To enter legally, she obtained an investor visa through Colombia, where she was born, and purchased Honka Auto Repair, an established mechanic shop on Court Street in Clearwater. The shop met the criteria for the visa, which allows residency to foreign nationals who invest in businesses that create jobs for U.S. workers. The problem was, Martinez had no background in auto repair.
“None at all,” she says. “Minus zero. I knew only some English, I didn’t know anything about cars, and I had a new business in the United States.”
In search of guidance, Martinez ventured to the downtown library to attend a meeting of the Clearwater Business SPARK, a network of local private and public organizations that offer support and expertise to businesses and entrepreneurs. At the meeting, she fortuitously connected with Prospera, a SPARK partner and nonprofit organization that offers free bilingual assistance to Hispanic entrepreneurs and businesses.
Through Prospera, Martinez says she learned to develop a business plan, marketing plan, received training in QuickBooks and other guidance and consulting on how to run a business in the U.S. Today, she has a thriving business. She says sales were up 20 percent last year when she became confident enough in her English and knowledge of cars to begin working the front desk. She continues to rely on Prospera’s expertise and resources from time to time.
“Anytime you have a question, you call Prospera, they are there for you,” Martinez says “I’ve been working with them since I’ve been here.”
Meeting a need in Clearwater
Prospera joined Clearwater Business SPARK as a partner organization five years ago, at approximately the same time the organization rebranded from the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund to Prospera.
Prospera immediately filled a need in the city, says Audra Aja, the marketing and communications coordinator for Clearwater’s Economic Development and Housing Department, a founding partner of SPARK and an underwriting partner with 83 Degrees.
“They’ve been a very valuable partner,” says Aja, who is also the current chair of Prospera’s regional board for the west coast of Florida. “In Clearwater, nearly 19 percent of our population is Hispanic, with estimates by 2025 that will grow to over 21 percent. We felt when we first started conversations with Prospera, it was important to meet the needs of our community to help support the growth and development of Hispanic businesses and entrepreneurs.
“They were the perfect organization to partner with because, honestly, there is no other organization in Florida that provides these tailored services for Hispanic entrepreneurs. Prospera has been doing this for over 30 years now. They are the leading Hispanic economic development organization in the state of Florida for providing these bilingual services and assistance to businesses to help them establish themselves and expand. They really help fill that need in our community.”
Fabian Yepez, Prospera’s regional VP for West Coast Florida, says the growing Hispanic population in Clearwater includes a large community of immigrants from Hidalgo, Mexico. Many of them launch their own family-run small business when they arrive, continuing a centuries-old trend for immigrants to the U.S.
“It’s never stopped happening,” Yepez says. “ It’s just the origin of the people that’s different. At the start of the last century, it was the Italian and Irish immigrants. They came over and they started small businesses. That’s the same thing here.”
He estimates that, during the last fiscal year, Prospera worked with 50 businesses in the city of Clearwater alone, many referred to them by SPARK.
“We’re helping a lot of businesses that would otherwise not survive or would be stuck, would not be growing,” Yepez says.
Doing it right
Yepez says Prospera works with businesses in phases of development that vary from start-up to expansion to sale. They’ll provide or help develop accounting and legal assessments, marketing and business plans, branding kits, tips on designing a logo, social media guidance, and access to capital.
He says they see entrepreneurs from different cultures and countries who are unfamiliar with the complex web of regulations, licensing requirements, tax laws, and accounting rules they encounter in the U.S. They are often not prepared for or familiar with the process for securing a loan or financing.
Statistics from groups like the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Stanford Graduate School of Business Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative, and the U.S. Small Business Administration provide a snapshot of the situation Prospera is working to address.
The number of Latino business owners grew 34 percent over a 10-year span, compared to one percent for all other business owners, according to Stanford, a sign of their growing importance in the economy. But while Latinas, in particular, start businesses at six times the national rate, they represent less than one percent of the entrepreneurs who receive venture capital.
Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 56,000 Latino-owned businesses obtained Paycheck Protection Program funding in the first round of that program, receiving less than one percent of the total relief.
While Prospera does not provide loans or financing, the nonprofit organization’s sources of funding include some banks and financial institutions that work with their clients. Yepez says Prospera’s commitment to “walk hand-in-hand” with clients extends to accompanying them to a bank to help negotiate.
All of the services Prospera provides are free.
“Sometimes people starting businesses come here and they ask, ‘Well, how much is this going to cost me?’ ” Yepez recalls. “I go ‘nothing.’ If you want to make a donation that’s fine, but there’s no charge for what we do. And there are people who, when they walk out of here, they’ll go online and donate. Because they see the value in what we do.
“As people who have come here or gone to one of our seminars and had no idea of all the steps they have to take and the things they have to do, we guide them. We teach them how to fish, we don’t give them the fish. It’s much better to give them the knowledge of how to do it and how to do it right. Because it’s extremely easy to just open up a business here. Just go to Sunbiz and register, you’re done. But doing it right is different. Often, we see people who have gotten a lot of really bad advice in the past. Some have tried to save some money instead of going to a real CPA or mixed personal and business expenses. We see a lot of that here. They come for help and their taxes are just a disaster.”
In some cases, they’ve grown used to slow-moving or inept bureaucracies back home and have to adjust. Yepez shares a story from his time living in Ecuador.
“When I was declaring taxes there, I was supposed to get a refund,” Yepez says. “I am still waiting on my refund from 1992.”
Prospera has also helped entrepreneurs with significant business experience in the U.S. who have decided to make the gutsy decision to launch a startup company in a different industry.
Juan-Carlos Libreros is one of them. Libreros, who is from Colombia, had a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and substantial corporate experience — first with Becton Dickinson and then with Pfizer. His family operated a fish farm in Colombia and his brother Luis called with an idea to partner on a business importing farm-raised tilapia from Colombia. Together, they launched PezCo Aquafarming, which has its offices off Carillon Drive in St. Petersburg.
In those early stages, the Hisapnic Business Initiative Fund, as Prospera was still called, provided a business plan and assistance building a website and corporate image.
“They were very supportive with that initial effort,” Libreros says. “They gave us a presence on the Internet. They were very instrumental with the web page. And with that I ran.”
Since launching in 2013, PezCo has grown from annual revenues of $700,000 to $20.2 million and now ship to Italy, Canada, 25 U.S. states, and Puerto Rico. They have branched out from tilapia to import trout and shrimp and their products are sold at grocers such as Publix and restaurants like Bonefish Grill. They achieved some of the fastest growth of any business Prospera or the HBIF has worked with, Libreros says.
“They believed in us and they invested in us,” he says.
In some ways, Prospera came full circle when it joined SPARK five years ago. Thirty years ago, the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund was born in this region. The original home office was in Tampa, although the headquarters has since moved to Orlando.
As Hispanic business owners become a growing segment of the economy, Prospera has also grown. Besides Orlando and Tampa, there are now regional offices in South Florida, Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., and now Atlanta.
“It’s following what businesses are doing, the growth,” Yepez says. “And we’re only scratching the surface. There’s nothing similar to what we’re doing, not even in Miami.”