A new business accelerator in Colorado aims to grow the future of America’s economy by building Latino companies.

Latinos in the US are significantly underrepresented in terms of business ownership. While nearly 19 percent of U.S. residents identify as Hispanic or Latino according to the Census, they make up just 6 percent of the nation’s business owners.

That worries Harry Hollins.

“Business ownership is one of the key pillars of building wealth and building wealth for generations,” Hollins said.

Hollins in 2011. He is the Chief Strategy Officer of the Latino Leadership Institute, founded in 2015 in Colorado, with a mission to identify and develop Latino leaders. He said all communities can be more powerful and members can address inequalities in their communities, when more people are able to develop their business ideas.

To do that, LLI is launching a business accelerator that serves Latino and other BIPOC entrepreneurs. Hollins and LLI believe that Latinos are key to Colorado’s future economic growth — and the entire U.S. The biggest paradox is that Latinos are responsible for population growth but are largely invisible in leadership positions. This new accelerator, called the Latino Entrepreneur Access Program, or LEAP, is a step toward changing that.

Eleven people, all in Colorado, make up the first team. The goal is to connect them with social, technical and financial capital to expand businesses ranging from a digital education platform to a locally sourced food distributor.

Luis Antezana is on LEAP’s first team. His organization, Juntos2College, helps DACA recipients apply for work permits, and Antezana said the organization is about to hire its first employee. So far, he is the only paid employee, and has relied on volunteer help. Antezana says he’s excited to officially be an “entrepreneur,” and excited to be in the LEAP accelerator to overcome the hurdles he faced in getting Juntos2College off the ground.

“Being undocumented is one layer,” said Antezana, a native of Bolivia who grew up in Los Angeles. “I come from a low-income background where no one in my immediate family has an amazing knowledge of navigating the entrepreneurial system here in the United States — there’s a lot of layers to this, right?”

Eva Padilla, a business loan expert at the Colorado Enterprise Fund who develops businesses throughout southern Colorado from her home in Colorado Springs, seeks guidance from mentors in the program. Padilla is focused on the numbers and helping entrepreneurs who normally wouldn’t get this kind of support get a foothold. She helps them understand what they need to know about money – especially in their first year.

Courtesy of Juntos2College
Luis Antezana, center, founder of Juntos2 College, receives an award from the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network on July 29, 2022. Also pictured: Eric H.

“How much have you saved? Do you have a business plan? What are your cash flow projections? So I help them be responsible for the loan amount they are asking for,” Padilla said.

Her help is critical: Research firm Crunchbase says funding for Latino entrepreneurs stands at 2 percent of total investment in startups.

“I can’t wait to see the results, especially after a year of trading Lewis.

LEAP is not the only accelerator targeting BIPOC or Latino founders. Particularly in the wake of the 2020 nationwide racial justice protests, some Silicon Valley and Colorado startups have launched programs aimed at making business owners more representative of the communities they serve. But LEAP is unusual because it is Latino-led, Padilla said.

Outside of LEAP, she recommends entrepreneurs draw on Colorado’s Small Business Development Centers, which she says state how they support business owners nationwide. She also explained that people without a Social Security number who want to start a company can get business loans in Colorado.

As he looks to grow his business, Antezana has one unknown uncertainty hanging over his head: A court case could end DACA later this year. Antezana calls that outcome a “worst-case scenario,” but like any good business person, he’s preparing for it. Juntos2College said it is testing other programs.

“We’re in a great position to wrap up, to make sure we’re able to fulfill our vision of helping undocumented families,” he said.

With the new accelerator, there is much at stake not only for these businesses, but for the broader US economy as well. Ultimately, the success of Antezana’s business and others in LEAP could play a small but important role in future GDP growth in the U.S., as Latinos have made up more than half of the U.S. population in recent decades, Hollins said.

“Latinos are an important part of not only the population, but the workforce. And small business is 45 percent of economic activity. So you need the continued growth of small business, which has been the backbone of the United States for centuries, if not centuries. As the population grows, that Latino contribution has to be commensurate,” Hollins added.

LLI plans to make the accelerator a regular part of its services: Hollins says the team, which will launch in the summer of 2022, is just the beginning. In addition to the difference it makes to business and economic activity, Hollins and his LLI colleagues said the immediate goal is to prove what can happen when more people from Latino and BIPOC backgrounds have opportunities to advance their ideas.

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