By Michael Bradley
Special to Delaware Business Times
In 2014, Andy and Orfania Mesa started their restaurant in Wilmington because they missed the Dominican food they had enjoyed in their homeland and in New York, where they had immigrated. What started as a small concern that sold sweet confections blossomed into a thriving eatery that served rice and beans, plantains, empanadas and stews made with meat, chicken and beef. Things were going well for the Mesas.
But they wanted more.
As we all know, more costs money, but the big banks weren’t too keen on giving the Mesas a loan. The Mesas had worked hard to make the restaurant look good, renovating the floors and walls after hours. Pedro Viera Jr., their personal banker at PNC, wanted to help, so he put the Mesas in touch with Lola Campos.
He knew that Campos could help with the financing, but he didn’t realize that helping the Mesas secure a loan would end up impacting the whole street. Campos, a program director for the Hispanic Business Development Program at the First State Community Loan Fund, helped the Mesas — who speak very little English — fill out a loan application and navigate the process. As a result of the loan from the First State fund, the Mesas now own the building, live in one of the two apartments on the second floor and are renovating the second to rent.
“The loan not only transformed the business but also the block,” Campos said. “Because they bought
the building, more people are coming to the street, and some of the people who were doing wrong things there moved out.”
Things are going so well for the Mesas that they have turned the building next to their restaurant into a bodega, using the money they have earned running Tropicalia to finance the new venture.
Throughout Delaware, Hispanics like the Mesas are trying to launch businesses that will bring them prosperity and help their families become more secure in the United States. Organizations like the HBDP are providing support of all kinds to those who want to start commercial concerns, as well as those who are already underway but who could use some additional expertise. They assist in navigating many parts of the process and help them overcome cultural roadblocks, language barriers and literacy concerns, lack of business acumen and a variety of other areas that could prevent fledgling companies from succeeding.
“A lot of people start businesses, but they don’t do it in the right ways,” said Dr. Jorge Ribas, president and CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not easy for anyone to start a business, but it can be harder for Hispanics.
“We work with banks in Delaware to tell them the importance of making loans available to help businesses succeed. Access to capital is a very important part of what we do.”
Jose Somalo is the owner of Hoy in Delaware, a Spanish-language monthly newspaper that covers issues that concern Hispanics throughout Delaware. He started the publication 21 years ago and reports a circulation of 9,000 and a robust Facebook presence, which allows him to reach the community on a more regular basis. Somalo is also a counselor for the Small Business Development Center, which is part of the University of Delaware.
Somalo cites the language barrier as a big reason Hispanics start their own businesses. Because they aren’t fluent in English or confident in their ability to speak it while working for someone else, they go out on their own, hoping to build a base of success within their immediate communities and then grow outward.
“They don’t have the language skills to navigate the permits and other forms necessary to open a business,” Somalo said.
Organizations like the HBDP, the Hispanic Chamber and the Small Business Development Center can provide early support for businesses, but once they are running, there is more to do that is specific to the type of concern they are operating. Restaurants are the most popular businesses for Hispanics to open, with grocery stores, painting and construction, janitorial and landscaping other areas of interest.
It’s one thing to help with the set-up and quite another to have the expertise to help with the day-to-day challenges. That’s why Campos puts many of her clients in touch with mentors who can help a fledgling business stand on sturdy ground. Two women, sisters, with whom she has worked will be starting a janitorial company in the spring. Campos was able to help them with the process of getting the business off the ground, but she wasn’t familiar with the vagaries of the day-to-day operations. So, she partnered them with a mentor who was able to help them handle the details.
“They know how to do the job, but they don’t know how to be entrepreneurs,” Campos said. “The mentor was able to teach them how to open a business account with a local bank, which taxes need to be paid, how to market themselves and how to put together a business plan.”
There are cultural aspects to be considered, too. The word “Hispanic” can be used as a catchall category, but there are more than 20 different nationalities that qualify for that designation. People from Mexico have a different outlook than those from Guatemala. Therefore, there must be a sensitivity to that.
Javier Torrijos is the chair of the Delaware Hispanic Commission and has partnered with Stand By Me, an organization started by Mary DuPont, Delaware’s Director of Financial Empowerment to connect Hispanic businesspeople with those who can assist them. “We are trying to break down cultural barriers,” Torrijos said. The Commission has also helped connect Latinos with a variety of state agencies that can provide assistance. Often, because of the language barrier and cultural differences, people who want to help can’t step in.
“Hispanics are an entrepreneurial community,” Torrijos said. “We love to be independent. We love to start businesses. We love to contribute.”
And, like the Mesas, thrive.