Prospera’s José Alvarez helps aspiring entrepreneurs realize a dream, become part of the business community
José Alvarez, head of Prospera, a nonprofit that offers free bilingual assistance to Hispanic entrepreneurs, has a motto: “Everyone’s an entrepreneur.”
In his estimation, starting a business is one of the bravest, most audacious things anyone can do. It takes gumption, courage, an appetite for risk and creativity. And if you’re opening a business in the U.S. and English isn’t your first language, it takes a helping hand.
Heading North, but Staying South
After operating his organization in Florida for 25 years, “Prospera had the state pretty well covered,” Alvarez said.
Prospera helps clients start or grow a small business, began to look for other markets where their services would prove useful. North Carolina came out on top in two national market studies.
And Charlotte, with its large concentration of Hispanic-owned businesses, edged out Raleigh.
“Plus, it’s close to South Carolina,” Alvarez said. “It’s a strategic city for us to have a presence.”
Since moving here with his wife in 2017, he’s also discovered Charlotte to be “a progressive city with a welcoming attitude toward immigrants.”
Prospera established an office in the same building as the Latin-American Chamber of Commerce. They’ve been a vital part of the entire community – not just the Hispanic community – ever since.
“We offer support to everybody,” Alvarez said. “But our niche market is the Latino community.” Prospera’s support, which it provides clients at no charge, comes in four primary ways:
- Seminars in Spanish. Topics range from starting a business to taxes to marketing. That they’re offered in Spanish sets Prospera apart from other economic development organizations. “We want clients to feel comfortable,” Alvarez said. “We do that first by speaking the same language.”
- One-on-one consulting. It begins with a confidential assessment of a client’s business plan. This assessment may take just one session, or there could be multiple meetings.
- Access to capital. “We don’t lend,” Alvarez said. “But we work with our partners – financial institutions and microlenders – and help clients determine the best way to launch or expand.
- Grants program. “We sometimes pay for a client to access services we don’t offer,” Alvarez said. “We may pay lawyers’ and accountants’ fees to incorporate a business. We always use local resources. We’re all part of the same ecosystem.”
“This isn’t just their livelihood; this is their life.”
Corporate and foundation grants and donations allow Prospera to do what it does without charging for it.
Since Alvarez opened the office here, Prospera had been a one-man show. But six months ago, he hired a consultant who’s now leading many of the one-on-one meetings with clients, most of whom are in the retail, restaurant or service industries.
They both work seven days a week, when needed. “Sometimes, our clients are in desperate need,” Alvarez said. “This isn’t just their livelihood; this is their life.”
COVID-19 has made times even more desperate. Right after the outbreak, not one of Prospera’s clients was starting a business. They were trying to salvage their businesses. Prospera helped them ride out the storm. In the first week of May, the group helped arrange 29 times more loans for clients than in that same period a year ago. Prospera has helped secure more than $3.5 million in capital since the crisis started.
Establishing Credit; Paying Dues
Clients come to Prospera with varying degrees of readiness. Prospera helps them all. “We review the basics,” Alvarez said. “How to register as a corporation, for instance. But there’s so much more to it. We point clients toward resources we know are reliable. In some Latin-American countries, the government can’t be trusted. We tell them the government works for the people here.”
Many of Prospera’s clients have what Alvarez terms a “double handicap.” They need access to capital, and they don’t speak English. Prospera can help with both. A lot of Hispanic business owners get into credit card debt or take out high-interest loans because they don’t know how to go about getting a legitimate loan. Alvarez tells them that not all debt is bad and that establishing credit is crucial.
Immigrants make good business owners, Alvarez said. They’re resilient and resourceful; they had to be just to get here. They just need a little guidance.
Take, for example, a barber who had moved from South Florida to Cornelius. He attended the first training session Prospera hosted and opened his barber shop shortly after – in November 2016. He had $4,000 in sales during the last two months of that year. In 2019, he did $200,000 in sales – and now has four employees. He’s even scouting locations for a second shop.
Prospera starts by communicating in Spanish. But along the way, they encourage clients to try to learn English, to learn how the U.S. financial system works and to make good use of it. It’s one ecosystem, after all.
There’s something nearly as crucial as capital that Prospera shares with its clients. It’s a message that’s essential to the survival of their business.
“We tell them they’re going to have to learn the ways of doing business here,” Alvarez said. “You need to adapt, be a good neighbor, pay your dues, pay your taxes.”
Dig In Deeper About Prospera
This story was written in partnership with Wells Fargo Corporate Philanthropy and Community Relations.
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