By Wayne Jebian
A few years ago, big banks may have balked at making a deal with a small, Connecticut business peddling a Puerto Rican seasoning. But now that Connecticut’s Small Business Administration has hired several Latino staff members to connect Hispanic businesses and potential business owners with funding, a local start-up sofrito company stood a chance, and the Latino small business climate is looking up.
Moraima Gutierrez, who recently joined the SBA’s team, recalled the deal where she had to play matchmaker between the East Hartford sofrito business and several lenders, hoping to court one of them into seeing the potential within the Hispanic-based business.
“There’s a local Puerto Rican woman who creates a product called sofrito, which is a seasoning that she creates to make. . . Puerto Rican food,” she said. “So if you said, ‘I need to make a sofrito,’ [Latinos] will completely understand what you’re talking about.”
However, she explained, an ethnic product like sofrito is something banks may not understand well enough to risk a business loan on. That’s where Gutierrez comes in. She was able to convince a microlender, Meriden-based Connecticut Economic Development Fund, to set aside skepticism, take a different view and consider the large, local Puerto Rican market. They ended up striking a deal with the start-up.
“[They] took the risk in helping this woman get the product out of her kitchen and into a small facility in East Hartford where she can mass produce this and distribute it to local supermarkets. So those are risks that microlenders are willing to take to give people the opportunity,” Gutierrez said.
Expanding Latino Influence in the SBA
Gutierrez’s sofrito success story is just one of many in the Hispanic market since the Connecticut District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration revamped its focus on harnessing the power of Latino businesses over the past four years, which has included upping its number of Latino staff members. Three Latinos are recent hires, raising the number of Hispanic staff from one to four, who lend a diversity of experience that allows the office to extend its reach and effectiveness.
First, there was Jessica Rivera, hired by the SBA out of high school 15 years ago, who was recently promoted to Economic Development Specialist. Then came Julio C. Casiano from Sovereign Bank, who today holds the post of Deputy District Director. Next was Gutierrez, a former Telemundo station manager, who now works as Assistant District Director for Economic Development. Finally, Frank Alvarado, a Vietnam veteran and retired Senior NCO of the Air National Guard, came aboard to handle veterans affairs and take charge of the Fairfield county office, which is scheduled to open before the end of summer.
“All four of us are completely bilingual,” said Gutierrez, who is the only non-Puerto Rican of the four, having been born in the United States to Dominican parents. She continued, “One of the SBA’s missions is to serve the under-served communities, who are not, maybe because of language barriers, getting all the information about all of the services and products that SBA offers.”
What the SBA does is help people start up their business, or secure loans if they already are in business. Services include helping repair credit for those who need it, paperwork assistance, avoiding legal hurdles and handling tax issues. The association has been active in seeking out potential and current business owners, canvassing the state to teach people about starting and financing their businesses.
Seeking out Latino businesses
“We’ve taken our show on the road to different cities that have large Hispanic business communities: Danbury, Waterbury, New London, Bridgeport, Stamford,” Gutierrez said. “We’re putting together these five-week workshops, evening workshops, which is easier for a lot of the small business owners.”
“It’s about development of wealth in our communities,” Casiano explained. “I’ve always believed that you can’t save a city just by building housing. You have to bring in businesses; they tend to stabilize a community. If you see a big urban center being built, and you don’t see the small business part of it in there, you’re going to have a problem.”
When people see businesses in Connecticut’s urban centers, they are increasingly likely to see the work of the Small Business Administration, thanks to the way it has developed creative strategies to achieve its mission, rather than being just another loan option for business owners, by diversifying its services, its staff, and its client base.
“In my humble opinion, I think it’s a lot easier today to have an idea, develop a concept, and see it to its fruition, and that’s because I think that in Connecticut, we are becoming a lot more open to diversity, whereas, ten years ago, that wasn’t so much the case,” Gutierrez said.
Contact information for these and all SBA staff members can be found here.
By Wayne Jebian