Latinos in the U.S. are significantly underrepresented when it comes to business ownership. While the Census found nearly 19 percent of U.S. residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, they make up just 6 percent of the nation’s business owners.
That worries Harry Hollines.
“Business ownership is one of the key pillars to building wealth and intergenerational wealth,” Hollines said.
Hollines is chief strategy officer for the Latino Leadership Institute, founded in Colorado in 2015 with a mission to identify and elevate Latino leaders. He says whole communities can become more powerful, and its members can address inequalities in their neighborhoods, when more people are able to grow their business ideas.
To do that, LLI is launching a business accelerator serving Latino and other BIPOC entrepreneurs. Hollines and LLI believe Latinos are the catalyst for the future economic vitality of Colorado — and the entire U.S. He said the great paradox is that Latinos are responsible for population growth, but remain largely invisible in leadership positions. This new accelerator, called the Latino Entrepreneur Access Program, or LEAP, is one step towards changing that.
Eleven people, all in Colorado, make up the first cohort. The goal is to connect them with social, technical and financial capital to expand their businesses that range from a digital education platform to a locally sourced food distributor.
Luis Antezana is in LEAP’s first cohort. His organization, Juntos2College, helps DACA recipients apply for work authorizations, and Antezana said the organization is about to hire its first staff member. So far, he’s been the only paid employee, and has relied on volunteer help. Antezana said he is thrilled to officially be a “job creator,” and that he’s excited to be in the LEAP accelerator to overcome obstacles he has faced getting Juntos2College off the ground.
“Being undocumented is one layer,” said Antezana, a native of Bolivia who grew up in Los Angeles. “Coming from a low-income background where nobody in my immediate family really has tremendous knowledge about navigating the entrepreneurship system here in the United States – there’s a lot of layers to this, right?”
He’s looking for guidance from mentors in the program like Eva Padilla, an expert in business loans at the Colorado Enterprise Fund, where she cultivates businesses throughout Southern Colorado from her base in Colorado Springs. Padilla specializes in the numbers and helping entrepreneurs who haven’t traditionally gotten this kind of support find a foothold. She helps them understand what they need to know financially — particularly in their first year of existence.
“How much have you saved up? Do you have a business plan? What are your cash flow projections? So I help keep them accountable to the loan amount that they’re asking for,” Padilla said.
Her help is crucial: The research firm Crunchbase says funding to Latino entrepreneurs has stalled at about 2 percent of overall investment in startups.
“I can't wait to see the results, especially from Luis' business within a year from now,” she said.
LEAP isn’t the only accelerator aimed at BIPOC or Latino founders. Especially following the racial justice protests nationwide in 2020, some mainstays of Silicon Valley and the Colorado start-up world launched programs aimed at making business ownership more representative of the communities they serve. But LEAP is unusual because it’s Latino-led, Padilla said.
Outside of LEAP, she recommends entrepreneurs draw on Colorado’s Small Business Development Centers, which she said are unique nationwide for how they support business owners. She also noted that people without Social Security numbers who want to start a company can get business loans in Colorado.
As he looks to grow his business, Antezana has one especially notable uncertainty hanging over his head: the open court case that could end DACA later this year. Antezana called that outcome a “worst case scenario,” but like any good business person, he is preparing for it. He said Juntos2College is piloting other programs, just in case.
“We're positioned very well to pivot, to ensure that we can fulfill our vision of helping undocumented families,” he said.
With the new accelerator, there’s a lot at stake not just for these businesses, but for the wider U.S. economy as well. Ultimately, the success of Antezana’s business, and the others in LEAP, could play a small but important part in future GDP growth in the U.S., since Latinos account for slightly more than half of U.S. population growth over the last decade, Hollines said.
“Latinos are already a significant part of not only the population, but the workforce. And small business is 45 percent of economic activity. So you need continued growth of small business, which has been the backbone of the United States for decades, if not centuries,” he said. Latino contribution to that needs to be proportionate as the population grows, Hollines added.
LLI plans to make the accelerator a regular part of the services it offers: Hollines said the cohort launching in summer 2022 is just a start. In addition to the difference it could make for businesses and economic activity, Hollines and his LLI colleagues said the accelerator is about proving what’s possible when more people from Latino and BIPOC backgrounds get opportunities to grow their ideas.
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