Editor’s note: This story is sponsored and was produced by Forward Cities, a non-financial partner of Startland News and a national nonprofit that is managing the implementation of the ESHIP Communities program as a grantee of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Any opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.
Pedro Morales, owner of Quality Framing Services, started his business from humble beginnings in his garage, eventually moving into a storefront on Johnson Drive.
Like many other business owners, he has faced significant challenges during the pandemic, including having to temporarily close because of restrictions implemented for non-essential businesses.
Then Morales discovered The Toolbox — a new space where entrepreneurs facing language and cultural barriers benefit from a collaborative effort to support, connect, and ignite their communities in the greater Wyandotte County area. The Toolbox business advisors guided Morales through two grant applications, free of charge. He received both grants, amounting to $12,000 for his business.
As COVID restrictions are slowly lifted, the need for specific services continues to increase. In response to challenges cited by entrepreneurs and small business owners in the community, the Toolbox advisors are eager to offer free services that will not only aid in overcoming some of the cultural challenges that exist, but also aid small businesses to re-emerge successfully.
“We decided to participate because they are bilingual and they help us a lot,” Morales said. “I also speak English, but not 100 percent. Sometimes I need someone to translate documentation and things like that so they have helped us on that side.”
Bilingual advisors are available to provide one-on-one business advisory services to help with immediate challenges and then connect business owners to other existing services for technical assistance support for marketing, legal, accounting, or other services.
In addition, the center assists with applying for grants, loans, and other programs.
The Toolbox is the most recent pilot program originating from the local ESHIP Communities initiative with a significant number of local community partners. Forward Cities, a national nonprofit, manages the Kauffman Foundation’s three-year ESHIP Communities initiative, which seeks to build strong and equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems in four different communities in the United States.
“It’s not creating a new service but it’s looking at the landscape and seeing what existing holes are there and filling that, and that’s what this space is going to do for our community,” said Alex Ruybalid, the partner engagement director of Mission Adelante and a council member of The Toolbox.
Though Toolbox advisors are already providing services to the community, the physical location is set to officially open Thursday at 13th and Central, in a space donated by the Central Avenue Betterment Association.
One of the main focuses right now is helping small business owners apply to the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan for small businesses to be able to pay their workforce through the COVID-19 pandemic. The Toolbox is connecting business owners with hired accountants to ease the application process for the program.
“We’re calling businesses and connecting people to The Toolbox and through that we’re connecting them to accountants in our area,” Ruybalid said. “So right now the toolbox is just functioning as a giant connecting point for the community to the PPP.”
Where it began
Gabe Muñoz, ESHIP Kansas City local director, and a group of community leaders surveyed the small business landscape in one of the focus areas of the project: Central Avenue and Minnesota Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas — an area abundant with immigrant and native-born Black and Latinx business owners.
This surveying surfaced various barriers that marginalized business owners face when starting and growing businesses.
Edgar Galicia, the executive director of CABA, an organization that supports the business community on Central Avenue, took part in the early conversations that led to the development of The Toolbox.
“What happens to those in our communities that don’t speak the language or don’t have the education but have the appreciation of a solution to a problem that they live with and see constantly?” Galicia said. “How does that work? Who helps them? That is a Toolbox area of expertise.”
The Toolbox provides services to address some key barriers new and existing business owners face locally, including:
- A lack of awareness of resources available
- A lack of access to resources in the community
- Resources currently available don’t always address the needs of the community
- Lack of trust between the local business community and support organizations.
- Language barriers between support organizations and the local community
An ESHIP Communities local working group initiated the work to support these businesses in early 2020 with pop-up events in which business owners could come in and learn about resources available to support them. Office hours were also held at the library where business owners could ask questions about their businesses. After seeing the amount of participation, Muñoz said there was a need to have something more concrete for business owners to get help on a daily basis which resulted in founding The Toolbox.
The Toolbox opened with a soft launch and virtual operations. For the next six months, it’s open and staffed with partnered organizations that made the program possible. In the future, The Toolbox will run independently as its own entity, Galicia said.
Why the Toolbox is needed
After having to flee her war-torn home country, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Liliane Lemani learned how to sew while living in a refugee camp in Namibia. From then on, she knew that she wanted to own and operate a sewing business. She made that dream come true in 2019 when she officially started her business called African Designs by Liliane and Amisi.
“When I was in the refugee camp I was thinking, ‘OK, whenever I go, if I go anywhere, I will start my business,’ because I was so interested about sewing and about fabric,” Lemani said.
As a new immigrant to the U.S., Lemani struggled to get her business started because of the confusing nature of living in a new country and learning about the laws related to owning and operating a business. She turned to a mentor that she met at her first job in the U.S. and depended on her to learn about the intricacies of operating a business.
“It’s because I am in a new country and the rules are different,” Lemani said “So, there are a lot of things that I don’t know so I have to ask what I should do and she helped me do that.”
Like Morales, COVID-19 was one of the most recent challenges for her. Lemani said that most of her customers also lost their jobs because of the Coronavirus outbreak, which resulted in losing customers because they wouldn’t come in to buy her products.
The Toolbox was created to support business owners like Morales and Lemani who have challenges navigating the business landscape because of cultural and language barriers. Business owners can access the resource center and receive assistance on any aspect of their business. It serves to bridge this cultural gap between immigrant and native-born business owners and the entrepreneurial world.
What makes The Toolbox unique is its goal to foster trust in the business community. It’s a place to create relationships and build stronger connections between business owners and the resources available to them.
Galicia said there needs to be support for new business owners in this underserved community who have been constantly shut out despite having a desire to begin their own businesses. The services provided at The Toolbox are offered at no-cost which, Galicia says, strengthens the trust they aim to build with the community.
“It’s built from within our community, and so that is with that comes trust, cultural competency and an understanding of our community and what it needs because these aren’t just clients- these are our neighbors or uncles or aunts, former students or people in our church congregation,” Ruybalid said.
The Toolbox aims to empower the local business community to become a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem that can thrive on its own. Ruybalid said gentrification is an issue that underserved communities face and it’s an important discussion to have when working to empower these communities.
“When you can empower economically and give the tools to our community in our neighborhood to succeed and create businesses that create jobs and livelihoods and stability and sustainability, it just helps everyone in the community rise,” Ruybalid said.
Forward Cities is managing the implementation of the ESHIP Communities program as a grantee of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. For more information about The Toolbox or to learn how to receive business support from a Toolbox advisor, contact Gabe Muñoz at firstname.lastname@example.org