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Enterprising immigrants build businesses in ABQ

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Cecilia Portal is building a business around personal and professional skills she’s acquired as a Cuban-Mexican immigrant.

The Cuban-born South Valley resident grew up in Mexico City and immigrated to the U.S. in 1981, arriving in Albuquerque ten years later. A nurse by profession, she pursued a career here managing nonprofit organizations because her Mexico nursing certification doesn’t authorize her to practice in the U.S.

Now, after nearly 40 years in the American melting pot, Portal has melded her bilingual skills with her knowledge of nursing and management to launch Valley Community Interpreters to train bilingual individuals for professional Spanish-English oral interpretation in the medical, education and social service fields.

While well-established in the courts, oral interpretation is less established in other fields, but demand is growing.

Since launching in September 2015, Portal’s program has trained 155 people, using a nationally certified interpreting and cultural competency training course. And by year-end, she plans to launch an oral-interpretation agency that will employ program graduates to provide contract services in New Mexico and beyond.

“We’re not rich, we’re just getting started,” Portal said. “But we’re solvent and building the business.”

Portal’s company is one of dozens of immigrant-owned startups around the city. And like many, Portal turned to local nonprofit groups and entrepreneurial organizations to help build her business.

Valley Community Interpreters started out in the South Valley Economic Development Center. This year, it moved to the WESST business incubator Downtown.

Collaborative effort

Those organizations and others like the Greater Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce and Encuentro, a nonprofit education and advocacy group for Latino immigrants, have stepped up their efforts to provide immigrants like Portal and other marginalized populations, including low-income communities, minorities and women, with the services they need to pursue entrepreneurship.

Its part of a newfound emphasis on collaboration spurred in part by City Alive, an umbrella organization that aims to improve livelihoods through sustainable, homegrown businesses.

Robin Brulé

“We’re focused on breaking down barriers for families living in poverty, people of color and immigrant entrepreneurs,” said City Alive Chief Strategist Robin Brulé. “They face many challenges that we’re trying to ease through collective impact. It can’t be done by one organization alone, but through multiple organizations working together.”

Those communities face numerous challenges, from limited education and entrepreneurial training to lack of capital and access to credit.

For immigrants, the problems are compounded by language barriers, cultural bias and, more recently, increased government efforts to crack down on undocumented individuals.

Support programs are critical, not just to help integrate the city’s marginalized groups into the local melting pot, but to lift the city’s overall economy, Brulé said.

“It’s about all people in Albuquerque having access to opportunities and the ability to prosper,” Brulé said. “We need to advance inclusion and access across the board to build a functioning and prosperous economy.”

Immigrants have built more than 15,000 businesses across the state, according to a report last year from the American Immigration Council. Together, they represent about 15 percent of all self-employed New Mexico residents, generating about $375 million in revenue in 2015.

Overall, immigrant workers comprise nearly 13 percent of the local labor force, according to the report. Immigrant-led households paid $757 million in federal taxes and $394 million in state and local taxes in 2014.

Citywide businesses

Immigrant businesses are spread throughout the city, although they’re especially concentrated in the South Valley and in Albuquerque’s southeastern International District. They include everything from restaurants, supermarkets and food trucks to auto repair shops, cleaning businesses and hair and beauty salons.

They also represent a broad range of nationalities, including people from Asian and Mideastern countries.

But the vast majority are Latino, with Mexico accounting for about 70 percent of the state’s immigrant population.

To better serve those communities, local organizations are providing a lot more educational and networking programs in Spanish. That includes intensive business training courses and individual mentoring, coaching and consulting.

Encuentro, the South Valley Economic Development Center and WESST are working together through City Alive’s Molino Project. They developed a software system that links their organizations online to rapidly connect indivi-duals with needed resources.

Josué Olivares

“We can’t satisfy all our clients’ needs, so now we connect them with existing resources around the city through online collaboration,” said South Valley Economic Development Center Director Josué Olivares. “With the new system, we can refer clients for specific training or mentoring at WESST or Encuentro where staff already know the client’s needs in advance and are waiting for them.”

The partners want to expand collaboration, said WESST Enterprise Center Managing Director Juliana Silva.

“Our three organizations are piloting the software system, but we expect more organizations to join over time,” Silva said.

Encouraging aspirations

Their efforts are reaching hundreds of aspiring immigrant entrepreneurs.

The Development Center graduated 26 new companies from its incubator programs last year, and it’s training 29 more now, about 35 percent of them started by Spanish-speaking immigrants, Olivares said.

About 200 have gone through Encuentro’s business courses, said Executive Director Andrea Plaza. And the Hispano Chamber has graduated about 400 people from its Spanish-language business accelerator program, launched in 2014, said Synthia Jaramillo, the chamber’s former chief operating officer and now Economic Development Director for the city.

After enrolling in Encuentro’s business courses this year, Mexican immigrants José and Mayanín Veléz registered their home-based construction business with the state. Until now, J. Veléz Ramon LLC had operated informally, mostly managing small jobs for homeowners and individuals.

But the company’s new legal structure has led to contracts with commercial property owners, including repair and cleaning services for apartment complexes.

“As a registered company with an employer identification number and insurance, we can now access those jobs,” José said. “Encuentro guided us through the process. We’ve signed three commercial contracts just since January, and we’re earning a lot more through stable, good-paying jobs.”

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