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Support For Black And Latinx Entrepreneurs In San Antonio

Caroline Tien San Antonio Express-News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Caroline Tien reports, the "Embracing Entrepreneurial Equity Program" was developed in response to the widespread push for social reform in summer 2020. The program is a 10-week accelerator that provides participants with customized one-on-one coaching, business organization referrals, entrepreneurship training and technical assistance.

San Antonio

Despite her passion for cooking, Tia Rodriguez never thought she'd end up opening her own restaurant.

"I had zero dreams of becoming a restaurateur," she said of her early ambitions.

But a radical diet change brought on by a health scare in 2016 started a chain of events that persuaded Rodriguez to reconsider. While it's only providing catering services at the moment, her "plant-based eatery," Urban Soul, will celebrate its second anniversary in November.

Rodriguez is one of 10 local entrepreneurs out of 200 applicants chosen to participate in the inaugural Embracing Entrepreneurial Equity program, a collaboration between the city of San Antonio and the nonprofit Maestro Entrepreneur Center. Over the next few months, she will be taught the basics of owning and operating an economically viable business: forming a legal entity, developing a marketing strategy, cultivating a relationship with a banker and more.

Perhaps best of all, at the end of the program she will present her pitch to become eligible for a $20,000 grant from the city. If successful, Rodriguez plans to channel the funds into establishing a brick-and-mortar location downtown.

In 2016, Rodriguez went to the doctor and was told that she "needed to make a change" or else. She was pre-diabetic and suffering from fibroids and depression at the time.

She went home, did some research on the food industry and decided to begin following a vegan diet. However, her new lifestyle limited her ability to eat the dishes she enjoyed most. "There were no options locally here. I had to go to Houston to get certain things, like comfort foods, things like that," she said.

So, taking matters into her own hands, Rodriguez decided to start a restaurant that would specialize in putting an animal product-free spin on Hispanic and Black American cuisine.

However, Rodriguez soon found herself in over her head.

"I was not prepared at all for the magnitude of what goes on in the restaurant industry," she said. "We were constantly understaffed. There were just two of us" — Rodriguez herself and her prep cook and "other half," Vince — "and we were wearing every single hat for the entire time ... We would have a line and it would just be me and Vince running back and forth from the kitchen, answering phones, taking orders, cooking, serving food. It was insane."

Developed in response to the widespread push for social reform in summer 2020, Embracing Entrepreneurial Equity is a 10-week accelerator that provides participants with customized one-on-one coaching, business organization referrals, entrepreneurship training and technical assistance.

It is intended to empower women and people of color to "pursue their entrepreneurial dreams," said Ana Bradshaw, the assistant director of the city's economic development department. Entrepreneurs of color encounter more barriers to success than most, according to a 2020 study of San Antonio and Bexar County's small business ecosystem. Funded by the investment bank J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and conducted by the national consultants Next Street and Common Future, the study found Black and Latinx residents owned a disproportionately small share of local businesses — only 2% and 24%, respectively.

The study found Black- and Latinx-owned businesses made less money and hired fewer employees than white-owned businesses did — gaps that only widened in response to the sweeping, devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"While our program did not exclude any business owners, it had a targeted focus on Black and Latinx entrepreneurs to start to address some of those historic disparities," Bradshaw said, later adding, "It was really about providing those opportunities for communities that haven't always had them."

In keeping with that mission, the cohort consists entirely of such individuals, all but one of whom are female. Their interests are as diverse as their backgrounds. Belinda Grace Torres runs a company that assists senior citizens with tasks such as shopping and home organization. Darronnette Curtis is developing a vegan and cruelty-free cosmetics brand called LXVE MXFFIN. Rebecca Steele and Kristen Martinelli own a business that sells a range of horticultural products and services. Yonatan Medhin co-founded a startup that specializes in transforming spent grain, a byproduct of the beer-brewing process, into keto flour.

Like Rodriguez, Magdalena "Maggie" Ortiz hopes to parlay her culinary skills into an income stream. Her friends and family members have long raved about her signature salsa, a preservative-free blend of oil, spices, tomatoes and jalapeño peppers that Ortiz, who speaks English as a second language, describes as "very healthy."

"I done it for many, many, many people by request because they just loved it. For a few years, I used to give it as a Christmas gift to family members, to friends," she said.

Mild rather than hot, the salsa, which Ortiz's friends currently call "Maggie sauce," is orange and peppered throughout with tiny emerald flecks. Personally, Ortiz likes to pair it with over-easy eggs.

Ortiz, 65, was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, the capital of the northeastern state of Nuevo León. When she was 17, she moved to San Antonio with her mother, stepfather, and sisters and became a U.S. citizen around 1982. Childhood experiences with hunger instilled in her a profound appreciation for the art of cooking.

"From a very early age, to me, the food was a blessing, so I never understood why people don't like to cook it," she said.

Shortly after she immigrated to the U.S., Ortiz began developing what would eventually become "Maggie sauce." Multiple trials and errors ensued, but she knew her hard work had paid off when she brought a sample to a potluck and was bombarded with rave reviews.

Urged on by friends and acquaintances, Ortiz thought about selling her salsa when her three children were small but had neither the time nor the means. However, empty-nesting has freed up her schedule. Ortiz hopes to begin supplying it to local businesses. She'd like to provide minor catering services on the side, too.

But Ortiz knows she can only do so much from the cozy, family kitchen in Old Sky Harbor. Consequently, she plans to purchase commercial blenders and rent a space with the $20,000 investment from the city. If the company isn't successful, she'll take it on the chin. For Ortiz, cooking is fundamentally a labor of love rather than a commercial venture.

"The goal, for me, is to have some extra income but at the same time enjoy doing it," she said.

During the first year of the pandemic, around 800,000 establishments nationwide went out of business, around 200,000 more than in previous years, according to an April 2021 study by economists on the Federal Reserve Board.

Nearly a year after the first vaccines hit the market, some big cities are rapidly bouncing back. However, San Antonio is not one of them. In a July 2021 study that ranked 49 cities by the strength of their economic recovery from the downturn caused by the pandemic, San Antonio came in 38th.

Orientation took place in the Maestro Entrepreneur Center's brand-new coworking space on the morning of September 27. The space, which had officially opened five days before, will be made available to the members of the cohort free of charge for the duration of the program.

In addition to taking weekly classes, they will be assigned individual mentors — experienced entrepreneurs who can provide personalized assistance.

Three weeks in, Rodriguez has already been inspired to start work on an entirely new business plan and redesign Urban Soul's website. The revamp will put an increased emphasis on farm-to-table sourcing — cutting out middlemen such as supermarkets to buy produce directly from local farms.

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