Since launching Energy Efficiencies Solutions (EES) in 2010, Leticia Colón de Mejias has envisioned that her venture would become a thriving business while playing an important role in efforts to mitigate climate change.
In many ways, EES has proven successful in both endeavors. The Windsor-based company, launched with a $25,000 credit loan and its founder’s commitment to environmentalism, has gained industry recognition for customer service and energy cost savings while helping numerous Connecticut customers to convert to a greater reliance on cleaner, renewable energy sources.
Colón has also been an advocate and lobbyist for the industry and environmentalism. — epitomized by her leadership of the ‘Efficiency for All’ movement.
Moreover, Colón herself is the mother of seven children – three adopted. She has sparked an interest in saving the planet among young people through the Green Eco Warriors program and by writing several books with environmental themes and titles such as Pesky Plastic, an Environmental Story, and Dinero the Frog Learns to Save Energy.
“I didn’t want to say to my children I did nothing about climate change and let others do it, Colón said.
Colon also serves on the State Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity, and Opportunity (CWCSEO), where, she said, her background gives her a perspective to “open the eyes” of her colleagues to all the impact” of various issues “to different communities.”
Explains the depth and diversity of her activism, she says, “I love to learn and don’t like to be stagnant.”
Meanwhile, Colón, whose late father was Puerto Rican and of Taino descent, established herself among the nation’s successful Hispanic entrepreneurs. This sector in recent years has demonstrated strong growth, outpacing other groups.
However, this trajectory would suddenly be put on pause in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic brought a huge change in how Americans work and live in what Colón describes as “an apocalyptic world.”
Nationally, the pandemic has hit Hispanic businesses hard, greatly diminishing this sector’s profitability, according to survey data recently published by SCORE, a national network of volunteer expert business mentors.
“Today, 52.8 percent of Hispanic businesses are operating at a loss compared to 29.9 percent pre-COVID,” the SCORE survey found.
Some of the reasons SCORE cites for COVID-19’s adverse impact on Hispanic small businesses are a “lack of childcare, remote work, and direct relationships with those diagnosed with the virus.”
As for the fate of EES and many other Connecticut companies in this time of social distancing and protective face masks, Colón said, “The state shut us down until safety practices were in place,” adding that this was the right course at the time.
The state-imposed shutdown had a hugely disruptive impact on activities that the state deemed “nonessential.” EES and its two dozen employees — sidelined as “partners”, are made up of an array of subcontractors who handle window replacement, plumbing, and heating and cooling mechanical services, electrical work, mold abatement, solar energy, and insulation installation, and other energy auditing and building retrofitting assignments.
“Our industry employs 34,000 people in Connecticut and all went on unemployment,” Colón said.
During her business’s closure, Colón did a lot of research on training and safety strategies. She also worked with the state, with whom she had developed a strong working relationship, notably with Energize CT, other programs that support energy conservation.
Consequently, when Colón was able to relaunch Energy Efficiencies Solutions in July, her company is focused on protecting employees and customers from contagion through strict safety protocols that became integral to every part of its operations.
Besides supplying employees with mandatory safety equipment and garb, including masks, gloves, and full-body Tyvek safety suits, EES maintains a daily log of its sanitizing procedures and required employee temperature checks. The company also supports COVID-19 contact tracing, Colón said.
One of SCORE’s research issues is that Hispanic-owned businesses are more likely to seek, but less likely to receive government funding. This includes the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), and Small Business Administration loans.
In Connecticut, closing this federal funding gap for Hispanic businesses has been a significant priority for the Hartford-based Spanish American Merchants Association.
“Most of our businesses have been affected dramatically during this pandemic,” said Julio Mendoza, executive director of the nonprofit business support organization. “Almost all are operating but at a low percentage of sales compared to before the pandemic.”
Since March, SAMA has helped 800 businesses fill out grant or loan applications, technical assistance, access to the pandemic information, PPE distributions, and other resources, Mendoza said.
SAMA has also participated in different committees with the state, including the Department of Economic and Community Development, HEDCO, the City of Hartford, and others to advocate for various programs to assist Hispanic merchants, Mendoza said.
“There have been different grant programs that some of the merchants have received to stay open but customers are slowly coming in,” he said.
“In our opinion,” the SAMA executive director said, “the State of Connecticut has done a great job in protecting our merchants and customers, as you know these are unprecedented times that take drastic measure.”
Mendoza said that a lot of people are uncomfortable going inside businesses. “That’s why we continue to remind our merchants that providing a safe environment to their customers is extremely important,” Mendoza said.
“We will be offering virtual training for our businesses to step out of the box and start doing online sales, this will be offered to all businesses but more specifically to restaurants and grocery stores,” he said.
Similarly, EES also recognized a need to be pro-active in explaining its safety procedures to customers who are hesitant to have workers come into their homes, some wanting to delay work until next year. “Every day someone calls up to seek assurance,” the CEO said.
EES provides prospective customers with information about its safety features, including extensive details on its website eesgogreen.com. EES also offers customers the option of a free virtual pre-assessment as a prelude to an onsite inspection.
In returning to work, EES was temporarily handicapped by the difficulty of finding Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), Colón said. Eventually, working with a network, she was able to meet her company’s needs and even donate some safety gear to the state.
Sharing is a big part of Colón’s life, which she credits to her growing up in a family with little. “The poor share,” she said, adding that she wants to help low-income families reduce energy waste.
The EES chief executive officer has donated thousands of books to inner-city schools. “These kids don’t have books at home,” she said.
Colón, with her husband Edgardo, has transitioned from the health insurance sector to EES, have expanded their family group beyond their children, who are now aged 11 to 25, having taken in four foster children through the years.
“My mother had a master’s degree in early child care and worked 20 years for the state DCF,” said Colón. “There always children around,” she said.
During her upbringing, split between Connecticut and Florida, Colón benefited from the talents of family members. For instance, she learned how to use various tools and how to garden from an Italian grandfather. She enjoys mowing the lawn because of the sense of accomplishment it imparts, she said.
As a ten-year-old, Colón ventured onto a path of hot coals that were part of a fire-walking program her father and business guru Tony Robbins conceived to encourage non-traditional thinking. “It does change the way you think,” she said.
Her 20-year career with Hartford Health Care nurtured the seeds of Colón’s entrepreneurship and environmentalism, where she learned about climate change, she said.
Colón arrived at Hartford Hospital as a teenage mother with a one-year-old and only a high school diploma and some credits from Manchester Community College. Her initial assignment was to work with a cardiologist.
While she worked her way “up from the bottom,” Colón said, she was constantly learning and enjoying each step up her career ladder.
Colón has nothing but praise for her experience with HHC. “They treated me well and gave a lot to me, including a chance to “learn and learn,” she recalled. She gained experience in research, contract negotiation, and human resources.
She eventually would develop and spearhead HHC’s extensive workforce development program, helping many minority employees advance from entry-level work to college programs. She also taught environmentalism to 120 people and oversaw an English as Second Language and Adult Basic Education courses and promote computer literacy and college-level classes.
This dedication to workforce development has continued and Colón has assisted four former EES employees, all minorities, to start their own energy efficiency businesses. “What is exciting for me is changing lives,” she said.
Looking forward, both Colón and Mendoza of SAMA see a need for additional financial support from the federal government.
“Without a new economic stimulus,” Colón said, “many businesses will go under.” She also said it would greatly sustain her company and others that the PPP loans that small businesses received to maintain employment will be forgiven.
Mendoza said, “We are hoping that Congress passes another relief program to maintain our businesses open since we don’t know what to expect in the coming month,” Mendoza said.
Meanwhile, the woman who walked on hot coals as a child now observes, “We all are on eggshells,” as the COVID-19 pandemic creates an unstable future.
“So far things have gone very well,” Colón said of EES. “We are not up to full speed, but we hope to maintain our trajectory.”