Bridging Gaps to Success for Minority Women Entrepreneurs

Growing up as a Hispanic girl in Los Angeles, Martha de la Torre wasn’t encouraged to be assertive. Her father expected her to be quiet at the dinner table. Her immigrant family circle did not include professionals who could be mentors or offer business connections to the aspiring entrepreneur.

So de la Torre, owner and chief executive of EC Hispanic Media, sought her own mentoring and training. And like many women of color who lack automatic social capital, de la Torre found people and organizations that could help. Last month the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce named her its 2014 Latina Businesswoman of the Year. Her 26-year-old Spanish-language media conglomerate brought in more than $20 million last year.

An array of government agencies, private entities, and nonprofit organizations try to bridge social and financial gaps with help directed specifically at minority women entrepreneurs. But finding that help often takes diligence and creativity—qualities that successful business owners tend to have.

To develop and market her laundry detergent, Safonique, Patricia Boswell tapped resources at the universities where her husband was a basketball coach in the 1990s. Boswell, who is black, taught herself about ingredients, packaging, and business finance, digging in at libraries and career centers while her children were in school.

She attended trade shows and sought buyers and senior managers willing to listen to her story. Eventually, she met an African-American Wal-Mart Stores executive who became a mentor. “He really helped me strategize and market my business properly so I could expand. He was my first major supporter,” Boswell says. “Getting into business, you have to really know yourself and have some tenacity and patience.”

Perseverance and networking also paid off for Gloria Freeman, who started Olu’s Home, a company providing residential and in-home care to the disabled and elderly, after she was laid off from an insurance company 15 years ago. Once a shoestring startup, the business now has 90 employees and runs nine residential care centers in Minneapolis.

As an African-American woman, Freeman latched on to every local and regional nonprofit and government support group she could find as her business grew. “I would go to their events and become a big supporter of what they were doing,” she says. She recently got a $1.2 million loan to buy and renovate a building that she plans to open this month as an intergenerational care center, bringing together elderly clients with neighborhood children needing day care.

Part of the loan money was funneled through the Calvert Foundation, a nonprofit that raises capital from local investors to lend to small business owners—particularly women of color in poor neighborhoods. Getting help from organizations like Calvert has been critical to Freeman’s success. “It means more than you can ever imagine,” she says. “I’m leaving a legacy for my grandchildren and giving hope to a lot of other African-American females.”

For her part, de la Torre sought opportunities to work for companies and join organizations that promoted women leaders. She took an accounting job at Arthur Young (predecessor to Ernst & Young) because it was the only large accounting firm that had a female partner in 1978.

She became involved in the National Latina Business Women Association, which gave her a platform to speak about her company, and took a leadership course from Hispanas Organized for Political Equality. “That was incredible. They made us practice debating and speaking in front of a camera,” she says. “I had been completely tongue-tied and couldn’t say anything when I was put on the spot before that.”

Now she mentors younger women of color coming up through the ranks at her business. She encourages them to strive for more, even if they’re already the high-achievers in their families by virtue of holding college degrees. “A lot of Latino parents are blue-collar workers or they are not working. The young people have to be shown how to survive and how to act in the business world,” she says. “I want my female employees to learn more than I know myself.”