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Entrepreneurship ‘para todos’

SBA grant helps EforAll expand Spanish-language programs

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. She has contributed regularly since 2009 to the Bay State Banner, and since 2016 to VIEW BIO
Entrepreneurship ‘para todos’
A cohort of EparaTodos entrepreneurs in Lawrence celebrates success and cash awards. (Photo: courtesy of EforAll)

At Entrepreneurship for All, the first step for someone with a business idea is to enter one of the pitch contests offered four times a year in its locations in Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Fall River and Lynn.

Standing up and pitching an emerging idea before judges and an audience could be a scary prospect for anyone, but perhaps even more so for those typically underserved by business accelerator programs. Such underserved groups, including immigrants, unemployed people, people of color and women, are the types EforAll works particularly hard to recruit, says CEO David Parker.

“We listen to ideas from anyone, but where we offer extra value is in our very concerted efforts to reach would-be entrepreneurs who don’t feel confident even getting started with an idea — people who lack confidence, or lack a local network,” Parker says.

For immigrants, for instance, there is a host of challenges that make them feel less-than-ready to go forward with even the best of ideas.

“There’s a lack of knowledge of how the U.S. business system works —permitting, registering, setting up bookkeeping. Someone new to our country might not know these things,” Parker says. “And it’s so hard to get a business started if you don’t know anybody.”

Pitching: scary but rewarding

When speaking to groups in the cities and communities EforAll seeks to serve, he invites them to come explain their ideas at a community pitch contest in front of a friendly audience.

“The judges aren’t jerks,” Parker explains. “It’s like ‘Shark Tank’ but without the teeth. Our judges are trained to always encourage, always be positive. We’re in the business of encouraging people to start a business.”

Pitching is hard, he acknowledges, but adds, “You have to challenge yourself to do something you haven’t done before. Sharing the idea is necessary to get advice, get support and get others involved.”

Some of the contestants in these free pitch sessions win prizes — maybe enough cash to help get a website up, or to make a prototype — and all of them can go on to apply to EforAll’s accelerator programs, in which small cohorts of entrepreneurs receive a year of training and support, including an intensive 12-week initial session.

Growth and expansion

EforAll started in 2010 as the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, a project under UMass Lowell with initial funding from the Deshpande Foundation. The mission was to build a community-based entrepreneurial ecosystem where people and institutions from across the community get involved and encourage entrepreneurship.

The Sandbox began in Lowell and Lawrence, expanding to New Bedford and Fall River in 2014 and Lynn in 2016. The organization became a full-fledged 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2014 and changed its name to Entrepreneurship for All.

Serving Spanish-speakers

In Lawrence, the majority of residents are native Spanish-speakers. To serve them better, EforAll launched EparaTodos, the Spanish-language version of the accelerator. Now, a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration is helping expand EparaTodos to Lynn, a city whose population is roughly one-third Latino.

Funding for the EparaTodos expansion is from the SBA’s Growth Accelerator Fund Competition, which aims to focus attention and funding on gaps in the entrepreneurial landscape. EforAll was one of 20 businesses nationally to receive a grant, according to the SBA, and the only awardee in Massachusetts.

Diversity and success

Of the people who end up in EforAll’s accelerator programs, 70 percent have been women; 50 percent people of color; 40 percent immigrants; and 60 percent previously unemployed, says Parker. And there’s a reason for these results.

“These are the folks we reach out to in our marketing efforts,” he says, “whether it’s through partners, going to farmers’ markets or craft fairs, making presentations at organizations that serve these populations in some way.”

EforAll’s accelerators run twice each year. The next sessions are already filled and set to begin in December, and the following sessions will run in summer 2018. Participants are selected through a two-stage review process. They are not required to live in the city in which the program is located, though for the initial three months, they must be able to attend twice-weekly meetings at the program site and connect with program mentors weekly.

And what happens after the accelerator program? EforAll reports that so far it has seen 254 graduating entrepreneurs create 431 jobs. The new companies have generated $9.9 million in annual revenues and raised $11.4 million in capital. Some 83 percent of the program participants from the accelerator’s first seven years are still in business.

Companies started by EforAll entrepreneurs span more than 70 sectors, from apparel and automotive to water and wellness, with a sizable number in the food, technology and service industries.

Stalin Cortorreal, a civil engineer, was among the first EparaTodos cohort in Lawrence in 2016. The training helped him start his own home improvement contracting company, SGA Contracting, LLC.

“It was a big help,” he says. “The good thing is, they put you in contact with the people you need to know. They find you mentors that help you get the information you need.”

For Cortorreal, mentors included a lawyer and people in the contracting business.

“They help you visualize what you actually need,” he explains. “At the beginning I didn’t even have my construction supervisor license, and they advised me to get that. So I went through that process. At the end of my program, I had all the licenses and permits I needed.”

For now, Cortorreal continues to work at his fulltime engineering job while getting his own venture off the ground. He remains part of the EforAll community, talking with new program participants about their problems and dreams and what they can learn from EforAll and from their fellow trainees.

“EforAll is a place you’re going to achieve your dreams,” he says. “Everybody has a dream and everybody helps each other.”