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Advocating a diverse, inclusive NM economy

Agnes Noonan, executive director of WESST
Dean Hanson/Journal file

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — To build a truly robust entrepreneurial ecosystem that benefits everyone in New Mexico, a lot more marginalized, disadvantaged populations must be brought into the fold, WESST President Agnes Noonan told the Albuquerque Economic Forum Wednesday morning.

“We need to build a diverse and inclusive economy,” Noonan told prominent business and nonprofit leaders, economic development professionals and politicians. “We need to democratize access and opportunity to entrepreneurship.”

That’s been WESST’s focus since launching in 1989. The nonprofit, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, provides education, technical assistance and other services to small businesspeople across the state. That includes training through classes and workshops, one-on-one consulting and mentoring, access to capital and company incubation.

From the start, WESST — which stands for Women’s Economic Self Sufficiency Team — has concentrated on disadvantaged groups and underserved communities.

It’s provided assistance to 39,000 people throughout New Mexico since 1989, helping entrepreneurs start 2,528 businesses and creating nearly 5,000 jobs. Of those receiving assistance, 65 percent are women, 60 percent people of color, and 65 percent low-wealth individuals, Noonan told Forum participants.

But a lot more is needed to reach existing and aspiring entrepreneurs from diverse populations, Noonan said. And that requires a broad, collaborative community effort to fill in widespread “gaps” in access to resources, services, and affordable funding.

It also means bridging local language barriers to embrace Spanish speakers, who represent 30 percent of the population. And it means building “social capital” for disadvantaged individuals to connect with community networks and build business relations.

“For many of us, we just pick up a phone and make a call,” Noonan said. “But many people don’t have those business connections in the community.”

Efforts should especially focus on small businesses with less than 20 people, and micro-sized businesses with four or fewer employees. Together, those firms account for nearly 80 percent of all businesses in Bernalillo County, she said.

Outreach and services should target lower income communities in places like Trumbull Village, the International District and the South Valley, where family income is generally about one-fifth or less than households in more affluent areas, Noonan added.

On the positive side, a much more robust entrepreneurial ecosystem has emerged in recent years in Albuquerque and across New Mexico, with a lot more innovation, collaboration, re-investment in neighborhoods and community goodwill that can be tapped, she said.

“The challenge is how to continue building on that,” Noonan said. “It’s incumbent on us to continue investing in the small- and micro-business sectors, and to celebrate diversity. It’s all about racial equity.”


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