Latinos in the US are significantly underrepresented when it comes to business ownership. While the Census found that nearly 19 percent of US residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, they make up only 6 percent of the nation’s business owners.
This worries Harry Hollines.
“Business ownership is one of the main pillars for building wealth and intergenerational wealth,” Hollines said.
Hollines is the chief strategist for the Latino Leadership Institute, founded in Colorado in 2015 with a mission to identify and elevate Latino leaders. He says that entire communities can become stronger, and its members can address inequities in their neighborhoods, when more people are able to grow their business ideas.
To do this, LLI is launching a business accelerator serving Latino and other BIPOC entrepreneurs. Hollines and LLI believe Latinos are the catalyst for the future economic vitality of Colorado — and the entire U.S. He said the great paradox is that Latinos are responsible for population growth but remain largely invisible in leadership positions. This new accelerator, called the Latino Entrepreneur Access Program, or LEAP, is a step toward changing that.
Eleven people, all in Colorado, make up the first group. The goal is to connect them with social, technical and financial capital to expand their businesses ranging from a digital education platform to a locally sourced food distributor.
Luis Antezana is in the first group of LEAP. His organization, Juntos2College, helps DACA recipients apply for work authorizations, and Antezana said the organization is about to hire its first staff member. Until now, he has been the only paid employee and has relied on volunteer help. Antezana said he is excited to officially be a “job creator” and that he is excited to be in the LEAP accelerator to overcome the hurdles he faced in getting Juntos2College off the ground.
“Being undocumented is a layer,” said Antezana, a native of Bolivia who grew up in Los Angeles. “Coming from a low-income background where no one in my immediate family really has a tremendous amount of knowledge about navigating the entrepreneurial system here in the United States — there’s a lot of layers to it, isn’t there?”
He’s seeking guidance from mentors in the program like Eva Padilla, a business loan expert at the Colorado Enterprise Fund, where she cultivates businesses throughout Southern Colorado from her home base in Colorado Springs. Padilla specializes in numbers and helping entrepreneurs who haven’t traditionally received this kind of support find a foothold. It helps them understand what they need to know financially – especially in their first year of existence.
“How much have you saved? Do you have a business plan? What are your cash flow projections? So I help hold them accountable for the loan amount they’re asking for,” Padilla said.
Her help is essential: research firm Crunchbase says funding for Latino entrepreneurs has stagnated at about 2 percent of overall startup investment.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the results, especially from Luis’ business a year from now,” she said.
LEAP isn’t the only accelerator targeting BIPOC or Latino founders. Especially in the wake of nationwide racial justice protests in 2020, several mainstays of Silicon Valley and the Colorado startup world launched programs aimed at making business ownership more representative of the communities they serve. But LEAP is unusual because it is Latino-led, Padilla said.
Outside of LEAP, she recommends entrepreneurs use the Colorado Small Business Development Centers, which she said are unique statewide in the way they support business owners. She also noted that people without Social Security numbers who want to start a company can get business loans in Colorado.
As he looks to grow his business, Antezana has one particularly glaring uncertainty hanging over his head: the open court case that could end DACA later this year. Antezana called that outcome a “worst-case scenario,” but like any good businessman, he’s preparing for it. He said Juntos2College is piloting other programs, just in case.
“We are very well positioned to move, to ensure that we can fulfill our vision to help undocumented families,” he said.
With the new accelerator, there is a lot at stake not only for these businesses, but also for the broader US economy. After all, the business success of Antezana and others at LEAP could play a small but important role in future U.S. GDP growth, as Latinos make up just over half of population growth of the US over the past decade, Hollines said.
“Latinos are already an important part of not only the population, but also the workforce. And small business accounts for 45 percent of economic activity. So you need continued growth of small business, which has been the backbone of the United States for decades, if not centuries,” he said. The Latino contribution to that should be commensurate with population growth, Hollines added.
LLI plans to make the accelerator a regular part of the services it offers: Hollines said the cluster launched in the summer of 2022 is just the beginning. In addition to the difference it can make to businesses and economic activity, Hollines and his LLI colleagues said the accelerator is about proving what’s possible when more Latinx and BIPOC people get opportunities to grow their ideas.