WIMAUMA — Three Hispanic women launched their businesses before the pandemic with help from a Wimauma nonprofit.
Their progress during the two years since then, in the face of unprecedented challenges for would-be entrepreneurs, is a tale of perseverance, adaptability, creative thinking — and for the most part, success.
Josefina Martínez, Magda Alicia Gutiérrez, and Johana Santiago were featured in a January 2020 Tampa Bay Times story about Enterprising Latinas, a nonprofit that helps more than 100 women each year gain financial footing through mentoring, skills development and small business advice.
All three women have kept their dreams alive, one to sell crafts online, another to run a food truck, another to market her special sauce. Here is where their aspirations stand today.
Martínez had lost her job cleaning houses just before the pandemic hit. She took business training and decided to make and sell jewelry and miniature crafts in the southern Hillsborough County communities of Wimauma, Ruskin and Riverview.
To keep making ends meet, Martínez, a 43-year-old mother of five from Mexico who once was a victim of domestic violence, decided to shift her new business entirely online. She used what was left of her savings to buy even more materials.
“The last thing you lose is hope, and honestly, I’m good at this,” she said. “I never give up.”
Each morning, she works six to eight hours in the backyard of her mobile home in Gibsonton, making bracelets and other jewelry and miniature houses and furniture. In the afternoons, she turns to marketing, posting photos and videos of her work, along with gift baskets and special arrangements, for her friends and followers to browse. Most of them are immigrants from Central America and Mexico.
Sticking with the new business was an uphill battle. Her husband, a construction worker, as well as close friends told her she would have to shut down. Instead, she kept going. She knew profit wasn’t the only reward she was after.
“Even though I don’t make as much money as I’d like, at least I own my plans,” Martínez said. “It makes me feel happy and comforts me during the worst moments.”
One of those moments came earlier this month when Martínez was diagnosed with COVID-19. She was almost hospitalized. Her recovery has been more difficult than she expected.
She returned to work a week ago and is planning to prepare 80 gift baskets for Valentine’s Day, filled with her miniatures, chocolates and stuffed animals.
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“Last year, I sold $3,500 worth for Valentine’s Day,” she said. “Now I’m sure it’s going to be better for me.”
Gutiérrez, a 32-old-Mexican immigrant, sold her food truck just before the pandemic hit in March 2020. She decided to stay at home to take care of her five children, ages 10-18, while her husband Giovani Espinoza, 42, worked as a welder in Tampa.
A month ago, the couple had saved up enough money to buy and open a new food truck, Mr. G Taqueria, at a gas station parking lot in Ruskin. Gutiérrez sells tacos, sandwiches and soft drinks. Espinoza quit his job to join her and now prepares dishes from recipes he learned from his Mexican family.
“It was a challenge because nobody expected a pandemic to last for so long, but we survived and we kept our dreams to think about our next step,” Gutiérrez said.
She’s hoping things will return to normal this year. Customers are flocking to the food truck, especially during the weekends, boosting the family’s monthly income. She looks forward to building her new business.
“There is nothing better than being your own boss and being able to make your way with your own effort and sacrifice,” Gutiérrez said.
Santiago, 52, of Brandon, had always dreamed of launching a business selling the savory sofrito she made in her native Puerto Rico. Before the pandemic, she was ready to launch with the brand name Joba.
But Santiago, a mother of three children, had to put her plans on hold because of the pandemic. One problem was finding the right jar at the right price to preserve the special sauce, made from ingredients including minced garlic, oregano, cilantro, onion and bell peppers.
Rising costs make it difficult for her to stick to a business plan that calls for a price point of $3 for an 8-ounce jar and $5 for a 16-ounce jar.
“Finding the right bottle is important to me, but the pandemic hit and suddenly I couldn’t find competitive prices and styles,” Santiago said. “Everything was and is too expensive.”
Santiago continues working on her brand, trying different presentations and even variations on her recipe. Meantime, she continues making her living cooking and serving dishes in the kitchen of a Brandon school.
“I invested time to try new combinations and ingredients, she said. “It wasn’t wasted time because I have something that I want to add to my line products very soon. It’s a new organic recipe.”
Enterprising Latinas, the nonprofit that has helped the three businesswomen with its training in business development, has also been forced to explore new paths to success during the pandemic, said Santos Morales, director of economic prosperity.
During the pandemic, over the past two years, the nonprofit still managed to graduate 40 women.
Enterprising Latinas operates on annual revenues of about $689,000, three-fourths of it from private contributions and one-fourth from government grants, according to its tax filings.
The nonprofit projects that it will work with 50 entrepreneurs in 2022, emphasizing digital business solutions. Three business development training courses are planned in English and Spanish, both online and via Zoom. In addition, it is launching a flexible micro-loan program to help businesswomen grow their operations.
“Our members come with unique challenges, seeking to take advantage of the services and opportunities we provide as an organization,” Santos said. “We promote an environment in which learning is ongoing. We try to celebrate all accomplishments, big or small.”