Paula Guevara already was familiar with the stress and strain that comes with starting her own business.
Guevara, the co-founder and owner of Paradise Flowers Distribution in South River, seemingly had seen it all while building the company into a $2.5 million business the past 15 years.
Then, she got word in 2021 that the landlord wasn’t renewing her lease — a move that made her race to buy a place of her own for the first time. As any business owner knows, the process isn’t easy. The search, the negotiations, the financing, the paperwork. It’s a full-time job on its own.
Thankfully, before the process was complete, she was able to join the Latina Entrepreneurship Training Series, or LETS, put on by the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.
The eight-week LETS program, funded largely through a grant by Wells Fargo, not only teaches Latina entrepreneurs the principals of accounting and marketing and the importance of networking — and how all of these skills can help your business better qualify for grants and loans — it also teaches leadership and time-management skills.
That’s what saved the day for Guevara.
“It was a very stressful time,” she said. “But the LETS program helped me through it.
“Owners often manage multiple roles — and we think we have to do it all. The program explained to us how to do things more efficiently and how to delegate, so we don’t have to wear so many hats.”
Instead of wondering if her business was going to make it, Guevara started figuring out how Paradise Flowers could make it big.
“It was very detailed and very focused on how to grow,” she said. “It gave us coaching.”
Last week, Guevara cut the ribbon on a new warehouse.
“In the end, everything was better,” she said.
Stories such as Guevara’s never get old for Carlos Medina, the CEO of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber.
Medina, along with Chairman Luis De La Hoz, has transformed the chamber from one based on networking to one focused on economic development of its familia.
Programs such as LETS and the more broadly based Hispanic Entrepreneurship Training Program have helped hundreds of Hispanic entrepreneurs makes their dreams of running their own business a reality.
The LETS program was created with Latinas in mind — and serves a segment of society that is starting more businesses than any other in New Jersey.
“It takes a deep dive into concepts such as accounting and marketing — but it does it with more of a focus on specific hurdles a woman might have,” Medina said. “That’s why approximately 80% of our instructors or subject-matter experts who come in are women. They know what they face.”
And the lessons are not just to help Latina entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground — they are there to help them prepare for three-year, five-year and 10-year milestones, too.
“We have CPAs come in and talk about keeping your books properly and following all of the tax regulations,” Medina said. “It’s easy for a business owner who is starting out to think about not reporting everything. Our experts explain that, down the road, you may want to buy a building or sell your business — and having a strong company is more important than avoiding a little bit of tax.”
Medina said the investment by the Wells Fargo Foundation has helped the Statewide Hispanic Chamber think down the road, too — when it comes to the LETS program.
“There were times when we didn’t know how long these programs would last,” he said. “With Wells, we already have a three-year commitment. So, instead of worrying about where our funding is going to come from next year, we can think about how making next year even better.”
Next year. When you’re starting out, you’re more concerned about next month — or even next week.
The LETS program is there for those who are just looking to just find their footing, too.
Martinez, a clinical care coordinator during the day, said she has seen firsthand the need for healthier drink alternatives. It led her to create Botanical Earth, a concoction of pressed natural juices.
Martinez, who started the company in 2019, said she had a number of starts and stops before the LETS program showed her the way.
“For me, it was extremely beneficial, not only for the information that was given in the classes, but also the access to people who were willing to help,” she said.
Martinez currently is working with the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program to find a company that is able to help her bottle her product more efficiently.
“It wasn’t until the LETS program that I feel like I got the ball rolling,” she said.
Hernandez said LETS helped her find her way, too.
The pandemic slowdown forced her to close her retail shop, which sold accessories such as handbags, shoes and sunglasses.
But, thanks to connections she made at LETS, she was able to secure microloans from the state that helped her purchase two Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, which she currently is retrofitting in a way that will enable her to take her store on the road.
“I’m building a mobile boutique,” she said. “Customers are going to be able to jump in and shop inside the van like it’s a walk-in closet.”
Tomas Porturas, vice president, New Jersey community relations, at Wells Fargo, is thrilled when he hears the various LETS success stories.
It’s why the Wells Fargo Foundation is investing in the program, he said.
“When we support programs, we have a different measure for our return on investment,” he said.
“We look at the impact of how it is helping the community, how it is helping families earn a living and improve their lives, and how it is creating jobs so other families also can benefit.”
Targeting this philanthropy to women and underserved communities is important, too, he said.
“All of the studies that have been conducted said grants and donations in the U.S. are going up, but the allocation of these dollars to diverse organizations and communities is going down,” he said. “It’s a shocking situation.
“So, the company made a decision to focus on communities that have not been supported as much as other areas have been supported.
“It’s intentional. We are looking for organizations where you see diverse leadership and diverse markets.”
That intentionality is apparent.
Medina said he has seen it during LETS programming.
“There always are Wells Fargo people in the room, leading discussions or being there to help guide those afterward,” he said. “You can tell the goal is just to help these entrepreneurs along.”
Porturas wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is important, because we are part of this community — and if a community gets better, families get better, children get better, everyone gets better. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.”
Learn more about programs such as LETS at: wellsfargo.com/about/corporate-responsibility/.