Entrepreneurship as a pathway out of poverty

In 1993, Maria Carmen Rodriguez packed her car and drove with her husband and three children from Queens, N.Y., to Buffalo, where they had hoped to make a fresh start. That same year, 7-year-old Junnior Vidal and his family pushed off the Havana coast in a makeshift motorboat headed for Miami, Fla. He too would end up in Buffalo eventually. While their journeys were drastically different, their destinies were surprisingly the same.


It's challenging for low-income individuals like Rodriguez and Vidal to start their own businesses, but it is not impossible. What’s more, the future looks bright. As Emily Fetsch, a research assistant in Research and Policy for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, points out in Left Behind? The New Generation of Latino Entrepreneurs, Latino Americans (who statistically have lower incomes than non-minorities) will "play an increasingly important role in the American economy. By 2020, an IHS Global Insight study estimates that Latinos might account for 40 percent of U.S. job growth."


And even though a "lack of capital and assets can impair an entrepreneur’s ability to invest in and grow a startup business" today, many strong-willed individuals and helpful organizations are coming together to buck the trend in Buffalo.


Maria Rodriguez: Fulfilling her dream through food

Today, Rodriguez is the proprietor of Kiosko Latino, a Puerto Rican and Mexican restaurant in the West Side Bazaar on 25 Grant St. in Buffalo. A New York City native who was raised in Puerto Rico, Maria learned how to cook from her mother and grandmother. "The Mexican food I learned from friends when I lived in California," Maria says. "We exchanged recipes."


Kiosko Latino opened in April and is enjoying success, but it hasn't come easy.


"We have been through a lot," Rodriguez says. "I had to leave my job to take care of my mother, who had cancer. She died last year. It has been very hard for us."


Her misfortune led to financial trouble, complicating her entrepreneurial efforts. "I was unemployed and no one would give me a loan or anything," she says.


According to Minority and Women Entrepreneurs: Building Capital, Networks, and Skills by Michael S. Barr, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Michigan, "Minority-owned businesses are approximately three times as likely to be denied loans as are comparable nonminority businesses."


Despite the odds, Rodriguez saved what she could and stayed true to her spirit. "I had nothing but my faith," she says. "I did it by faith."


Fortunately, Buffalo is home to several organizations dedicated to working with entrepreneurs in low-income communities. The Westminster Economic Development Initiative, for example, is a nonprofit organization that offers services to small business owners in the community.


WEDI is working with Rodriguez to support Kiosko Latino’s incubation at the West Side Bazaar.


"They gave me advice and guidance," says Rodriguez. "They were helpful in guiding me what to do, what steps to follow. They sit with you and they create a budget plan with you. You have to present a business plan to them. They will tell you what to do. It was very helpful."


WEDI’s economic development director, Yanush J. Sanmugaraja, works with other local organizations to advise small business owners like Rodriguez. "To coach, mentor, and provide technical assistance to clients, we work with the Buffalo State Small Business Development Center, SCORE of Buffalo and Niagara, and a few other agencies," he says. "We help low-income clients who are attempting to work out of poverty through entrepreneurship."


To propel her business and expand its different revenue streams, Maria has implemented the popular food delivery service Skip the Dishes. "We need to expand and we’re getting a lot of takeout and delivery orders," says Rodriguez.


As the future plays out for Rodriguez and Kiosko Latino, what words of encouragement does she have for prospective entrepreneurs?


"Save. And go for it. Don’t be afraid."


Junnior Vidal: Beyond the barber chair

Vidal and his family fled Cuba for the United States to find medical treatment for his older brother, who had been diagnosed with polio. Somewhere adrift on the Atlantic Ocean, though, the makeshift motor boat gave way.


"We were caught by the Coast Guard," Vidal says. "We were sent to Guantanamo Bay for a year and a half. But because of my brother’s illness, they decided to let us go."


Following a flight on a military aircraft, where a mesmerizing interaction with a vending machine led to the sweet taste of 7UP on his lips, Vidal and his family found themselves living in a homeless shelter in Miami, Fla. Employment opportunities were scarce, so the family headed to New York City. By the time Vidal was 11 years old, the family had resettled in Buffalo.


Fast forward to today, and Vidal owns and operates Vidal Barber Supply, a company that has sold beauty and barber supplies since October 2016.


"I always had the entrepreneurial mindset, because my parents always had to find different ways to make money," Vidal says. "I started putting money away, knowing I wanted to start my own business. I wanted to bring my vision to life."


Why barbering?


"I worked in not-for-profits and I met a gentleman who opened up a barber shop, Mighty Fine Cuts, on Niagara St. Kenneth, the owner, has been a mentor to me. He helped me see life a little bit differently because of his experiences."


The barber shop scene has affected Vidal significantly. "Growing up really poor, I never really had the opportunity to afford a nice haircut," he says.


Later in life, Vidal’s wife, who was studying at the Buffalo School of Cosmetology, encouraged him to enroll in the barbering program. "So I joined and began searching for my life slowly," he says.


As he began exploring local barber shops, he recognized their need for supplies. "Nine out of 10 people said they needed to buy online," he says. "Attachments, equipment, add-ons … the demand was huge."


Vidal had identified a niche market, but he struggled to get a loan to start his business. "The process was pretty difficult. I got turned down by a lot of people based on the fact that I wanted to start a barber shop supply. Three different property owners told me I would never make it."


Despite the disadvantage, Vidal relied on his skills as a stylist and his side hustle--sneaker sales--to pay for a rental space. Once he secured a storefront and got his business going, he found quick success. Soon, he needed more inventory.


"I started working with WEDI in April," he says. "I got a loan so I could buy some extra tools and equipment, because in my first two months I realized that my demand was greater than my supply--and that’s still pretty much the case right now."


Vidal’s dream is to provide nonprofit barber services to the underserved members of the community, such as homeless folks and kids from low-income households.


"A lot of people don’t realize how much a good haircut can actually mean to someone."


Read more articles by James A. Colombo III.

James A. Colombo III is the grant developer & corporate content writer at Bak USA, a social enterprise that builds mobile computers in downtown Buffalo, New York. Lover of Labatt Blue, Elmo's wings, and live music, James is a Buffalonian through and through. He lives on the city's Lower West Side with his girlfriend, Mary.
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