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Back in Business

Arlington workshops help Hispanics overcome challenges and improve their companies’ prospects

Ever since Ronald Lembi opened his cleaning service in Alexandria six months ago, he has dreamed of expanding the operation into Arlington. But his English skills are rudimentary and he has struggled to identify potential funding sources and experienced difficulty navigating the county's regulatory maze.

So last weekend Lembi hunkered down at the offices of the Arlington Economic Development (AED) department with a dozen other Spanish speakers, for an intensive session of Spanish language workshops designed to give nascent entrepreneurs the tools necessary to start or enlarge their businesses. “Bizlaunch Bootcamp en Espanol” put its participants through 12 hours of meticulous seminars on writing business plans, developing market strategies and securing financing options.

“I want to see what I can do to expand the business,” said Lembi, 38, who moved from Peru to Alexandria two years ago and preferred to speak through a translator. “Here I am learning how to market the services and better meet the needs of the customer. This is helping me find the right direction for my business.”

Throughout Arlington, Hispanic businesses are flourishing, as recent immigrants and first generation citizens cater to both the region’s burgeoning Latino population and the wider English-speaking community. Hispanics make up 20 percent of Arlington residents and as of 2003, there were 1,353 Hispanic-owned businesses.

Yet many Hispanics, like Lembi, are stymied in their quest to become entrepreneurs or advance their fledgling companies. Besides facing the same stumbling blocks that challenge every budding salesman, they are further constrained by language barriers and unfamiliar customs and business practices.

“We think we can create a business like we did back home,” said Catalina Ford, a business development specialist for the Greater Washington Ibero American Chamber of Commerce. “We’re not used to the American way of structuring and creating business plans. Many Hispanics don’t know where to start or who to turn to for help.”

BIZLAUNCH BEGAN IN 2002 as an English-language program to aid small business owners by offering seminars, one-on-one counseling sessions and research forums. By the end of 2004, 4,500 entrepreneurs had completed one of 92 free workshops, said Tara Miles, manager for business development for AED.

Many of those partaking in Bizlaunch programs had a basic concept of the type of businesses they wanted to open, but didn’t grasp fundamental tasks, such as finding the best location for a store or the proper advertising mediums.

“Most people who start businesses have great ideas but don’t have a strategy to make it successful,” Miles said. “We are providing the proper tools to get them started.”

The AED heard from members of the Hispanic community that similar instruction in Spanish was desperately needed. The first Spanish language workshop was offered in May 2004 and 633 Spanish speakers have completed Bizlaunch programs since. The county government allocated $45,000 to AED to help defray the costs and publicize the program, Miles said. AED offered its first condensed Spanish “Bootcamp,” which ran on Friday and Saturday of last week.

The majority of the participants at the “Bootcamp” spoke only halting English and most had cautionary tales of previous attempts to open businesses in Arlington and around the greater metropolitan area.

Juan Reyes, who emigrated from El Salvador a decade ago, said he endured “thousands” of unexpected setbacks when he opened a construction company in Arlington in 2001. Formal business contracts were an alien concept to him at the time and he was not paid for several jobs during the initial months of operation.

Reyes’ story is a familiar one for recent immigrants trying to establish their first business ventures. There are myriad challenges they must overcome to become part of the 15 percent of companies that survive more than five years.

Many Latin American countries do not possess the same stringent licensing standards as are enforced in the United States.

“At home they can go to any corner and say ‘I’m here and open for business’” said Joyce Means, a business development specialist with the Small Business Administration, who gave the keynote address at the “Bootcamp.” “Here there are so many state and county requirements that many don’t know about.”

Financial planning was one of the most thorough courses at the seminar. In Central and South America, many people opening a new business will borrow money from family or friends instead of banks, Means said.

NEW IMMIGRANTS are often unaware of the different funding options available and often don’t differentiate between personal and business accounts. This can cause a downturn in business to precipitate into a personal financial crisis, Means said.

Hispanic companies need to rely less on word-of-mouth to promote their services and must expand beyond Spanish-language media if they want to prosper, Means said. The workshop on marketing was well attended, as participants were taught how to effectively target advertising toward their niche markets.

“These people need a little help to understand the reality of the business world,” said Guillermo Umerez, who taught the marketing seminar. “We’re giving them the foundation and information they need and showing them it is possible.”

One of the greatest hurdles for recent immigrants who want to open a business is the language barrier. The inability to speak fluent English can drive many potential customers away. Ford, of the Ibero chamber of commerce, is concerned too many Hispanic entrepreneurs are content interacting only with their Spanish speaking clientele and won’t match their potential unless they commit themselves to improving their English.

Reyes learned the American business system the hard way during his construction company’s first years. Now he has 18 employees, and the business is so lucrative that he is interested in opening a cleaning service. The “Bootcamp” seminars taught him how to lower his operating costs, maintain the loyalty of customers and prepare contracts ahead of time, he said.

“Before I wasn’t that familiar with what needed to be done,” said Reyes. “This will help save me a lot of money.”