These women are on their way to realizing their dreams after taking our entrepreneurship course for Latinas. Read their stories here.
At the kitchen in her Marietta apartment, Marisol Meléndez mixes several oils in a bowl – coconut and sunflower, among them. She adds cocoa powder, ground coffee and sea salt, and stirs in a solution that contains sodium peroxide. She pours the mocha concoction into a wooden pan and lets it sit.
Marisol, a native of Puerto Rico, has been baking flan, shortbread-like mantecaditos and cakes for most of her life. She prepares her cakes Puerto Rican-style, drenched in syrup and decorated with meringue-like frosting. But on this late-summer morning, the artisan is making soap from scratch, hence the sodium peroxide, or lye, that she adds to her mixture.
“Making soap is like making a cake,” says Marisol. “I use recipes to make soap bars. You have to really study how the ingredients react with each other when they are mixed together.”
Marisol hopes one day to make a living out of making soaps. She started experimenting with various formulas a few years ago with the goal of selling soaps eventually, the way she lived from making crafts made from clay when she was living in Puerto Rico.
But in fall 2015, she enrolled in the “Mujeres y Negocios” entrepreneurship course at the LAA and learned things she didn’t know about: market segmentation, a business budget, business plans and marketing with social media. The course, Marisol says, taught her step-by-step what to do and that allowed her to prioritize her expenses.
“Before I took the course, I was making soaps that were beautiful and rich in color,” she says. “Then the teacher talked about niche markets. I didn’t know what that was.”
After doing research on soaps (she was shocked to learn how much artificial ingredients are used in soaps) and finalizing her business plan at the end of the course, Marisol decided she would make small batches of hand-made soap containing only natural ingredients. Her business is called HumectaSoaps, which alludes to her soaps’ moisturizing properties.
“I changed my concept from beautiful soaps to salutary soaps,” says Marisol, who holds a 40-hour-a-week job to pay her bills.
In a display table at her home, she has various types of soap: bars made with coconut and other milks; exfoliating bars imbued with pieces of pink Himalayan or sea salt; water-based soaps containing chocolate and shea butter, decorated with dried orange slices. She has blocks of aloe vera and Greek yogurt soap that is in its 30-day curation period, which starts 24 hours after she pours the batter in a wooden pan she made herself. She also keeps sprigs of purple lavender, a jar of vanilla powder and Mason jars filled with infused oils (paprika; orange and cloves; cloves, cinnamon and anise) to add fragrance and color to her creations.
The “Mujeres y Negocios” course also taught Marisol the value of social media for marketing products. She is now active on Instagram and keeps a handwritten list of popular hashtags (#gentle, #jabones, #naturals, #skin, #nontoxic, etc.) that she uses in her posts. “I had no idea this stuff happened,” she says.
Now that she has figured out the ingredients and quantities that go into her soaps, Marisol is putting the finishing touches on her business and starting to sell in her online store. She wants consumers to see soap not as a commodity but as a handmade product that can be decorated and transformed into a gift.
Marisol’s dream is to open a brick-and-mortar store together with her 20-year-old daughter, who is studying to be a chiropractor. Together, the mother-daughter duo envisions a wellness venture where clients can get an adjustment, massages and spa-like treatments with their all-natural, homemade goods.
“Creating things with my hands makes me happy,” Marisol says. “I’m totally loving making soaps.”
Reina Fierro’s flower shop has gone through many ups and downs since she acquired it in 2008. During a period of slow sales about a year ago, Reina, who had studied business administration in her native Venezuela, considered closing the shop.
But then a friend told her about the LAA’s “Mujeres y Negocios” course for Latina entrepreneurs. Reina enrolled. The class changed everything for her.
She became aware of resources at her disposal, including chambers of commerce, credit counseling agencies and other organizations that help small businesses. She switched to the QuickBooks software to keep close tabs on sales, inventory and expenses. She got better at managing her time better so she could focus more on social media and email marketing. But, most importantly, Reina concedes, the course made her feel better about herself, giving her the motivation to keep her shop open.
“The class gave me self-confidence,” Reina says. “My self-esteem was very low when I started. I realized that I was not alone; I felt that other women were going through the same struggles I was going through. I felt the support from my classmates, and I enjoyed networking and interacting with them. The class gave me the strength to keep going with my business.”
Her store, The Flower Garden, is still open at its original location, Peachtree Center in downtown Atlanta. Her flower shop mostly sells and delivers arrangements for birthdays and holiday such as Valentine’s Day. She caters to the English-speaking market, and her clients are mostly offices and corporations in the area.
Reina credits the course with opening her mind and helping her see the business in a new light. She cut her costs by, among other things, dropping her affiliation with an online service that partners with local florists for a cut of the sale and shifting efforts to her shop’s website instead. Her online sales have gone up.
“I have options,” she says. “All of a sudden, new ideas started coming to me and I started seeing my business defined more broadly.”
Her new vision for the business, which she runs with her husband and is the family’s only source of income, is to use her flower shop’s core assets to expand her scope by teaching groups of women to make flower arrangements in casual and fun workshop-like settings at private homes. She has tried the idea successfully twice and is planning on doing more. “It’s something different. Women can relax and have a nice time while they learn a new skill,” she adds.
Reina, a mother of two, is also setting her sights on weddings and funerals to increase sales. And she wants to explore the Latino market by offering a different kind of entertainment at girls’ birthday parties. “Just like they contract clowns, they can contract me and I will go to the party and teach the girls how to make flower arrangements as a fun activity,” she explains.
Thanks to the class, Reina feels empowered to promote her business to new markets with more confidence.
“It’s time for me to do things differently,” she says. “I am not afraid to fail anymore.”
Check out Reina Fierro’s flower shop at www.flowergardenatl.com
It all started when Liss Honma decided to help her sister in El Salvador sell her hand-made products here in the US. Liss, formerly an IT engineer, was a stay-at-home mom in Alpharetta taking care of her toddler. Her sister hand-dyed fabrics and created unique fashion accessories.
“I never thought this would be more than a hobby,” Liss says. “Now I have a business and I can stay at home and be with my daughter.”
Liss credits taking the LAA’s “Mujeres y Negocios” entrepreneurship course with the turn of events. Shortly after opening a store on Etsy in fall 2015 to sell her sister’s cotton handbags, pouches and scarves tinted in uneven patterns with a natural blue dye known as “añil,” or indigo, she attended the LAA’s 1st Annual Latina Empowerment Conference in early 2016. At the conference she learned that a “Mujeres y Negocios” course was starting in March. She signed up, and she loved the course. At the conference and later at the class, Liss says, she met so many women who were enthusiastic about their ventures. She became enthused.
“The course made me feel like I was an entrepreneur,” Liss states.
Her products are adorned in the tradition of Japanese “shivori,” an artisanal technique for dying and embellishing fabric that involves twisting and bunching cloth before dyeing it in indigo, resulting in cool patterns. Her sister uses natural indigo, which is extracted from a plant known as Indigofera that grows wild in Central America. Indigo was used in pre-Columbian times to dye fabric and ceramics and was a top export to Europe during the Spanish conquest, when it became known as “blue gold.” To dye fabric, indigo foliage is macerated and processed until it turns into a paste.
While working on her business plan, which is required to get a completion certificate for the course, Liss did some research on market trends and added a home décor and accessories line. Creating a business plan, she adds, is important to figure out if a business is viable.
“Now I am more focused on decorative items such as pillows of various shapes and sizes, tablecloths and table runners,” she says. “I continue to sell handbags, which do very well online, but I am shifting more to home accessories.”
After finishing the course, she took better photos of her products and created Facebook and Twitter pages. She is now preparing to sell a lot this holiday season.
This new trend in Liss’s business fits well with her love of antiques. She loves shopping at antique shops across the state. Her plan now is to open her own space at an antique store where she can sell some of her antiques and her indigo decorative accents.
Liss still can’t derive a salary from her business but she expects to do so in two or three years.
“The course was most helpful in getting rid of all the fears I had about having my own business,” she says. “ I am now confident that I can have my own business in the United States.”
Check out Liss Honma’s page on Etsy at www.bysanz.etsy.com
When she was studying microbiology in her native Colombia, Diana Loaiza dreamed of working in an environmental lab, protecting the oceans and caring for her natural surroundings.
But that was before she came to the U.S. at age 24 on a cultural exchange program. Since moving to Atlanta, her career has gone in a different direction.
Last year, as she was contemplating work as a health inspector, Diana took the LAA’s “Mujeres y Negocios” entrepreneurship course for Latina immigrants and she never looked back. Today she has an online business where she sells hand-crafted jewelry and accessories inspired by indigenous people in Colombia who live in the Putumayo region of the Amazon rainforest and other rural areas. Her exquisite boho-chic accessories burst with bright colors and are crafted from all-natural materials such as cantaloupe seeds, orange peel, seashells, caña flecha (a type of sugar cane), açai berries, tagua (vegetable ivory made from palm tree seeds), “whatever they find in nature,” Diana explains.
“My target are women who like jewelry that is exclusive and exotic,” says Diana, who is a former model. “They want accessories that nobody else has.”
The course, which she took in the spring of 2015, inspired Diana to start her own business. She had met many indigenous families displaced by violence when she worked as a health inspector in Bogotá and admired their craftsmanship. When she wore handmade pieces she bought from them, she would get compliments. So when she took the class, Diana thought that selling these one-of-a-kind baubles would be a great idea.
“The teacher took me by the hand and taught me everything,” says Diana. “I learned about the legal steps I need to take to start my enterprise, business regulations, permits, marketing, the elevator pitch, how to project my sales on Excel three to five years into the future, the business plan. … I started from zero.”
One of the most valuable lessons from the “Mujeres y Negocios” course was how to calculate the value of each of the products she sells. She also learned how to compile and list her inventory. And she defined her target market. Diana spent hours on the Internet doing research to set up her business. She started selling on Etsy but found that potential clients liked her jewelry but would not buy it. She then created her own website and set up pages on Instagram and Facebook. She also wants to sell her wares at brick-and-mortar stores, and she will show up at local boutiques unannounced, dressed to the nines all decked in her native accessories.
Diana already has big dreams for her venture: a year from now, she sees her jewelry selling well in the Atlanta area and four states, and in five years she wants to have a national presence and sell in Europe. With proceeds from her business, Diana wants to set up a foundation in Colombia so she can fund schools in the areas where her suppliers live, deep in the Amazon jungle. “I want to help preserve their culture,” she says.
Diana credits the LAA with taking her step by step to realize her new dream, which she says is just beginning. The camaraderie and sharing of life experiences with other Latina immigrants was invaluable.
“You think you are less because you are an immigrant,” she says. “But when you meet the other women you realize you are not less. They all have stories similar to mine. It’s hard to be self-confident but that is what you get from each of their stories.”
Check out Diana Loaiza’s accessories at www.amazonianspirit.com
Architect-turned-textile designer María Zaa credits the LAA with helping get her business, Al’Blue Textiles, off the ground.
She took the “Mujeres y Negocios” course for Latina entrepreneurs in the spring of 2015. The 20-hour primer gave her a good grasp on operations, accounting, marketing and finance.
“The class gave me the push I needed to get my business going,” María says. “It not only made me see how important it is to have a dream, but also gave me the know-how and tools I needed to structure my business.”
The course, she adds, created a sense of community among the participants and made her feel like she was not alone in her pursuits.
“I would get discouraged when I tried to talk to people who did not understand what I was going through,” she says. “The women I met in the class were going through experiences similar to mine, and that was refreshing.”
After she completed the course, María took pictures of her designs and products and launched a website, had her designs printed on fabric and prepared a sample book.
In 2016, María became the first participant of the course to receive a microloan. She is using the $3,000 loan to buy fabric and attend an original art and design trade show in New York City where she can sell her designs to big clients.
I am grateful to the LAA for believing in my talent and making my dream come true,”
To see María Zaa’s designs, visit www.albluetextiles.com