Building Access, Wealth and Community For All
Data from the 2020 census shows that the only growing population segment in Louisiana is Latinos. Indeed, without the addition of 130,000 Hispanics over the last decade, the state would actually have lost population.
This growth – fueled by both multi-generational families and new arrivals – brings vital benefits for every Louisiana resident, since federal government funding, Congressional representation and other critical resource allocations depend almost entirely on population numbers. Further, Latino businesses and workers are significant drivers of our local economy. For example, one-third of the occupational licenses in Kenner are held by Latino business owners, ranging from gas stations and body shops to medical clinics and accountants.
Yet many Latino entrepreneurs struggle mightily. Access to capital, language barriers, marketing to the general population and more hold many people back.
Stepping in to address these issues is a dynamic nonprofit organization called El Centro. Founder and Executive Director Lindsey Navarro launched El Centro in 2018 after many years of working with small business lender LiftFund. Seed money was provided by the Mexican consulate.
“I realized that there were a lot of people in my community who didn’t qualify for funding,” said Navarro. “I wanted to be a bigger part of the solution.”
The entrepreneurial spirit is strong in this community. “There are lots of informal businesses that are now looking to get formalized and access more opportunities,” said Navarro. “But there are many barriers, starting with cultural barriers. Things are done differently in their countries. Everything is regulated here. There are tax implications in everything they do. We have to start by educating them on what they need to become official.”
El Centro starts by helping business owners with the basics: registering with the Secretary of State, getting a federal tax ID number, getting occupational licenses and other necessary permits, opening bank accounts. But the organization’s services go beyond that into broader areas of financial literacy and building wealth.
“We help them build credit, buy homes, access business loans, and generally understand the American financial system,” explained Nararro. “We also talk about business strategies and marketing. We help them organize their taxes. Ultimately, the goal is to build wealth and community.”
In addition to new enterprises, El Centro also helps established businesses grow, by assisting with things like specialized licenses, employee paperwork and accessing government contracts.
This essential information is imparted via a variety of programs, ranging from one-on-one coaching to workshops to multi-week classes. El Centro’s programming included virtual instruction from the beginning, so pandemic interruptions were fewer than many organizations experienced. “Going virtual has actually increased access,” said Navarro. “People have been really quick to acclimate to it.”
All programs are designed to be interactive, to engage participants and build their ability to communicate in business environments. And all of El Centro’s services are free of charge.
Navarro herself is second-generation American, of Panamanian descent. Growing up in Houma, she was in third grade before she saw another child that looked like her. She knew early on that she wanted to be in the business world.
“My grandparents had a small business in Panama,” she recounted. “My mom was a banker, my dad became an entrepreneur. I was always an entrepreneur.”
Navarro sees a world of opportunity for Latinos in the economy, but also the ongoing deep inequities. “What keeps me motivated is seeing people doing manual jobs who were doctors and accountants in their home countries, but they can’t navigate the bureaucracy here. It just isn’t clear what they need to do.”
She saw how limited the resources for Latino professionals and entrepreneurs were; indeed, the nearest organizations similar to El Centro are in Houston and Birmingham, Alabama. And local governments and institutions provided virtually no help.
“The educated Latino workforce exists,” Navarro stated firmly, “but there is too much living in denial about these population shifts. Acknowledging the situation is the first step, but we have to address it, and that starts with language access.”
Navarro sees her organization adding an advocacy component to its work as it moves forward, with a focus on language access as well as addressing what she termed “insane certification requirements” in Louisiana for many professions.
The latter issue crosses all ethnic lines, and is another example of how actions that help Latino residents and businesses also benefit the rest of the population. In these divisive times, it is useful to remember that while we have many cultures, we are all one community.