For 3 Hispanic Women, Entrepreneurship Dreams Survived COVID-19

WIMAUMA — Three Hispanic women started their businesses before the pandemic with help from nonprofit organization Wimauma.

Their progress over the next two years, in the face of unprecedented challenges for would-be entrepreneurs, is a story 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 Weather story of Enterprising Latinas, a nonprofit organization that helps more than 100 women each year gain financial footing through mentorship, skills development, and small business counseling.

The three women 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 are today.

Martínez had lost her job as a cleaner just before the pandemic hit. She took business training and decided to make and sell jewelry and miniature crafts in the communities of Wimauma, Ruskin and Riverview in southern Hillsborough County.

Related: Latinas go into business with help from nonprofit Wimauma

To continue to make ends meet, Martínez, a 43-year-old Mexican mother of five who has previously experienced domestic violence, decided to move 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 that,” she said. “I never give up.”

Every 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 afternoon, she turns to marketing, posting photos and videos of her work, as well as 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, and close friends told her she would have to close. Instead, she continued. She knew that profit was not the only reward she sought.

“Even if I don’t make as much money as I would like, at least I own my plans,” Martínez said. “It makes me happy and comforts me in the worst times.”

Josefina Martínez makes and markets jewelry and miniatures, as well as gift baskets and special arrangements, from her mobile home in Gibsonton. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

One of those moments came earlier this month when Martínez was diagnosed with COVID-19. She was almost hospitalized. His recovery was more difficult than expected.

She returned to work a week ago and plans to prepare 80 Valentine’s Day gift baskets filled with her miniatures, chocolates and stuffed animals.

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“Last year I sold for $3,500 for Valentine’s Day,” she said. “Now I’m sure it will get better for me.”

Gutiérrez, a 32-year-old Mexican immigrant, sold her food truck just before the pandemic hit in March 2020. She decided to stay home to care for her five children, ages 10 to 18, while that 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, in the parking lot of a gas station in Ruskin. Gutiérrez sells tacos, sandwiches, and soft drinks. Espinoza quit his job to join her and now cooks dishes from recipes he learned from his Mexican family.

“It was a challenge because no one expected a pandemic to last this long, but we survived and kept our dreams to think about our next step,” Gutiérrez said.

She hopes things will return to normal this year. Customers flock to the food truck, especially on weekends, increasing the family’s monthly income. She is looking forward to starting her new business.

“There’s nothing better than being your own boss and being able to make your own way with your own efforts and sacrifices,” Gutiérrez said.

Santiago, 52, from Brandon, had always dreamed of starting a business selling the savory sofrito she made in her native Puerto Rico. Before the pandemic, she was ready to launch with the Joba brand.

But Santiago, a mother of three, had to put her plans on hold because of the pandemic. One of the problems was finding the right jar at the right price to store the special sauce, made up of ingredients such as minced garlic, oregano, cilantro, onion and peppers.

Rising costs make it difficult for her to stick to a business plan that calls for a price 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 overpriced.”

Santiago continues to work on his brand, trying different presentations and even variations on his recipe. In the meantime, she continues to make a living cooking and serving food in a school kitchen in Brandon.

“I invested time trying new combinations and ingredients,” she says. “It wasn’t wasted time as I have something I want to add to my product line very soon. This is a new organic recipe.

Johana Santiago, who hopes to sell the sofrito sauce she makes, studied financial strategy, licensing and marketing with Enterprising Latinas during a 10-week course in 2019.
Johana Santiago, who hopes to sell the sofrito sauce she makes, studied financial strategy, licensing and marketing with Enterprising Latinas during a 10-week course in 2019. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Enterprising Latinas, the nonprofit that helped the three businesswomen with their business development training, has also been forced to explore new paths to success during the pandemic, Santos Morales said, Director of Economic Prosperity.

During the pandemic, over the past two years, the nonprofit has still managed to graduate 40 women.

Enterprising Latinas operates with annual revenues of about $689,000, three-quarters of which come from private contributions and one-quarter from government grants, according to its tax filings.

The nonprofit projects he will work with 50 entrepreneurs in 2022, focusing on digital business solutions. Three business development trainings are planned in English and Spanish, online and via Zoom. Additionally, it is launching a flexible micro-loan program to help businesswomen expand their businesses.

“Our members face 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 continuous. We try to celebrate all accomplishments, big or small.

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