WIMAUMA — Johana Santiago has always dreamed of launching a business selling the savory sofrito she made back in Puerto Rico.
Magda Alicia Gutierrez needed lessons in business to open a food truck and offer selections like her Piña Loca pineapple drink.
Josefina Martinez, a domestic violence victim from Mexico, has been rejected for job after job and hopes she can make a living with the miniature crafts she makes.
All three women have turned for help to Enterprising Latinas, a nonprofit established to “create pathways of opportunity” for Latinas in the Tampa Bay area, according to the Wimauma nonprofit’s mission statement.
“I made my sofrito forever but only for my family and friends,” said Santiago, 50, who spent hours at her home in Riverview experimenting with flavors and recipes to develop a commercial version of the iconic Puerto Rican food base. “I would like to do it right and I would like to be more independent.”
In 2019, its tenth year of operation, Enterprising Latinas provided the help needed to open half a dozen new businesses.
Among other measures of the nonprofit’s influence in the past 12 months: More than 30 Hispanic women took part in its business development and food service management training; more than 106 students all told attended these and other classes, including computer basics and financial literacy; and seasonal markets were organized in Wimauma for local entrepreneurs to sell their products and services.
The markets gave people a first opportunity to do business in their community, said Santos Morales, director of economic prosperity at Enterprising Latinas. On average, each market attracted 24 vendors and 125 visitors.
The demand is great in Wimauma for workforce training, Morales said. Average annual income is just $12,290 for women, according to the Census. That compares with $19,550 for men and $31,173 countywide. Nearly one in four people live in poverty and 44 percent of the population 25 and older lacks a high school degree.
Enterprising Latinas and its staff of 15 offer training and other services from a converted restaurant at 5128 State Road 674, known as the Women’s Opportunity Center. The property and redevelopment has cost nearly $1 million, paid for with a loan from Phoenix-based Raza Development Fund and a grant from Allegany Franciscan Ministries — affiliated with Clearwater-based BayCare Health System.
Enterprising Latinas, founded by chief executive Elizabeth Gutierrez — no relation to Magda Alicia Gutierrez — operates on annual revenues of about $689,000. About three-fourths comes from private contributions and one-fourth from government grants, according to the most recent tax form filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
Not all its initiatives have paid off yet for Enterprising Latinas. The Wimauma Cares Home Childcare program aims to create four to six in-house family daycare centers in the area, but it’s been tough finding locations because so much of the housing available is dilapidated, Morales said.
“Notwithstanding the current challenges,” he said, “we continue to promote this program and remain optimistic.”
The nonprofit has set a goal of expanding its impact by helping develop a business plan for at least a dozen budding entrepreneurs during the first 100 days of 2020, in part by providing each of them more than 40 hours of technical assistance.
Santiago took a 10-week course between August and November, studying financial strategy, industry analysis, insurance, permits and marketing. She said she’s ready to start selling her sofrito early this year under the brand name Joba. Made of chopped garlic, oregano, cilantro, onions and peppers, the sauce will cost $3 for an 8-ounce jar, $5 for a 16-ounce jar.
Santiago, a mother of three, worked as a criminologist for more than ten years in Puerto Rico but decided in 2011 to seek a life in the United States and moved to Tampa. Marketing her sauce was always one of her goals.
“More than a hobby, I think it is an unlimited love for food and for my sofrito,” she said. “It was a matter of time, and I did it.”
Gutierrez, 30, a mother of four, learned business administration, accounting and marketing through Enterprising Latinas so she could open a food truck in Wimauma. She’s now doing business as Ali’s Snacks, Sweet and Sour, along a busy section of SR 674, where she sells soft drinks, tacos and her Piña Loca with a big smile and Norteño music playing.
Born in Michoacan, in western Mexico, Martinez said she’s planning to sell the miniature scenes and jewelry she makes in Wimauma, Ruskin and Riverview. Last week, she visited Enterprising Latinas to register for business training in February.
A mother of five children, Martinez, 41, has had trouble finding a job, in part because she cannot speak English and lacks a formal education. She sees running her own business as a key to her success.
In the modest mobile home where she lives in Gibsonton, with no air conditioning and two cats playing around her, Martinez spends four hours every morning working on her little pieces.
“I have always dedicated my energy and commitment to my family and my kids, but now they have grown up and they don’t need me 24 hours a day,” she said. “I’m okay to work in the middle of this mess and disorder. It’s my real world."