A business course for Spanish speakers serves Fort Wayne’s growing Hispanic and Latinx populations

Starting a business can be challenging for anyone. But the barriers are even higher for underserved communities—particularly those who don’t speak English as a primary language or immigrants who fear repercussions for reaching out.
 
These are challenges SEED Fort Wayne, formerly The Urban Enterprise Association, is seeking to address through its Spanish-speaking cohort of the Build Institute course for entrepreneurs.
 
Rochelle Ulanowicz, Coordinator for SEED, or the Summit City Entrepreneur and Enterprise District, says in many cases, there’s a lack of information and access to education about U.S. laws and taxes or social media and marketing tactics among non-English speaking populations. These would-be entrepreneurs might not know whether to form an LLC or a sole proprietorship or about government and private resources for small business owners. 

That’s where Ulanowicz’s team behind the Build Institute and SEED Fort Wayne come in. They are working to address these challenges. One step, one business at a time in Fort Wayne.

"We just tried to cater to the Spanish community as best as we could,” says Ulanowicz.

Build Institute leaders from left are Cozy Baker, Rochelle Ulanowicz, and David De Leon.

Founded in 1984, the mission of SEED is to revitalize Fort Wayne’s industrial core through programs and support for underserved entrepreneurs and business leaders. In recent years, changes in state legislation have opened the way for additional grant funding, and SEED has replicated and localized two successful programs from Detroit, Mich. One is the Summit City Match program, which pairs entrepreneurs with vacant storefronts for community revitalization. Another is the Build Institute, a nine-week, cohort-based course designed to help small businesses and entrepreneurs, providing education, materials, community connections, and institutional resources. 

The first Spanish-speaking session of the Build Institute was held in late 2021; the second begins July 14, 2022. The first session was comprised of nine classes, including nine people each. To complete the course, attendees are expected to take a minimum of seven classes, among other requirements, including a presentation of their business plans at graduation.
 
The first session, though a bit unorthodox, says Ulanowicz, was effective nonetheless.

“Obviously, it was our first cohort, so things were done a little differently,” she says. “They did not have business plans, but they had displays of all their products, and they talked about how they came about creating their products.” 

SEED Fort Wayne is working to support Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs, one step, one business at a time in Fort Wayne.

It was a business showcase, so to speak.

One Build Institute graduate, David De Leon, volunteered to facilitate last year’s inaugural class. A Guatemalan immigrant, De Leon started Leon Properties Enterprise in 2019, so he is an entrepreneur, but he’s also a teacher and a leader. He holds a business degree from Ivy Tech, and he knows the process of starting a business in the U.S. for Latinos, as well as the accompanying challenges. He gets it, and he wants to help others.

"One of the things I noticed is that a lot of people didn't understand their business,” he says. 

Graduates of the first Spanish cohort of the Build Institute in December 2021.
 
Some of the challenges he sees Latino entrepreneurs facing include understanding the cost of running a business, the specificity of their services, and then pricing products and services. Managing taxes for a business and separating personal finances from business finances are key lessons, too.
 
"Overall, the goal is to create a business plan for the business,” he says. “So, after the class, they should be able to start a business or run a business."
 
In Fort Wayne, the Hispanic, Latinx community is growing. About 9 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic or Latino, compared to 72 percent white and 15 percent black, according to the U.S. Census. In 2010, the Latino or Hispanic population was 6 percent.
 
As this population grows, Ulanowicz says she doesn’t want fear to prevent residents from starting local businesses.
 
"We want to just teach everybody best business practices and how to develop their business,” she says. “We don't care whether you're documented or not; that's not what we're here for. We just want to give you the education that you need and help you with whatever resources that we have."

Build Institute graduate and facilitator, David De Leon, left, poses with a graduate of the first Spanish cohort in 2021, Sandra Castillo of Creations by Sandra Castillo, LLC.
 
One graduate of the first Spanish-speaking cohort in 2021 is Sandra Castillo, who owns and operates a business in Fort Wayne specializing in event planning, parties, and balloons. Castillo is passionate about balloons.
 
“My passion is to help clients bring their balloon dreams to life!” she says on the website for her business, Creations by Sandra Castillo, LLC.
 
Castillo holds a master's degree in business from Indiana Wesleyan University, and she started her business before she attended Build Institute. But she continued to learn through the program, which helped her realize she needed to know more about marketing and developing business plans to achieve her goals.
 
“Attending the program not only allowed me to learn how to achieve my goals, but allowed me to see the struggles of other Hispanic, Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs within our city,” Castillo says. “I was able to build relationships with attendees.” 

The first Spanish-speaking session of the Build Institute was held in late 2021.
 
This growing network of like-minded local Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs has proven vital for Castillo, who has lived in Fort Wayne for 26 years. Overall, she says SEED has helped her step out of her comfort zone and make a difference in other people's lives. It’s also helped her and others effectively utilize the resources that exist in Fort Wayne.
 
“We live in a city where the opportunity and funds are given; it's a matter of finding the right program that will connect you with these tools, such as SEED did for us,” she says. “I personally believe the city invests in retaining and attracting new businesses and have personally seen the investment and support they provide to minorities.”
 
De Leon understands the art of teaching. He understands that people learn differently, and one teaches adults differently than they would teenagers, for example. The goal is to help residents keep learning—never stopping.
 
He sees SEED and the Spanish-speaking cohort as essential to this ongoing learning curve, and by extension, to the broader city and its growth.
 
“Businesses are popping up everywhere in Fort Wayne,” he says. “It’s well known that small businesses are the forces that move the economy, especially the local economy.”
 
More information: Visit www.seedfw.org or [email protected]. Call (260) 422-2304.

This story is part of an Entrepreneurship series made possible by underwriting from SEED Fort Wayne. To learn more about SEED, visit its website at seedfw.org.