Barriers to entry for Spanish-speaking business owners and hopefuls prevent many from ever getting started, but Lowcountry Local First (LLF) is working to help eliminate some of those stumbling blocks.
LLF’s Community Business Academy, a part of the organization’s Good Enterprises Initiative, graduated its first Spanish Business Academy class earlier this year and is getting ready for its next instruction period this fall.
“For the Latinx community, this is way past due,” said program director Raquel Padgett. “There’s a lot of inequity here, and we want to remedy that and make sure that the Latinx business community knows they are absolutely more than welcome here with LLF and Good Enterprises and that we will support their businesses to the fullest, just like we do with any other business.”
Good Enterprises launched in 2019, but after the first few instruction periods, organizers saw many of the students were learning a new language alongside new business practices. Two of these students, Diana Saillant and Nilsy Rapalo, got involved soon after graduation.
“It was a great opportunity because we have a lot of great people doing business in the area without any real training; they’re just good at what they do,” Rapalo told the City Paper. “But now we have this great opportunity for them to learn everything in Spanish.
“In the beginning, you’re trying to learn all this new material — which is a challenge in itself — and learning it in a different language only creates more barriers,” she said. “It’s about closing that gap, providing accommodations and creating access to education.”
The team held its first bilingual graduation May 25, with slides in Spanish and English translations when necessary.
“It really helped me understand what it feels like to sit on the other side of the English language,” Padgett said. “It was such a beautiful ceremony.”
Other advocacy groups throughout the city that deal specifically with Spanish-speakers have seen similar inequities.
“These immigrants come here, and they want to work, but we’ve put these roadblocks in front of them,” said Charleston Hispanic Association CFO Enrique Grace. “Education is key here — getting everyone on the same playing field. However you can do that is wonderful.”
Jordan Amaker said she’s seen the need the need for this type of program during her time as LLF’s communications director.
“We continue to advocate for every local municipality in our region to at least offer their business license and other paperwork in Spanish — if not have someone on the staff who is bilingual,” she said. “It’s astonishing how few do. Most of our local banks don’t have many resources available in Spanish either.”
According to Grace, that leads many to going about starting their business the wrong way.
“They aren’t getting their business licenses or tax IDs, and a little bit of that is probably that they don’t know how,” he said. “I see reports all the time about how contractors aren’t even registered properly, so there has to be something out there that shows people the right way to do things.”
That’s where La Academia comes in.
“We’ve learned a lot over the last year in terms of the progress needed to make starting and growing a successful local business here possible for all people,” Amaker said.
And, Padgett explained, it’s not that they offer special or more resources to Spanish speakers — they merely give them equal access to the same resources everyone else has. “La Academia is the exact same program as the Community Business Academy, just in the Spanish language,” she said.
The curriculum used in the academy is used throughout the country and was even endorsed by former President Barack Obama. Participants take a 12-week course first which breaks down everything from understanding finances and cash flow to break-even points.
“We teach you everything you need to know to start a business or enhance your existing business,” Padgett said. “It really doesn’t matter where you are in that process, there’s always more you can do and learn.”
It’s designed so that by the time students complete the first 12 classes, held once a week, the majority of their business plans are in place if they didn’t have one already.
“What this provides for our participants is intellectual, social and financial capital,” Padgett said. “Those are the three pillars that we stand on — that any business stands on — to be successful.”
And it’s not just the lessons that are taken away.
“I’m not just a trainer from New Jersey that you don’t know or connect with,” Rapalo said. “I am a part of this community, saying ‘I did it, I took the class, and you can do it too.’ It creates that sense of community, whether the classes are online or in-person, and that’s essential for any business because it’s the foundation for networking.”