‘Primer Paso’ a first step for Hispanic firms

TOMAS AVILA leads a class at the R.I.
Small Business Development Center to help Hispanics launch or expand their companies. /
TOMAS AVILA leads a class at the R.I. Small Business Development Center to help Hispanics launch or expand their companies. /

Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of Rhode Island entrepreneurs. To get a sense of the issues they face, Providence Business News is following 14 people through a 12-week business planning course for Latino entrepreneurs at the R.I. Small Business Development Center. This is the first article in the series.

Hector Monzon wants to open a Guatemalan restaurant. Marta Alvisuriz wants to start a laundromat. Miriam Garcia wants to open a meat market.

Domingo Tejada wants to start a small construction company. Wilfredo Chirinos owns a computer service and repair company, but he and partner Oscar Mejias want to expand into software development.

Fidel Calcagno sells Web-site domains on the Internet, but he’s looking to purchase a water treatment company. Cesar Cuevas wants to expand his restaurant, Papiajo Frituras.
Each of these entrepreneurs is a participant in a 12-week program held every Wednesday at the R.I. Small Business Development Center, at Johnson & Wales University.

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This is the first year the SBDC will sponsor and facilitate the course, entitled Primer Paso (literally “First Step”) FastTrac, which was developed by the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a national organization that supports the creation of an entrepreneurial society through grants and other programs.

The course “looks at the whole process of starting a business or growing a business,” said Tomas Avila, an SBDC business counselor and course facilitator. “It gives them the opportunity to analyze themselves and the idea they have.”

In 2004, Avila said, he became the first bilingual FastTrac facilitator certified by the Kauffman Foundation. He also was one of the first to translate the course into Spanish two years ago, when it was part of Progreso Latino’s programming.

Since then, he’s followed it to the SBDC, which took over the course because Progreso Latino wanted to focus its attention on other areas, Avila said.

Over the class’s 12 weeks, the 14 participants will each develop a feasibility plan, based on their business idea and research, he said. That will include gathering information for a market analysis, developing pricing strategies, determining financial feasibility through cash-flow analysis, and finalizing a cash-flow report.

The first class was an introduction. “This is your show,” Avila told the class.
“Everybody gets the same information,” he said. “But each feasibility plan ends up different.”

Avila said he often works with participants one-on-one over the course of the 12-week program. And he follows up with them, once it’s over.

“It’s an eye-opener to the business community,” he said. “Many with an existing business, if they [were to] continue the way they are going, would fail.”

It’s important to the state’s federally funded SBDC, which started a Latino initiative four years ago, because the Hispanic population in Rhode Island has grown 27 percent during the past five years, said John Cronin, executive director of the SBDC.

The number of Hispanic-owned businesses has grown even more sharply, by 56.2 percent from 1997 to 2002, to 3,415 statewide with about $200 million in annual sales, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Cronin added that the accountants and bank managers he spoke with during a needs assessment of the SBDC’s services and programs noted they are noticing an emerging community of savvy Latino entrepreneurs, who, because of the language, aren’t getting the business training they need.

Four years ago, the SBDC started offering a 10-week business planning workshop in Spanish, to address the specific challenges Latino business owners face. About 600 entrepreneurs have attended that workshop since its inception. The addition of Primer Paso, Avila said, “brings with it the whole structure, all the steps necessary to do the feasibility plan prior to going into the business plan.”

Avila told the class it is time to disassociate the word “Latino” from their businesses. Many Latino business owners are missing out on 90 percent of the business in Rhode Island, he said, because they migrate to areas dominated by Spanish speakers.

Doing so allows them to cater to the Latinos who last year made up about 10.3 percent of the state’s population, according to Census Bureau estimates. But, Avila said, “They are missing out on opportunities to grow outside the Latino community.”

Luis Rodriguez won’t have any trouble reaching outside the Latino community. He owns Wayland Bakery, in Wayland Square, on the East Side of Providence.

Rodriguez has a business plan in his head, he said, but the day-to-day operations of his bakery have kept him too busy to write it down.

Like many others, he didn’t always own a business. An elementary school in Guatemala, Rodriguez had to find a new career upon moving to the United States about eight years ago, he said.

He said he got involved in the business by working for Daily Bread for about five years, before it folded. He worked his way up to head baker – then, when the opportunity arose to purchase Daily Bread’s Wayland Square bakery, he took it.

Rodriguez said he is taking the class because he wants to learn. “If I want to expand, I’ll need loans,” he explained. And to get loans, he’ll need a business plan.

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