By Marisa Trevino
Sunday, June 24, 2001
Census data indicate that Latina-owned businesses increased by more than 200 percent over a 10-year period. Still, they face problems of financing and acceptance.
DALLAS (WOMENSENEWS)--It's 8 a.m. and for Arcilia Carrasco-Acosta the workday is already several hours old. With her cell phone dangling from her hip, her pager strapped to her belt and her safari-style hat pulled low to shade her eyes from the relentless early morning sun, this Latina is all business.
She has to be. Among the all-male construction crew she has come to inspect, she is known as la señora, la jefa or simply, the boss.
Owner of CARCON Construction company, the 35-year-old mother of two is part of an exploding national trend: More and more Latinas are breaking out of traditional kitchen-bound roles, venturing outside the home and taking the helm of their own businesses--from construction to the arts.
A national survey, "The Spirit of Enterprise: Latina Entrepreneurs in the United States," found that Latina business owners are a rapidly growing business segment. It was conducted by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, sponsored by Wells Fargo and Company and released last fall. Its findings confirm what Latina business owners are finding throughout the country.
"We had seen in looking at business growth data from the Census Bureau that businesses owned by women of color were growing much faster than women-owned firms overall," said Julie Weeks, director of research of the National Foundation of Women Business Owners. "Latinas were among the fastest."
The data show that Latina-owned businesses increased 206 percent from 1987 to 1996, the latest year for which official statistics are available, but observers said the numbers are still increasing rapidly. Still, the banking and business communities still regarded the Latina entrepreneur as a novelty rather than an economic force to be reckoned with, according to Sharon Hidary, executive director of the national foundation.
"So we did the study to give voice and visibility both to the accomplishments and the challenges faced by the Latina entrepreneur," explained Hidary.
Few know more about that double-edge sword of business entrepreneurship than Amanda Moreno.
Twenty-nine years old and the owner of four businesses in the heart of a revitalized urban arts district here, Moreno relishes the success of her western wear store, beauty shop, coffee house and porcelain doll boutique. Her businesses cater to both Latinos and non-Latinos. Yet, she grimaces when recalling the struggles she's had to endure.
"It wasn't easy opening up my businesses," said Moreno. "Banks and people in general didn't take me seriously. They just thought I was weird or crazy."
That lack of support prompted Moreno to use her own savings and to turn to her family for help in funding the first of her businesses. A common practice among Latina entrepreneurs--and among women in general who have difficulty getting financing.
According to the survey, 55 percent of those interviewed did not borrow any capital to start up their businesses and 23 percent said they borrowed from family members.
Though not seeking commercial loans has advantages, research director Weeks of the National Foundation of Women Business Owners sees it as proof that Latinas are not finding the financial resources they need.
"Though the number and size of Latina-owned businesses had been increasing over the past few years, their access to capital had not improved appreciably over an earlier study we had done," Weeks said in an email interview. "This is a call to action not only for financial institutions, who are missing an increasingly important market, but for Latina business owners, too, who need to learn more about the variety of sources of capital available to them."
It is just such knowledge of financial institutions and instruments that Arcilia Carrasco-Acosta credits with her success in securing contracts for her 8-month-old construction company.
Before striking out on her own, Carrasco-Acosta worked for seven years at a bank on community development projects, and she learned how to structure financial deals and take advantage of available federal funds for business.
"I think women really need to understand the importance of government opportunities," said Carrasco-Acosta. "The fact that I actually got to see projects built with federal funds, and that I understand those mechanics, has been extremely vital to CARCON."
In many cases the type of financial assistance business owners are eligible for depends on the nature of their business.
The survey showed that Latinas were attracted to three main industries: goods-producing, business services and other service industries. Within these groupings, more Latinas were likely to own their own construction companies and professional services. And, despite predictable expectations, only 4 percent of Latinas operated food services or accommodation businesses.
With Latinas entering such non-traditional career fields, it is not uncommon for these women to share stories of having to defend their positions.
"I've encountered a lot of sexual harassment and negative comments, more from Latinos than other men," admitted Amanda Moreno. "They still have that cave man mentality. I think it's a culture thing but they have to realize times are changing."
Arcilia Carrasco-Acosta also has felt the welcome mat pulled out from under her.
"I haven't had any adverse reaction to being Latina, but the discrimination I have felt since being in the business has come from other subcontractors who are out on the job site too."
In fact, while being interviewed, a security guard patrolling the construction site stopped and asked Carrasco-Acosta if she needed help. When she replied she was a contractor, instead of taking her word and leaving immediately, he stayed until he was satisfied she was telling the truth.
"I get that all the time," declared Carrasco-Acosta, exasperated as the guard finally drove off.
However, some Latinas have even felt unwelcome by the one entity that is supposed to be color- and gender-blind--the government.
Aida Alvarez, former director of the Small Business Administration in the Clinton administration was the first Latina to hold the position and she remembered being surprised that Latino and Latina business owners felt unwelcome.
"I heard on many of my trips that there were still a lot of folks who felt that they were not welcome," said Alvarez. "They felt government wasn't interested in helping them, there was too much red tape and there was nothing there for them. Because of that, I was constantly letting my people know to let people know that they were welcome."
As part of that welcoming effort, Alvarez made sure that materials were translated into Spanish.
"English is the first language of this country, and if you're going to do business here, then ultimately you need to do business in English," said Alvarez. "But by having Spanish language materials, not only is it a signal to people that they are welcome, it also helps to make certain concepts clearer if English is not their first language."
However, the survey found that 54 percent of Latina entrepreneurs did consider English their first language, while the majority of the entrepreneurs described themselves as first, second or third generation United States residents.
Given their remarkable success despite both gender and ethnic bias, experts agree that Latinas are a segment to monitor.
"I think it's important to revisit this because we always need to measure how well we are doing and how much farther we have to go," said Executive Director Hidary of the National Foundation of Women Business Owners. "By doing that we continue to give the Latinas the voice, the visibility and the clout that will make a difference for them."
Marisa Trevino is a free-lance writer in Dallas, covering Latina issues. She is a regular commentator for public radio.
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