Hispanic-owned businesses have been rising from the Merrimack Valley’s economic landscape for as long as we can remember. The spirit of entrepreneurship among us is strong, seeded by the values of hard work and dedication passed on to us by our mothers, our fathers and those who came before them.
In the last 10 years, according to a recent study by Stanford University, the number of Hispanic business owners has grown by 34% nationwide, compared to just 1% for all business owners, making Hispanics the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S.
This is despite the disproportionate struggles we face in gaining access to capital and training: opportunities that are critical to creating businesses that are sustainable, profitable and grow over time.
So while Hispanics are opening more and more businesses, those businesses, on the whole, remain small, resulting in fewer sales and lower profits.
A historic income gap and inequitable public policies create additional barriers for Hispanics to acquire wealth.
All of this has been intensified by the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But opportunity is so often born from our greatest struggles.
Our local communities are mobilizing not only to resuscitate the entire small business community – which brings life and vitality to our main streets – but also to help it thrive and become more resilient for the future.
Hispanic small businesses play a huge role in this revitalization of our local economies; our power to create jobs, generate revenue and connect people to new and culturally rich experiences is vast. But our positive impact can only be fully realized when we are empowered to navigate – and become a permanent part of – the system in which business is done.
This starts with organized support for each other.
There is incredible capacity for progress when Hispanic small business owners and entrepreneurs connect to share ideas and resources, talk about the future and seek change together. Education, trust and active collaboration within the broader community are also critical areas to nurture for shared success.
These calls to action have already been taking shape across the Merrimack Valley.
In the last five years alone, EparaTodos -- a nonprofit working to foster inclusive entrepreneurship in underserved communities -- has graduated 132 entrepreneurs from its business accelerator, a year-long intensive program that includes immersive business training, mentorship and access to an extended professional network.
Eighty-two percent of businesses started by these graduates – salons, design/marketing firms, tech companies, cleaning companies, professional services, food businesses and more – were still active prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.
Today, EparaTodos has broadened its reach and impact as part of the MV Small Business Support Coalition, a group of nonprofits, banks, community organizations and more led by the Lawrence Partnership and Essex County Community Foundation.
This coalition has been bringing people together in support of the small business community throughout the pandemic, leveraging the power of the ecosystem we built together in the wake of the gas disaster in 2018.
With a focus on underrepresented business owners, access to capital, technical support, educational trainings, referrals and professional networks, plus advocacy at the state level, are all part of a strategy to support small businesses.
Growing and strengthening this collaboration, and others like it that are emerging across the region, is an imperative action to take for the health of our communities. Intentionally supporting Hispanic business owners, who have so much to offer the larger community, only serves to increase a healthy synergy that benefits us all.
Our communities thrive when we all rise.
So, what can you do?
> Consumers can shop at local, Hispanic-owned businesses for goods, services and more.
> Non-Hispanic small business owners should consider contracting with Hispanic-owned businesses and suppliers.
> Small business owners in the Merrimack Valley can visit MVOpenForBusiness.org to learn about focused programming available through the coalition.
> Advocates and philanthropists who want to get involved in supporting our small business communities can contact EparaTodos, the Lawrence Partnership or ECCF.
We can no longer afford to live in silos. We must be willing to expand our view of what constitutes a community.
Our collective strength lies in our diversity, and when we open our eyes to a shared vision of success, we are empowered, all of us, to help see it through.
Alex Mercedes is an adviser for the Essex County Community Foundation's Resiliency and Innovation Fund for the Merrimack Valley and co-founder of Lawrence-based JBS Corp. Andres Silva is executive director of EparaTodos Lawrence.