NH nonprofit aims to bridge capital and network gaps among Latino entrepreneurs post-pandemic
Edward Silverio runs a one-person cleaning service in Manchester. The Dominican business owner starts his shift at 9 p.m. after the offices he cleans have closed their doors for the night. He carries his supplies from floor to floor, making sure everything is shining. Silverio says he’s so passionate about his work that he sometimes loses track of time.
“In the end, if you don't like what you do, you won't make it,” he said.
But during the pandemic, Silverio says it was hard to keep going, and he went into deep debt. He probably could have gotten a federal pandemic assistance loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, but like many immigrant business owners, he wasn’t sure how to apply.
Silverio says, at one point, he saw a bank ad offering loans. He thought it would solve his financial problems and filled out a detailed application form. But in the end, he says, he was denied. He didn’t have the paperwork or the credit to get a loan.
“I felt fooled and didn’t know what else to do,” he said.
During this time, he says he would occasionally get offers of help, including from people in his community. In one case, he says, another business owner offered to build his client base in exchange for 40 percent of the revenue. Silverio felt that people were trying to take advantage of him.
“It is unbelievable what can happen when you don’t know how things work,” he said.
Many Latino business owners in New Hampshire struggled to get help during the pandemic, says Rafael Calderon, a community liaison at the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center at UNH. The nonprofit provides guidance, training, and support for small businesses.
Calderon says during the pandemic, other nonprofits offered to help immigrant business owners, but sometimes they would run into language and cultural barriers, or the owners needed extra assistance that the groups couldn’t provide.
“It is not that the organizations are not well-meaning, and it is not that the community does not appreciate it; it is that there is a missing link,” Calderon said.
And Liz Gray, state director at SBDC, says when some organizations didn’t deliver the promised help, it generated resentment and mistrust.
“Latino community members have seen organizations say they are going to help and that they are excited to be part of the community,” she said. “[But some] have fizzled out and disappeared,”
Calderon says this was a problem before Covid. Even now, many immigrant owners in New Hampshire are reluctant to seek help.
Calderon was hired a year ago as part of SBDC’s inclusivity commitment program, working with business owners of color primarily in Nashua and Manchester. He says he builds trust by contacting immigrant owners in their communities, often scheduling meetings at local Latino restaurants. He offers to connect them with free services, such as training on how to get a bank loan. And he speaks to them in Spanish, if that’s what they prefer.
Calderon says he tells his clients that many organizations in New Hampshire are offering good economic and training resources for them. But he says for some immigrant owners; it’s all unfamiliar because they often don’t have these types of programs back home.
“We don’t see ourselves walking into a room where nobody looks like us, and they have a wealth of information, but we feel out of place because we are not used to seeing that,” Calderon said. “Then those services, as amazing as they are, go without being used.”
Gray, of SBDC, says in New Hampshire, nonprofit programs are vital to spreading knowledge about resources to immigrant communities. The organization works closely with groups in Manchester and Nashua, the two cities with the largest Latino populations in the state, to connect people with economic development offices.
Neither city tracks demographic data for businesses applying for programs and grants. But Erik Lesniak, business liaison at the Manchester Economic Development Office, says they are looking into collecting demographic information to serve the community better. It would allow them to “identify different opportunities for grants and funding and measure growth,” he said. “Without data, we know very little.”
In his work for SBDC, Calderon says he’s connected with about 100 business owners of color — everything from plumbers and podcasters to barbers and childcare providers.
Silverio, the owner of Bravo Cleaning Services, says SBDC helped him build a website and a logo. It also provided financial guidance. And most importantly, it helped him obtain a $15,000 loan through KIVA, an international nonprofit that uses crowdfunding to provide loans for low-income entrepreneurs in 80 countries.
“[SBDC] made me fall in love with them,” Silverio said. He is now spreading the word to family and friends about these opportunities.
Calderon says he thinks the pandemic has highlighted how the Latino community in New Hampshire could benefit from being more united so they can help each other.
Coleen Isla Mateo, a Dominican-American restaurant owner in Nashua, says she knew about the power of a community network even before SBDC helped her apply for a grant to expand her business.
When the pandemic hit, she stopped serving customers in her Tropical Point restaurant and started selling her food using Uber and Grubhub. But she says many other Latino restaurant owners in her neighborhood were unfamiliar with those apps. So she created a support group to share information to help keep their businesses going.
She would tell her neighbors not to worry: “Tomorrow will be a better day; we will fight.”
Isla Mateo says that sometimes people from the local Latino community don’t feel connected or have problems trusting each other because they come from so many different countries: It’s not one single community, but many. But she says it is important that people know they’re not alone.
She is now collaborating with SBDC to spread the word to other Latino business owners that reliable resources are available in their language and that it is okay to reach out for help.