general service contracts with Hispanic-, Asian- and Native American-owned businesses (the city groups these three minorities together in its reports). In FY 2013-14, the same group received a total of $203,787 in general service and construction work contracts, and the following year, the total for the group was $298,893.

Later this year, notes Mills, the city will be conducting “a disparity study that looks at contracting practices: where we buy from, what businesses tend to get these contracts, what type of contracts we put out, what kind of marketing do we do. And it will tell us what we can do to target minority businesses.”

‘Agua blanda en piedra dura, tanto cavadura continua gotera cava la piedra’
(Soft water can wear away hard stone.)

Even without city contracts, however, many Hispanic-owned businesses are thriving.

Maria Soto has been helping grow Tienda Los Nenes for the past six years. Her husband, Luis Manuel Prieto, grew up working in his family’s bakery, and she helped manage her own family’s business, so when the opportunity to buy a bakery presented itself, it was a chance to combine their respective skill sets. Renaming an existing West Asheville business, they’ve expanded it into a grocery store with a staffed meat counter and added a Hendersonville location.

It wasn’t easy, however. “Because we were so young, people did not see us as having experience,” Soto explains. “The hard part was to get a loan and convince people we were ready.” The first year, they used family money; later, a loan from Mountain BizWorks enabled Los Nenes to grow.

Support can also come in unexpected ways. Soto says the tienda has a lot of Eastern European customers who appreciate the quality and good value of their bread, noting that being in the same shopping plaza as the Euromarket has fostered cross-pollination.

“Often with minority communities,” notes Fitzsimmons, “they start a businesses and build an economic fortification by catering to each other. As the business gets stronger, they start branching out beyond the community. It might be they open a taqueria originally serving their neighbors and families, but pretty soon the rest of us discover we like tacos, and then we’re all going to the taqueria.” It’s analogous to what happened with Chinatowns in big cities, he points out, which “were basically there to serve each other, but now they’re big tourist destinations.”

Chavela, however, says every business needs to recognize Hispanics as potential customers. “The Latino consumer is a modern marketer’s dream,” she maintains. “As the influence of Latino culture grows, it is clear that marketers must make drastic shifts. Hola Carolina gives businesses an unmatched perspective about the Latino community, intimately connecting marketers to this highly coveted demographic. It’s about inclusion, not segmentation.”

At the national level, she points out, “Latinos already enjoy $1.5 trillion in annual purchasing power. That number has been growing much more quickly than the purchasing power of the general U.S. population — 70 percent more quickly over the last 25 years.”

Maria Soto, along with her husband and daughter, started Los Nenes six years ago in West Asheville. They expanded the store from a bakery to include a grocery store and a butcher and recently opened a second location in Hendersonville.
GROWING A BUSINESS: Maria Soto and husband Luis Manuel Prieto launched Tienda Los Nenes six years ago. They expanded an existing West Asheville  bakery into a grocery store with a butcher counter and recently opened a second location in Hendersonville.

‘A mal tiempo, buena cara’
(In bad times, keep a good face.)

Amid such successes, however, there are still struggles. Luciel Cano started Mountain View Stone Works in April. With Mulcahy interpreting, Cano says he wants “to learn better English to get more clients, because then I can hire at least three more people.” Most of his clients don’t speak Spanish, and he knows he’s got to make learning English a priority.

“It’s hard,” Cano says, in English. “I can understand, but there are times when I need to talk.”

Watching other Hispanic businesses achieve success is a strong motivator, as is the opportunity to grow into the role of business owner. “I know the work, but opening a business is taking me on a path I’ve never been down. I feel nervous but excited: It’s a new challenge,” Mulcahy translates.

Cano is not alone in grappling with the language barrier. The bakery’s previous owners, notes Soto, “did not speak English. Our employees are bilingual and some trilingual, so we can express what we have to offer and all the products we have.”

Cultural stereotypes also loom large. Soto says she sometimes hears complaints that Latino businesses don’t operate within the letter of the law. “We do. We always get information about new codes, everything we need to do so we can abide by the law of the community,” she explains.

Chavela, meanwhile, says, “Our unsettled politics lead the news today, fueling misconceptions about Latinos.” But at the end of the day, she’s just another business owner. “I face the same barriers as any entrepreneur: lack of financing, competition, rapid growth, adding talent. If you’re waiting until you know everything about running a business, you’ll never do anything.”

And for many budding entrepreneurs, the chance to prosper overshadows every hurdle. Asheville “is a good place to start a business,” says Cano with Mulcahy translating. “I’ve seen Latino businesses start small and get bigger. I know where I want to be three years from now.”

Ultimately, the foundation of these businesses’ success is the same as it is for any other. “We grow fast; we work for it. It seems like we have a bunch of small Latino businesses in Asheville that are growing,” says Soto.

A strong sense of community, notes Chavela, is helping fuel that growth. “Latino entrepreneurism is often intertwined with family as well as extended community. Not only do we often market effectively within our ethnic market segment, we often hire from within the community and patronize other Latino-owned businesses.” And while the kinds of businesses Latinos own and operate vary, the motivation is the same, Mulcahy maintains. “They’ve taken steps to come to this country because they want a better life. They’re not here to take advantage of any system — they’re here because they want to do better for their family and future generations.”

Mills agrees. Latinos, she says, “want to buy into that American dream that we all want to buy into.”

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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