Getting a Leg Up
Tony Bermudez started his digital-media venture just before the pandemic hit.
And like just about everyone else who was in business at the time, he lost considerable momentum — and opportunities — when the state essentially shut itself down.
Indeed, his business has many components, but specially event video work, and for the first year or more of the pandemic … there were no events, or very few of them, anyway.
Bermudez, again, like many others, slogged his way through to the other side of COVID. But money has always been tight, and that’s why he considers himself fortunate to receive, and is very appreciate of, a mini-grant from the Latino Economic Development Corp. He is one of several to get one of the grants in a first round issued late last year, with another nine grants awarded in a second round just a month or so ago. Another round of grants will be awarded later in March.
‘Mini,’ in his case, means $1,100. But Bermudez was able to use it to secure software and some new equipment, specifically a lighting kit, that will help him take his business, Tony Digital Music & Media, to a higher level.
Beyond the small grant, though, Bermudez has been able to secure invaluable coaching from the LEDC, and through it he has been able to make important connections, including one with Mercy Medical Center that enabled him to secure work to create a video to help address the stigma attached to opioid addiction; work is expected to behind on that production soon.
Bermudez’s story is one of many that help bring to life the work going on at the LEDC, a new agency that BusinessWest profiled last year. Its mission, in simple terms, is to help employees become employers, said Andrew Melendez, director of Operations for the LEDC, and enable small businesses to take the next step.
It does this through a unique model focused on everything from these mini-grants to training programs offered by those coaches that will focus on everything from how to qualify for a business loan to workforce training to mental wellness, and much more.
“Capital infusions — putting money into the hands of small business owners — even if it’s only $1,000 or $2,000, can often make a huge impact, whether it’s a new business or even an existing business.”
As for the grants, they are indeed small, with amounts varying from $1,000 to $3,000 in the first few rounds. But small businesses just getting off the ground can use such funds to take important steps forward, Melendez said.
“Capital infusions — putting money into the hands of small business owners — even if it’s only $1,000 or $2,000, can often make a huge impact, whether it’s a new business or even an existing business,” he explained, adding that the grants are funded through $450,000 in overall support awarded to the LEDC by the state. “They can put that money to use in many different and important ways.”
Such was the case with Pedro Arroyo, who used his $2,500 grant to secure new and better signage for his business, Juguitos Healthy Grab & Go, at its new home on State Street in Springfield.
Arroyo and his sister, Elizabeth, saw a unmet need in Springfield for a place where people could get healthy foods in a hurry and moved forward to meet it, despite the pandemic, which was descending on the area just as they were getting started.
“We saw an opportunity to provide something that wasn’t really available anywhere in the city,” he noted. “We came together, took a chance and said, ‘let’s try this.’
The stories behind these businesses, and people taking chances — and the grants they’ve obtained — help shed important light on the important work being done by the LEDC, and how it is changing the business landscape in all kinds of ways.
It’s called the unrestricted construction supervisor’s license.
Jason Vásquez, owner of Nas Small Repairs, which specializes in small construction projects and repairs to homes and businesses, needs one to take his venture, and his career, to the next level. And he’s using his $1,000 mini-grant to buy the code and regulations books and other materials to help him attain that license.
“I want to enable my small business to grow, and in the future, I’d like to have a program for young people and women to learn about construction and maybe move into the field,” he explained. “And to do that, I need this license and the right personnel behind me.”
Vasquez’s use of his mini-grant is exemplary of the many ways they are being put to use and how important they are to small businesses who need them to gain some momentum with whatever might be written into their business plan.
And the names on the businesses that have received such grants in the most recent round show just how varied these business plans are. That list includes Faded Barber Lounge, Thomas’ Cleaning, 50-50 Food Truck, Agudelo Apiary, Burgos & Son Trucking LLC, and Top-Flight Nutrition.
It also includes Juguitos Healthy Grab & Go, a name that tells you all you need to know (or almost all you need to know), and a venture inspired by personal need.
As Arroyo tells the story, he and his sister, Elizabeth, were both looking to shed some weight and “take back their health,” as he put it, starting with their respective diets.
“It was difficult because I was a videographer, and I was on the road all the time — I didn’t have the time to make prepared meals, and would eat out a lot,” he went on, adding that he and Elizabeth set out to address their own needs, and those of countless others, by creating a business focused on smoothies, juices, soups, sandwiches, and other healthy offerings that, as the sign says, people can grab and go.
The venture started off at 112 State St., a small location that was hindered further by a lack of parking, Pedro said, adding that the business was nonetheless able to thrive at that location, and thanks to $75,000 in ARPA funding secured from the city, he and Elizabeth were able to move into needed larger quarters just up the road, at 133 State St.
The LEDC has provided assistance at many critical junctures, he said, including direction on how to secure ARPA funding from the city of Springfield.
This work in progress is just one of many that the LEDC has become involved with, through technical assistance and coaching, a mini-grant, or both. And it’s just one example of how this agency is trying to change Main Street, or State Street, in this case, by helping more people get into business and put their signs on buildings.
Bermudez isn’t there yet, but he’s moving in the right direction, thanks to many different kinds of support from the LEDC.
As noted earlier, he received a grant that he used to buy equipment that made an immediate impact on his venture, which specializes in video promotion, business presentations and advertising, animation, event photography, and more.
“We saw an opportunity to provide something that wasn’t really available anywhere in the city. We came together, took a chance and said, ‘let’s try this.”
But it has been the coaching, and the connections the LEDC has helped him make, that have been even more impactful, he went on, citing not only the Mercy project, but also a contract in Holyoke to teach video production to young people as just a few examples of how the LEDC has been able to help him seize opportunities.
“They have a great team there, and a forward-looking attitude to help Latino small businesses,” he said, adding that that are dozens of coaches, each with a specific niche, that can help individuals like himself not only create a business plan, but execute it.
Gilberto Amador, president and CEO of the Mass 2 Miami Consulting Group, is one of those coaches. He told BusinessWest he and other coaches at the LEDC act as a support network for new and emerging businesses.
He said the process starts with an hour-long meeting at which a game plan is developed for creating momentum and forward progress.
“They leave that meeting knowing what we need to work on,” Amador said, stressing the ‘we’ part of that equation, while emphasizing that the business owner needs to take ownership of the next steps and is held accountable for staying on the set course. “Maybe it’s a business plan, because many people are working on their business but they don’t have a business plan, or it could be marketing … whatever needs to be worked on.
“Sometimes it’s cash flow,” he went on. “You talk to them about cash flow and how their business functions, how they have to pay themselves from their business finances of their business, how to separate business from personal … these are things that a lot of business owners are not aware of or they haven’t been doing, and it’s very important for us to shed some light on these kinds of things so that these become more productive, and successful, businesses in our community.”
Amador described this work as very rewarding, especially as he sees small-business owners, such as Bermudez, Vasquez, and the Arroyos, take important steps forward and put their ventures on more solid footing.
“Part of being a business coach is really seeing the success of some of the businesses that are coming in,” he said. “They work so hard every day to do what they have to do … and we help them articulate what it is that they want to do and lay out the steps to get there. That’s where the rubber meets the road, and I love working with them because you get to see those lightbulbs go on.”
Turning on more of these lightbulbs is the unofficial mission at the LEDC, which has been busy handing out grants in recent weeks and will continue to do through the course of the year.
But that’s just part of the story. The other, much bigger part is helping these individuals get on a path to success, and stay on that path.