Thirty-four current and aspiring small business owners graduated on Friday from a Grand Avenue training program that teaches Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs how to build, open, and sustain small businesses.
During a buoyant, hour-long, bilingual graduation ceremony, nearly 50 students, teachers, public officials and small business owners filled the second-floor offices of the Spanish American Merchants Association (SAMA) at 258 Grand Ave. in Fair Haven.
They gathered to celebrate the nearly three dozen new graduates from the Empresario Development Center, a 10-week course that SAMA brought to New Haven in 2003 that provides Spanish and English-language training in marketing, accounting, insurance, business management, home ownership, legal matters, and seemingly everything else that one might need to know to operate a small business.
Friday’s cohort of graduates included New Haven-area residents who own or are looking to start their own businesses in construction, maintenance, home healthcare, food services, beauty supply, decorations, and auto detailing, among other industries.
“They taught me that you’re never too old to learn” how to open your own business, said Twana Taft, a recent graduate who currently works for a West Haven home healthcare business and hopes to open her own home healthcare business some day.
“You have been given a set of tools today that will last you a lifetime,” New Haven State Rep. Juan Candelaria told the group. But, he cautioned, this course is just the beginning of each student’s journey towards running a successful, sustainable small business. “If you want that business to be a success, you have to work twice as hard.”
Much of the ceremony consisted of words of praise and encouragement from partners, teachers, graduates, and supporters of SAMA, which was founded in the 1970s, is based out of Hartford, and offers all of its small business training and management courses, with much of its funding coming from the state Department of Labor.
“This mission of this organization is to create wealth, jobs, all of the vitality on the streets you see here,” said U.S. Small Business Administration Deputy District Director Julio Casiano, who served as the MC for the morning.
Casiano said that Connecticut’s Hispanic population grew by 150,000 people, or by 49 percent, between 2000 and 2014, while the population of the state as a whole only grew by 22,000, or 6 percent. He said that Latino-owned businesses in Connecticut more than doubled from 9,408 to 23,996 between 2002 and 2012.
“As more Hispanics move into the state,” he said, “into New Haven, that creates more jobs, more businesses.”
Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, the publisher of La Voz Hispana and herself a graduate of SAMA’s Empresario Development Center program, recalled driving up to classes in Hartford twice a week in the early 2000s soon after she transitioned from the world of social services to the world of owning her own business.
Before she started the SAMA program, she said, she wouldn’t even touch any of the computers in her office out of a fear that she’d accidentally erase everything on them.
“It made us computer-friendly,” she said about the small business training classes she took through SAMA, “at a time when we were not computer literate.”
After the ceremony, as everyone put down their graduation certificates and filled their paper plates with a buffet of plantains, salad, beans and rices, and pulled pork, some of the students reflected on what they found most worthwhile about the small business training program.
“To use Quickbooks and to have good balance sheets,” said Clara Pareja, who already runs a cleaning services company called M Tejada Maintenance LLC out of West Haven.
Leybis Rojas, who founded and runs the First Step Child Care and Learning Center at 95 Hamilton St., also praised the program for teaching her how to use the accounting program Quickbooks, and for helping her apply for a small business loan through HEDCO.
Gina Cintron and Janice Cruz said the program has taught them business management skills, how to put together a business plan, and accounting best practices for their Hamden auto detailing business, J&G Detailing.
And Taft and her colleague Nancy Sharperson, who both currently work for the West Haven home healthcare company Aides and Companions, said they have a much better understanding of what it takes to run a business now that they’ve graduated from the SAMA program.
One of her key takeaways for starting and running a successful business? “Don’t use all your money” at once, Taft said.