Q&A with Kareen Boncales, director of entrepreneurship at Mountain BizWorks

SERVING THE UNDERSERVED: Kareen Boncales, director of entrepreneurship at Mountain BizWorks, stands outside her office. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Many people who volunteer with the Peace Corps consider it a life-defining experience. Kareen Boncales is one of them. She served in Cameroon from 2009-11 in small enterprise development, teaching basic business skills to everyone from farmers to boutique owners.

“I really admired that entrepreneurial spirit of turning challenges into opportunities,” she recalls. “I knew that moving forward, I either wanted to start my own business or continue working with entrepreneurs.”

Boncales, 35, got both her wishes. When she returned to the United States, she started her own business running a blog that sold French beauty and skin care products. That business eventually shuttered, and she began working at a San Francisco organization that provides entrepreneurship training to small-business owners.

Boncales and her husband moved to Asheville in 2018 to be closer to the mountains. She read online that she should “BYOJ” — bring your own job — so she prepared to start another business. But that same year, Mountain BizWorks, a community development financial institution, hired her as a learning services specialist. Today she is the organization’s director of entrepreneurship, bringing her career goals full circle.

Boncales spoke with Xpress about entrepreneurship in Asheville, the challenges that small businesses face and growing up Filipino in a community with few Asians.

Are there many entrepreneurs in Asheville? 

We have to demystify that word “entrepreneur” — it’s become entrenched with this connotation around tech. But entrepreneurship can be the mom and pop shop, Main Street. All the small businesses in town started with a dream, and now they are such an integral part of the community. There’s a real entrepreneurial mecca here in this region.

What makes it possible for entrepreneurs to succeed here? 

There’s a strong entrepreneurial support ecosystem. Mountain BizWorks is an integral part of that. We’ve been supporting businesses for over 30 years, and so many businesses that people love have been in one way or another supported by us, either through our lending or training services. And we have a strong network of community partners: the Business Incubation and Small Business Center at A-B Tech, Western Women’s Business Center, Venture AVL, Hatch AVL.

In 2020, Mountain BizWorks disbursed 1,445 loans and grants totaling $42.2 million. And 80% of people you serve are rural, low-income, women or people of color. Are those two things connected? 

We exist to serve the underserved entrepreneurs. On the learning side, we make our services affordable. We offer financial assistance so people can access our services. We don’t want cost to be a barrier.

On the funding side, we work with people who banks normally wouldn’t be able to work with. Banks require so much history, like having been two years in business or having a history of making revenue, whereas we can support startups  — people who are just coming to us with an idea and we can support them.

Last year, Mountain BizWorks started the Catalyst Fund. What does that aim to accomplish?

After doing a lot of research, focus-group studies and talking with the community, we designed the Catalyst Fund to address the systemic barriers that many entrepreneurs of color face. That can take the form of needing collateral, for example. Or credit history — a really low credit history or even not having any credit history at all. The Catalyst Fund is designed to eliminate or reduce those systemic barriers by waiving those requirements around collateral and credit scores.

What are some of the general obstacles that entrepreneurs in Asheville face? 

The increasing unaffordability of the city and the surrounding areas. As the population grows, the housing supply is not keeping pace. We’ve been hearing that from our entrepreneurs — that unaffordability is impacting their ability not only to grow, but to survive. And commercial space continues to be really expensive.

What would you recommend for people who want to support Western North Carolina entrepreneurs? 

Buy local. Avoid Amazon. As much as possible, I’ll go buy my books from Malaprop’s or my cleaning products from the West Village Market & Deli. It’s expensive, it’s a little more inconvenient, but at the end of the day, you are enriching your local community. The money circulates in the local economy.

What are some of your favorite small businesses in Asheville?

Fleetwood’s — it’s a wedding chapel and a bar. They also have a divorce tunnel, apparently, so you can get divorced for the day and have fun with that and come back and get remarried. It’s uniquely, weirdly Asheville. And OWL Bakery — they really elevate the craft of baking.

You emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines when you were 8 years old. Where did you settle, and what brought you there? 

I moved straight to Sanford, North Carolina. It’s an hour from Raleigh. My mom was a nurse. In the early ’90s, there were agencies recruiting Filipino nurses. She found a job in Sanford and was eventually able to bring over the rest of the family.

Were there many people of color where you grew up?

There weren’t many Asians. Growing up, I would always be the only Asian person in my classes. But over time, there got to be a growing Filipino population there and in the Triangle as well.

Have you been able to connect with a Filipino community in Asheville? 

I haven’t found it. I’m looking! If there is, I’d like to get connected.

We can put that in the piece — if you’re Filipino in Asheville, get in touch!

I definitely got to enjoy that in the Bay Area. That was the only place in America that I really got to feel like I’m just a person, because everybody else looks like me.

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