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WESST celebrates its 30th anniversary

The 37,000-square-foot WESST Enterprise Center Downtown provides incubator space for up to 20 startups. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Miguel Garcia has installed and repaired heating and cooling systems in New Mexico for 14 years, but when it came to opening his own business, the veteran repairman quickly realized how little he knew.

He launched All About Heating and Cooling LLC last June from his home near Downtown Albuquerque after saving up for equipment and supplies. But to manage the challenges of building a company from scratch, Garcia turned to WESST, a nonprofit that provides training and mentoring for aspiring and existing entrepreneurs, particularly women, minorities and low-income people.

WESST taught Garcia the basics of running a business through group classes and individual mentoring. It also helped him build a website, boosting his customer base and helping him win work on new construction projects with a general contractor.

“WESST is great for small businesses like mine, especially when you’re just starting out,” Garcia said. “This is my first business, and I knew almost nothing. WESST helped me with everything.”

The nonprofit, which launched in 1989, is now celebrating its 30th anniversary of assisting small businesspeople like Garcia. Since opening, it’s provided education and technical assistance to 39,000 people across the state. It’s helped entrepreneurs start 2,528 businesses, creating nearly 5,000 jobs.

WESST President Agnes Noonan, left, with Julianna Silva, vice president for special programs and marketing. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“We offer a comprehensive set of services, including business training through classes and workshops, one-on-one consulting and mentoring, access to capital, and company incubation,” said WESST President Agnes Noonan. “But our fundamental goals have never changed. It’s all about education, teaching the basics of business, how it works and how to be successful.”

The nonprofit has grown over the years, adding services, extending its geographic reach, and opening a 37,000-square-foot incubator at Lomas and Broadway Downtown in 2009. It’s grown from two staff members and a $110,000 annual budget in 1991 to 24 employees and $3.2 million today. It now has six service centers statewide, including Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Farmington, Roswell and Las Cruces.

From the start, WESST has concentrated on serving disadvantaged groups and underserved communities.

“We focus primarily on women, people of color and low-wealth individuals,” Noonan said. “That’s remained our key target markets for 30 years …We want to make sure there are opportunities for diverse individuals in a diverse state.”

More than 60 percent of all WESST clients fall into those disadvantaged categories.

In fact, WESST – which stands for Women’s Economic Self Sufficiency Team – got its start with three local women inspired by the creation of federally-backed Women’s Business Centers around the country. Two executives from Public Service Co. of New Mexico, Joellyn Murphy and Carol Radosevich, together with WESST’s first executive director, Jessica Glicken, initially launched the nonprofit in 1988 with a $50,000 seed grant from PNM.

They won federal funding in 1989 through the U.S. Small Business Administration, providing ongoing support that continues today through a permanent SBA program created after passage of the WBC Sustainability Act of 1999.

“That program allows more than 100 women’s business centers nationwide to apply for renewable funding every three years,” Noonan said. “We match that money dollar-for-dollar with non-federal support.”

The nonprofit also launched a small loan fund in 1990 with a $50,000 grant from the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati. That’s grown over the years with money from the SBA and other sources, allowing the nonprofit to make nearly 900 loans since 1990 totaling $8.7 million for cash-strapped startups with limited access to commercial credit.

And in 2003, WESST launched an Individual Development Account, or IDA program, to teach financial literacy to low-income New Mexico residents while helping them build savings. The program, federally funded with local matching dollars, encourages participants to contribute up to $500 to an IDA savings account. Participants then receive $7 for each dollar saved, or up to $3,500 that they can use for higher education, a down payment on a first home, or to invest in a business.

To date, that program has benefitted about 800 people, said Julianna Silva, WESST vice president for special programs and marketing.

A major milestone came in 2009, when the nonprofit opened the WESST Enterprise Center, a $10.4 million business incubator Downtown, paid for with federal, state and municipal funding. It houses up to 20 companies, offering high-tech office space and infrastructure at minimal cost. That includes phones, high-speed Internet, receptionist services, conference rooms, wet labs, light manufacturing facilities, and a 1,000-square-foot digital media studio.

A co-working space is also available for up to 15 companies or entrepreneurs.

Tenants can access a range of on-site business workshops, seminars and networking events, plus individual mentoring and professional assistance in advertising, accounting, finance, marketing and more.

“We provide wrap-around services to potentially high-growth, scalable companies,” Silva said. “It’s not just a low-cost place to rent. The real value is to be part of the full incubation program.”

WESST continues to expand its programs and services in Albuquerque and elsewhere with public and private grants. Since 2016, funding from the city and from the Kellogg, Hearst and Kauffman foundations have allowed WESST to broaden its Spanish-language services around the state, launch a new training program for creative entrepreneurs, and begin direct outreach efforts for businesspeople in Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood, the International District and the South Valley.

Clients say WESST provides critical support.

Lauren Tobey, founder and owner of the jewelry-making school and co-working space Meltdown Studio, used a WESST loan last year to move into a spacious facility in Old Town. She now meets every month with WESST consultants.

“They’ve helped me get a lot more organized and figure out how to keep growing my business,” Tobey said. “The loan was great, but the real value is in their professional consulting and mentoring services.”

Claudia Márquez, owner and president of the franchised Mexican restaurant El Taco Tote, said WESST training is like a crash course in business management.

“It’s like going to college, but with direct, practical application to your business,” Márquez said. “They help you set clear, realistic goals.”

Jennifer Patel, owner and founder of the West Side Gym The Hit Fit Club, said she runs all her ideas by WESST before implementing them.

“I can go to them for almost any question,” Patel said. “Whether its employee issues or marketing ideas, they help us figure it out.”

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