Throughout the pandemic, the Latino Business Alliance in Salem kept its focus on connections

A pre-pandemic Café Y Pan Dulce, a monthly networking event hosted by the Latino Business Alliance that will resume in May 2021. (Courtesy/Latino Business Alliance)

Jose Gonzalez recalled how during the Great Recession of 2008 he and a handful of other business people in Salem’s Latino community came to a realization.

“If we don’t help each other in our community, then nobody’s going to succeed,” he said. “It was really just us saying, we’ve got to help ourselves.”

That realization eventually led Gonzalez and others to form the Latino Business Alliance, a local nonprofit focused on the unique needs of the Salem area’s Latino population.

After a year of limited services and the cancellation of its monthly networking event, Café y Pan Dulce (coffee and sweet bread) will resume this week thanks to a grant from Salem Health for videoconferencing equipment.

“The Latino Business Alliance has played an important role in supporting the growth of small Latino owned businesses in Salem,” said Annie Gorski, the city of Salem’s economic development manager, in an email.

She said the alliance has played an important role in supporting the growth of small Latino-owned businesses. She pointed to their annual Expo Negocio event and Café Y Pan Dulce, which offered technical support and other assistance to small businesses. She said the city regularly participates in the events to hear about the needs of Latino businesses and to share resources.

Before the group formed, Gonzalez said there were few resources aimed at helping the Latino business community weather the economic crisis as financial markets collapsed and unemployment surged. So Gonzalez and other volunteers started showing up at parent-teacher conferences or at church services with sandwiches letting people know there was help available.

Shortly afterward the phone calls started coming. Gonzalez said some business owners were being ripped off, like one whose accountant disappeared with their tax documents. Others just needed to be connected to other trustworthy businesses to provide basic services, like insurance. Gonzalez and other volunteers got to work trying to leverage their business connections, which they’ve been doing ever since.

“We just started going out there and trying to find people that we’re good at what they do, had experience but also had their heart in the right place,” said Gonzalez, a real estate agent and Salem city councilor and the alliance’s board president. “It was really just trying to get out there and meet people face to face to see who actually cared enough.”

Since the Latino Business Alliance formed, much of the group’s work has centered on making connections between emerging companies in the Latino community and other businesses.

One of the group’s key events has been the Café y Pan Dulce networking event, started in 2010. The event has been canceled since February of last year, along with its other in-person events due to the pandemic. But even while in-person meetings have been on hold for over a year, the Latino Business Alliance has stayed busy helping small business owners stay afloat during the most recent downturn.

Gonzalez said the Latino Business Alliance is centered on helping new businesses find everything they need in Spanish and in a culturally appropriate way. That means not just having someone to translate but taking into account the experiences of entrepreneurs who come from countries where people avoid interactions with the government, he said.

The alliance helps walk immigrant business owners through steps that are often overlooked. For instance, how do you register a limited liability company? How do you find a good accountant or business attorney? How to secure financing when you don’t have any assets for collateral? How do you write a business plan?

David Rheinholdt, the owner of a local insurance agency who sits on the alliance’s board, said that recent immigrants from Latin America aren’t used to the more formal requirements of businesses in the U.S. and will just start a company without doing the right paperwork.

For instance, he said someone may start a landscaping business that steadily grows to have multiple employees and trucks. One day, business owners will realize they need to have workers’ compensation and owe back taxes.

“It eventually catches up to you,” said Rheinholdt. “Now you have a problem, even though you didn’t know that you’re supposed to be doing those things. That’s where we come in.”

Ismael Zuniga, the alliance’s outreach coordinator, said he has to sometimes convince immigrant entrepreneurs to start with registration and a business plan that’ll lay out how their company will grow.

During a normal year, the Latino Business Alliance would’ve connected with hundreds of people, said Gonzalez. While the pandemic has canceled large meetings, Rheinholdt said and others involved with the alliance have continued to get calls and emails asking for help.

Zuniga, the alliance’s only paid employee, said one-on-one visits with business owners have been an essential part of his job. Early in the pandemic, he held off on visiting business owners. But after a couple of months he began checking in on business owners to see how they were doing and what kind of resources they might need.

“We don’t have the events, we don’t have Café y Pan Dulce, but I still have the one-on-one,” he said. “So I’m gonna keep doing that.”

Zuniga said many business owners had the same needs, such as finding help with taxes or permitting. But many, particularly restaurants, had seen big drops in revenue because of the downturn.

Part of those check-ins has involved keeping business owners up to date on the various relief business relief programs, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan and various local grant programs.

But Gonzalez said the alliance has been cautious about steering entrepreneurs to relief programs. He said that’s because of the past experiences of some immigrant entrepreneurs in their home countries where taking government funds can lead to exploitation. Others have been worried it would hurt their immigration status, he said. Additionally, he said there is also concern that the money would just go to well-connected companies, which happened with the Paycheck Protection Program.

“When you go out there and tell people, ‘hey, there’s this money for you,’ and then they don’t get it, we’re gonna look bad. So we didn’t do too much. And sure enough, it went down like that,” he said.

Gonzalez said the alliance did hand out fliers for local business relief programs. He said the county’s most recent grant program was the fairest, giving each business that applied $3,700.

The upcoming Café y Pan Dulce will have limited capacity but will follow a similar format. The event attracts people from outside the Latino community who are looking to network and begins with everyone introducing themselves in English and Spanish. Rheinholdt said that’s so non-Spanish speakers can get a feel for what it’s like trying to speak in a different language.

The meetings usually include a presentation on taxes or from government officials. Gonzalez said the upcoming meeting will be focused on checking in with attendees and seeing what they need. That feedback will be used for future meetings, he said.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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