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Making Progress

The Latino Economic Development Council recently opened the doors to its new facility on Fort Street in Springfield. More importantly, it is off to a fast and impactful start as it works to open doors — and keep them open — for business owners and entrepreneurs, especially those in the large, and growing, Latino business community. It will offer microgrants and facilities for meetings and co-working opportunities, but most importantly, it will provide much-needed coaching in subjects ranging from finance to human resources to mental wellness.

 

Executive Director Andrew Melendez

Executive Director Andrew Melendez

 

Andrew Melendez says he’s led a number of tours of the new Latino Economic Development Council headquarters facility on Fort Street in Springfield. More than he can count, actually.

He said the comments from those taking those tours vary, but there is a common, and very important, theme. Most say they’ve never seen anything quite like it — but wish they had.

Indeed, the Latino EDC, or LEDC, as it’s called, an affiliate of Partners for Community, is different. It is not a chamber of commerce, although it has some of those qualities and it partners with those institutions. It’s not an incubator, but it has some of those qualities, and it partners with those critical components of the entrepreneurship ecosystem as well.

It is a place where more than two dozen coaches, experts in many aspects of business, will make themselves available to business owners — especially those within the large and growing Latino business community, looking to take the next step with their venture, whatever that might be — and share what they know.

The council will also provide microgrants of a few thousand dollars or even less to assist with startup costs, while also providing co-working space and facilities — the PeoplesBank Business Lounge — that the business community can use for meetings and teleconferences.

“The main objective that we have is to help Latino business owners take their business to the next level.”

In short, what the LEDC wants to do is convert employees into employers, spark the growth and development of new businesses, and change the landscape on Main Street — and many other streets — in area communities, said Melendez, director of Operations for the LEDC.

It will do this not necessarily with microgrants — although they can certainly help a microbusiness or startup buy a sign, secure a new piece of equipment, or do some social-media marketing, perhaps — but with a combination of those grants and training programs from those coaches on how to qualify for a business loan, workforce training, mental wellness, and much more.

“We’ll be able to offer ‘Finance 101,’ ‘Accounting 101,’ ‘Building Wealth,’ ‘How to Lead by Example,’ and so on,” said Melendez, adding that the LEDC is partnering with a host of entities and agencies, from the state to the U.S. Small Business Administration in its efforts to build a larger, more sustainable Latino business community.

The facilities at the Latino Economic Development Council include space for meetings and community functions.

The facilities at the Latino Economic Development Council include space for meetings and community functions.

Overall, he said, the agency will focus on what he calls the three ‘Cs’ of helping business owners get to where they want to go: coaching, capital (those microgrants, but also counseling and technical assistance that might help them secure loans from area banks and credit unions), and connections to other business-development and economic-development-related agencies on the local, state, and national levels.

Adriano Vaccaro, CEO of Culture Redesigned, a culture strategist by trade and a workforce training coach for the LEDC, agreed.

“The main objective that we have is to help Latino business owners take their business to the next level,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the agency is putting together a comprehensive catalog of training programs. “And we’re attaching key performance indicators to the coaching sessions, so we can not only provide the skills and fill the gaps, but make sure we’re producing the results that are needed. It’s not just training — it’s training connected to a particular result.”

That’s an important distinction, she said, noting that the coaches are results-oriented and emphasize measuring — and sustaining — those results.

“It doesn’t mean that every business needs everything,” she went on. “We will do a needs assessment and make sure every business gets whatever they need, from where they’re starting their journey with us.”

Melendez concurred. “We want to make sure that, whether it’s a small business making $3 million or a microbusiness making $300,000 or an entrepreneur just starting up, they all have access to the same resources; that’s the fairness,” he said. “In January of 2020, Joe Biden said it’s not fair that some people get to pick up the phone and talk to a lawyer or an HR professional or someone to guide them in a workers’ comp claim, and other people don’t. This is us ensuring that our community — and I want to define our community as this whole community; anyone can come to the LEDC — has access to resources.”

As for the microgrants, made possible by federal ARPA funds awarded to Springfield and funneled to the LEDC, Melendez said there have already been more than 125 applications for such grants, and he expects that number to go much higher in the weeks to come.

BusinessWest recently sat down with Melendez and several of the coaches that are part of the LEDC to get some perspective on how this unique agency will work, how it will address stated goals, and, perhaps most importantly, how it will measure success.

The quick answer, as we’ll see, is that there will be many ways to do just that.

 

Getting Down to Business

It’s called the ‘imposter syndrome,’ and most business owners and professionals are by now quite familiar with that phrase.

It connotes persistent feelings that one isn’t … well, entirely comfortable in their own skin, professionally, and not fully credentialed, either literally or figuratively, to be worthy of the title on their business card.

Dr. Edna Rodriguez, director of Behavioral Health at Mercy Medical Center, one of the coaches at the LEDC (and one of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty honorees for 2022), said that many within the minority community fall victim to imposter syndrome.

“I want to be able to give back when it comes to development of business and entrepreneurship, teaching those basics, and helping people fine-tune their plans and the steps they need to take to become viable businesses in the community.”

“Many doubt if we have the level of skill, the ideas, and the tools … they struggle with confidence and knowing that that they can do and achieve the things they are good at,” she explained. “And that can really create a lot of anxiety and other issues that can definitely impact the mental health of an individual.”

And that’s just one of the matters she addresses with those she counsels as a mental-wellness coach for the LEDC.

“Our culture is beautiful and colorful and very integrated, but with that comes a lot of burden, especially when we’re talking about taking on everything that happens both at work and to home,” she noted. “Often, our Latino folks find a hard time managing stress and taking care of their physical and mental health, especially when they’re in the role of being a business owner.

“So my role is to individually help people understand how they can care for themselves, how they can find balance, and how to communicate their needs in an assertive way to both the people around them and the people who can help them,” she went on. “Sometimes it’s hard to just take that first step and open up and seek help.”

Helping business owners — and, again, especially those within the Latino community — cope with such issues is just one of the many focal points of the LEDC, which grew out of the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce and continues and expands upon its work, Melendez said.

Latino Economic Development Council

From left, Jose Hernandez, restaurant coach; Deborah Roque, accounting coach; Adriano Vaccaro; workforce training coach; Gilberto Amador, professional-development coach; Jesse Santos, finance and loan coach; Andrew Melendez; and Dr. Edna Rodriguez, mental-wellness coach.

And its model is unique, he went on, both in what it offers and that the services it provides are free.

“We want this to be free to the community, and I’m committed to that,” he said, adding that the LEDC was created to provide critical coaching and insight to business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs who may otherwise not be able to access such expertise.

Which brings him back to those tours he mentioned at the top and the comments from those who take them.

“I’ve taken dozens of people through the doors — people from Boston, Holyoke, Springfield, all over,” he said. “They’ve seen incubators with various businesses … but to walk in, and right where you walk in, there’s a marketing agency; an accountant; a psychologist; a professional-development trainer on safety; a professional-development trainer on diversity, equity, and inclusion; someone who can write a loan for you from beginning to end for free and send it to our partner banks … they haven’t seen that before.”

This is the essence of the LEDC, which Melendez likened to a credit union that doesn’t exclude anyone from membership. And the heart of the agency is its coaches, 28 of them at last count.

People like Rodriguez, the mental-wellness coach; Gilberto Amador, president of the Mass 2 Miami Consultant Group and professional development coach for the LEDC; Deborah Roque, owner of Affordable Accounting Services & Tax Preparation and an accounting coach for the agency; Jose Hernandez, owner of Palete Latin Cuisine in Springfield and the restaurant coach for the LEDC; Carlos DeLeon, a financial advisor with Ameriprise Financial, who provides guidance on personal finance; and Jesse Santos, a business finance and loan coach and officer with Latin Financial.

They and many others offer specific areas of expertise and, more importantly, a willingness to share it, that Amador summed up this way: “we bring something important to the table — experience, drive, and vision. And with the young people today, there’s going to be a generational gap if we don’t bring this information to them.”

 

Getting a Leg Up

Like Melendez and others we spoke with, Santos said capital is obviously critical to the advancement of any business venture, and is also an area many need help navigating, which is why he is now part of the coaching lineup at the LEDC.

“I’m here to guide those in the Latino community, and others as well, to get alternative funding, equipment financing, lines of credit — just help them get some funding,” he explained. “If the conventional banking system doesn’t help them or the rates are not to their favor or what they consider fair, they can come to me and we can broker it to other banks and other vendors to see what other opportunities we can get them.”

His work is an example of how the LEDC will work to provide guidance where and when it’s needed, and fill in gaps — in service, opportunities, and knowledge. And the coaches gathered around the conference room table at the LEDC said there are many such gaps, especially when it comes to the intricacies of running a business or simply taking an idea and transforming it into a business.

There are the basics — writing a business plan, deciding on a business classification, obtaining a doing-business-as certificate, and more, said Melendez, and coaches can help with all that. But then, there are the day-to-day, year-to-year matters, such as training staff, creating a culture, and handling HR matters. And the LEDC’s coaches can assist in these areas as well.

Amador, a serial entrepreneur himself but also an educator, said he’s been working with entrepreneurs for many years now and understands that many need help not only with their business, but with balancing business and life.

“I want to be able to give back when it comes to development of business and entrepreneurship, teaching those basics, and helping people fine-tune their plans and the steps they need to take to become viable businesses in the community,” he told BusinessWest, adding that one of these basics is simple financial literacy.

“A lot of them have ideas for starting a business, but they don’t realize that the financial piece is very important,” he said. “What does your profit-and-loss statement mean? What does you balance sheet mean? What is your cash flow? There are things that many in this [Latino] community don’t understand about business because we’ve been doing it a certain way, and we need to change that thought process. If we learn about investment and if we learn about how numbers work, then that makes it easier.”

While some coaching is broad in scope, it can also be specialized in its nature as well. Such is the case with Hernandez, who brings his experience in owning a restaurant, and in presenting Latin cuisine, to the forefront, and leads by example while also coaching others.

“I brought something different to the table and raised the bar with it,” he said of his eatery, located on Boston Road in Springfield. “A lot of people took notice, and you’re beginning to see where other restaurants are beginning to change the way they present the food, and I’m really happy about that.”

Overall, Amador echoed the thoughts of Melendez and others we spoke with when it came to seeing more individuals within the Latino community, which is entrepreneurial by nature, make the often-challenging leap from being an employee to being an employer.

“If there’s a McDonald’s in the North End of Springfield, I want to see a Latino owner of that McDonald’s,” he said. “I don’t want to hear people say, ‘let’s go to McDonald’s’ — I want to hear them say, ‘I want to own a McDonald’s.’”

Such sentiments, and such goals, are what prompted PeoplesBank to want to become involved with the LEDC, said Matt Bannister, the institution’s senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility, adding that the bank became sold on the concept and its place in the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“Other groups have a mentor of two that can help you,” he said. “But they have specialists in whatever your issue is, and I think that’s a smart business model; it’s not one generalist who may or may not have experience with what you’re trying to do — they have a whole team of people, and it’s right in downtown Springfield.”

The bank’s participation started with the business lounge that now bears its name, he went on, adding that involvement may go to a higher level, perhaps by matching, or partially matching, the microgrants awarded to businesses by the LEDC.

 

Connecting the Dots

Summing up what the LEDC is and want he expects it will become in the months and years to come, Melendez said the agency strives to build individuals into “leaders, business owners, and change makers.”

That’s a tall task, he went on, but the ingredients are there for the agency to become transformative when it comes to the Latino business community and the overall economic landscape in Western Mass.

That’s why those who take the tour say they’ve never seen anything quite like it — and why they wish they had. u

 

George O’Brien can be reached at
[email protected]

Class of 2022

He’s Spent a Lifetime Investing in His Community — and People in Need

Leah Martin Photography

 

 

Herbie Flores could have become hardened, even embittered, by a tumultuous youth.

Instead, he’s spent a lifetime helping people overcome their own difficulties.

“I came from a very poor family in Puerto Rico,” he said, raised by his mother early on after his father died. “At some point, my uncle told my mother and sister it would be better if I had a male role model. That’s a cultural thing. So I ended up in Delaware with my uncle, who was a hardworking guy.”

Back in the ’60s, Delaware wasn’t the liberal bastion it is today, as it grappled, as all states did, with school desegregation and other racial issues. So he learned early on about race relations and the futility of racism.

After moving to Springfield in 1965, Flores entered the Army and shipped off to Vietnam, where certain images stick with him to this day. “It’s not a good feeling killing a human being. But as George Patton said, the mission is to go from point A to point B, and whatever gets in the way, get rid of it.”

He remembers servicemen being spit on and called baby killers back stateside, but he was more haunted by the sheer numbers of U.S. wounded and dying. “You just put that someplace, everything goes to a compartment — it’s the only way. You continue moving on. There were a lot of drugs. Many of my friends did not sleep.”

After his war experience, though, Flores wanted to focus on bettering lives, not dwelling on a war that ruined so many of them.

“Life is short, when you put it in perspective. And the time you have here, what do you do to make it better — not only in a selfish way, but for the next person?”

Specifically, his affinity with migrant farm workers that led to the development of an agency — the New England Farm Workers’ Council (NEFWC) — to help them out with various needs, from fuel assistance to job skills to education.

That agency, launched in 1971, eventually morphed into Partners for Community, a nonprofit with multiple departments under its umbrella, including the Corporation for Public Management, which seeks solutions to welfare dependency, chronic joblessness, and illiteracy, and also focuses on providing services to those with physical and developmental disabilities; and New England Partners in Faith, which seeks to provide sustainable development and capacity building for small faith-based organizations throughout New England through technical assistance and job-related training.

Herbie Flores’ office walls are filled with proclamations, awards, and photos of his interactions with state and national leaders.

Herbie Flores’ office walls are filled with proclamations, awards, and photos of his interactions with state and national leaders.

“All those experiences, from there to here to Vietnam, helped me see that things are bad, but they’re not real bad,” Flores said. “Life is short, when you put it in perspective. And the time you have here, what do you do to make it better — not only in a selfish way, but for the next person?

“I’ve been homeless, I’ve been without food, but you move forward,” he added. “Many people get stuck in the same place, but you can’t stay stagnant.”

For helping people move forward from adversity over the past 50 years, while continually investing in the vitality of Greater Springfield, explains why Flores is certainly a Difference Maker.

 

Taking Root

Established in 1971 as a small organization to support farm workers, NEFWC has become a multi-faceted human-services agency dedicated to improving the quality of life for thousands of low-income people throughout the Northeast.

Among its chief programs are home-energy assistance for income-eligible families in Hampden and Northern Worcester counties; emergency shelter assistance for at-risk families throughout Massachusetts; employment and job training for migrant seasonal workers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, as well as welfare-to-work populations in Connecticut; and youth programs providing services to at-risk, low-income youth both in and out of school in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.

And its programs, both under the NEFWC name or the Partners for Community umbrella, continue to evolve.

“We have different organizations still tied up with us,” he said, citing, as one example, Gándara Center, which arose from Partners for Community because a population of Latino and Puerto Rican veterans were struggling with heroin. “We were not trained psychologists, but we wanted to help those guys. So we started bringing people in who could.”

Many of the organization’s services, like its fuel-assistance program that helps low-income households with utility bills through subsidies and discounts, and its three homeless shelters for families eligible for emergency assistance, found growing need throughout the pandemic, but a more challenging environment to deliver services.

“I brought life to this building; it was a historical building, but it was empty. I like to use old buildings because you bring back the history.”

Take fuel assistance, for example. “There are federal regulations, paperwork, we give to people who give us money. But a lot of people in state government took off and were working at home. Before, you could talk to a human being. Now, you’re not talking to a human being — they give you a number, you call it, but the telephone is ringing all the time. For days, that information wasn’t transmitted,” he recalled.

“I’d have 1,600 applications here for fuel assistance ready to go, but I can’t get to the right person,” he went on. “And it’s not just me; all the state nonprofit agencies were dealing with that. The bureaucrats went home.

In other words, he said, communication broke down just as needs were rising. “It was tough, but we survived.”

Flores knows something about need. He was intimately acquainted with poverty as his family struggled for sustenance throughout his childhood in Puerto Rico. It was there, he said, that he began to identify himself with economically deprived groups and devote himself to service on their behalf — just as his experience in the military has spurred him to stay active in veterans’ causes; he was named Springfield Veteran of the Year in 2001.

Yet, through all his work with NEFWC and Partners for Community — whose services also extend to young people through HiSET support and mentoring programs, workforce-training programs for job seekers, and programs for adults with developmental disabilities or acquired brain injury — he remains humble.

“Everything we have done … I’m the figurehead, in a sense,” he said. “I have a whole team that works with me.”

 

Growing Recognition

This is the second time BusinessWest has honored Flores with one of its coveted awards; he was named Top Entrepreneur for 2011 for all his community-investment work, but particularly his real-estate projects that focused on urban renewal, housing, and other forms of economic development.

These included the Borinquen project in the impoverished North End of Springfield, which involved the renovation of 41 units of low-income housing, as well as six commercial spaces. The $11 million project combined federal tax credits, private-investment tax credits, Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development funds, city of Springfield HOME funds, and private financing — a good example of the tapestry of players Flores must weave together to turn one of his visions into reality.

“I brought life to this building; it was a historical building, but it was empty,” he said. “I like to use old buildings because you bring back the history.”

About 35 years ago, Flores made his first forays into real estate through Brightwood Development Corp. (BDC), a nonprofit formed with the goal of providing housing and economic development on the north side of Springfield. As president and CEO of the BDC, he developed a $2.5 million shopping center, La Plaza del Mercado, on Main Street in 1995, followed by a $3 million neighborhood medical clinic, El Centro de Salud Medico Inc., the next year. That was immediately followed by a $2 million rehabilitation of blighted, multi-family houses in the North End.

A more current project, a $38 million effort to transform Springfield’s historic Paramount Theater, which opened in 1926, into a performing arts center — and the adjoining Massasoit building, which was constructed before the Civil War, into a boutique hotel — has run into debt issues and delays in recent years, but remains a significant part of Flores’ downtown vision.

In addition to his other endeavors, he is president of the North End Educational Development Fund, which administers the largest Hispanic scholarship fund in New England, providing college scholarships for underprivileged, inner-city Springfield residents — and, hopefully, starts them on their own journeys of success.

All this earned him yet another honor in 2019, the prestigious Pynchon Medal from the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts and the Pynchon trustees. Now, being named a Difference Maker soon after NEFWC marked 50 years of service is especially gratifying.

“I feel honored and proud to have been chosen by BusinessWest as one of the 2022 Difference Makers,” he said, noting, again, that his board of directors and staff deserves much of the credit for what he’s been able to accomplish. “Our longevity and success is a direct result of their dedication to our clients and our organization. All that I have accomplished is with the assistance of those around me.”

He also credited a number of regional business and nonprofit luminaries; throughout a broad interview, he dropped names like Janis Santos, Dick Stebbins, Leon Pernice, Bill Dwight, Paul Doherty, Joe LoBello, and Ronn Johnson as examples of mentors, supporters, and influences.

“I needed to produce something positive, not for me or for a little group, but for all of society,” he said. “In doing that, you develop relationships.”

He’s also been willing to lend a hand — and his acumen — to other organizations. “I sit on Janis Santos’ board,” he said, referring to the recently retired leader of HCS Head Start. “It’s about the education of children. People like that ask, ‘can you give us some time and help us open some doors?’ Yes, I can.”

Or, as another example, “Sister [Mary] Caritas asked me, ‘Herbie, can you come sit on my board? I need some advice for only three months.’ And three years later, I’m still there.”

 

Harvest of Success

He’s still there, all right — fighting the good fight to help folks who are struggling, and raising the profile and well-being of Springfield as well.

“You might change something a little bit,” he said of his philosophy of taking on new projects. “But it’s better than nothing. If you have a vision, you have to see where it will go.”

Springfield, and its environs, are certainly better off because of the difference Herbie Flores has made over the past half-century.

“It’s our city,” he told BusinessWest. “Let’s make it better, and leave it better for the next generation.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

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