Immigration, business and community: Organizations in Utah assist Hispanic entrepreneurs overcome challenges and find success

Story and photo by MEGAN CHRISTINE

Gladys Gonzalez was forced to leave her home in Colombia due to the unrest in the region in 1991. She was also forced to start her career over when she arrived in the United States.

Many immigrants who come to the U.S. are unable to pursue their previous vocation because barriers exist between foreign academic and professional worlds. They often are obligated to start at the bottom. This is a phenomenon known as brain waste.

Gonzalez, a former bank executive, knew she did not want to start over cleaning banks. She decided to start her own business.

Gonzalez noticed that there was a need for Spanish speakers in Utah to have a sense of community. She decided to create one of the first Spanish newspapers in Utah, Mundo Hispano. Through this process, Gonzalez was required to write a business plan. But, she had no idea where to start.

Pete Suazo, the first Hispanic Utah state senator, assisted Gonzalez with writing that business plan and finding funding. Gonzalez was inspired by his help and thought that everyone should have their own Pete Suazo to help them launch their business.

Suazo died in 2001, but Gonzalez never forgot the kindness he offered her. She wanted to honor his memory by creating similar opportunities for her community. This is where the idea for the Suazo Business Center was born.

The Suazo Business Center launched operations in 2003. It is a nonprofit organization that assists entrepreneurs from underserved, low- to moderate-income communities start and sustain their businesses. These communities include Hispanic, female, and refugee populations.

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Silvia Castro, executive director of the center, noted the uniqueness of the center. “We’re focused on economic development, which isn’t a typical role for a nonprofit,” she said. The reason the organization is a nonprofit is because its clients can’t typically afford a consulting business.

The center offers tools to communities who don’t usually get them, which can in turn end cycles of poverty. “We don’t do it for them, but we teach them how to do it,” Castro said. “To me, that’s our community impact. It goes beyond economics, job creation, sales dollars. I think that when you have a stable family, you have a stable community, and then you look to give back to that community.”

Castro added, “As a nonprofit, we serve the client. We’re looking for the best way to impact the community to grow. It also gives us more credibility within the Hispanic community, that we’re actually out there to help them instead of taking advantage of them.”

There are a variety of reasons these populations may require the center’s help when conducting their business. It is difficult for them to access capital. Regulations are troublesome to understand and almost always changing.

Compliance is one of the main challenges these entrepreneurs face because there are regulations that the Utah Department of Commerce asks business owners to follow that may not be in other states, and that definitely aren’t in other countries.

Business regulations in Utah can change without notification, and it is necessary to keep up with them in order to be compliant and to stay in business. Antonella Packard, the lead business advisor and teacher at the center, said business regulations can be complex. “It’s always going to feel like a stink bomb being dropped in the middle of a room because it’s like ‘Oh, really? I didn’t know that I wasn’t complying, what do I do now?’ Don’t worry, we can help.”

The Suazo Business Center offers a variety of services. It offers six-month-long trainings with either a startup or growth track and one-time workshops that focus on specific topics. The center’s business financing will assist those looking for loans or grants.

The center also does one-on-one business advising where clients are able to have their specific concerns reviewed. These sessions help immigrants and refugees understand how entrepreneurship works in this country. Castro said, “Navigating this government regulation can already be rough. Imagine English is your second language.”

The Suazo Business Center is not the only organization in Utah that is dedicated to helping Hispanic entrepreneurs. The Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is a network of entrepreneurs who seek to increase their business opportunities by providing trainings, scholarships, and market research.

UHCC provides networking avenues, while the center works more on business development. “Our focus is different,” Castro said. “We want to make sure that they (entrepreneurs) have an up and running business first, so our priorities are a little different.”

Alex Guzman, president and CEO of the chamber, said about the center, “We have a very nice and good relationship. We should collaborate and make it a bit better, but in reality, we kind of compete. So rather than help my colleague grow, I’m a little bit selfish. But in business, it helps to be selfish. I’d rather keep that customer for the chamber.”

No matter what organization provides these entrepreneurs with resources to help their businesses grow, it is crucial that it is happening at all. Castro said, “When we talk about the Latino community, it’s always in a negative light. Yet what we see here day in and day out, it’s the things that really should be more out in the public.”