Entrepreneur Programs Help Poor Help Themselves

From Sunday afternoon prayer gatherings in MacArthur Park six years ago, Episcopal priest Philip Lance has shepherded his congregation into budding enterprises that include a storefront chapel, a nonprofit thrift store and a for-profit janitorial service, owned cooperatively by 15 Latino immigrants.

Pueblo Nuevo Enterprises Inc. now employs 41. Both the thrift shop and janitor service are seeking to expand. Lance, who formerly worked on the Justice for Janitors campaign, jokes that the entrepreneurial experiment is turning his congregation into fiscally conservative Republicans.

But what he really means is that it has made his church members more knowledgeable about economics and has improved their lives.

"This is putting something back in people's lives," Lance said. "It gives them the dignity of helping themselves and working for themselves. It's not charity."

It's a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-entrepreneurial-bootstraps approach geared to those in low-income communities. At a time when small-business owners are increasingly being asked to participate in welfare-to-work programs, it is an alternative that puts the small-business responsibility back on the populations seeking help. And it is thriving.

Phil Borden, executive director of Long Beach-based Women's Economic Development Corp., said his agency's entrepreneurship classes are full, more graduates are completing business plans, and the numbers keep increasing.

"Our home-based child-care program graduated 27; that's almost unheard of," Borden said. "We have a third to half more graduating than before."

The Santa Monica-based Liberty Hill Foundation, with its 23-year-old tradition of funding grass-roots organizations, has taken a new tack with its pilot Social Entrepreneurial Fund, which will award grants to entrepreneurial nonprofit agencies that function like businesses and provide jobs.

Southern California is particularly suited to nourishing these entrepreneurial efforts among the low-income, Borden said. The vast immigrant communities here enable those with limited English-language skills to go into businesses catering to their own. And many immigrants bring with them an accepted tradition of small, home-based businesses from their own countries' less formal economies, he added.


Furthermore, over the last decade, Southern California's recurring disasters--civil disturbances and earthquakes--have spawned entrepreneurial training and funding agencies that at first focused on those hardest hit and have moved on to general economic development.

"There's a lot of buzz in the nonprofit sector about social-purpose ventures," Lance said. "It means, how do we become a market-oriented organization to serve our special-need constituencies?"

For himself, however, the question six years ago was more direct, Lance said. He was minister to a church that had no money and to a congregation whose members had few jobs.

"I had to get myself out of MacArthur Park with all those people and do it in a way to give us some power over our destiny," he said.

Rather than ask the Episcopal Church for money to build a mission, Lance and his congregation started a thrift shop. The inventory was free--donations from more well-off Episcopal churches--and the customers were from the neighborhoods around MacArthur Park.

The thrift store income paid the workers' salaries, with enough to fund a storefront rental to house church services. The janitorial service began in 1994 when more jobs were needed and the thrift store couldn't provide them.

Lance believes the stronger entity is now the for-profit janitorial service, which has the ability to get new cleaning contracts and expand.

The company also operates more efficiently compared with the nonprofit thrift store. The janitorial service has a lower turnover rate because of employee loyalty. Each of the 16 owners had to pay $500 to own a share of the company and their fate is bound up with it.

"They take the mop heads home and launder them to extend the life of the mop heads and save money," Lance said. "They launder the cleaning rags or they bring in cut-up T-shirts from home to use."


Supervisorial costs also are lower because the work force is experienced. In turn, this brings customer loyalty and results in less time and money spent recruiting new clients, Lance said.

And the employees gain confidence and business skills as they review company financial reports and make staffing and other policy decisions.

"There's a sense of urgency," Lance said. "Maybe it's because they're looking at the financials every month and they know how hard it is to create a self-sufficient enterprise, whether nonprofit or for-profit.

"They know how hard it is to win a customer, and they don't want to lose a customer," he added.

Luis Linares, a Salvadoran immigrant and the cooperative's president, said he seized on the opportunity to become a co-owner because he recognized the potential for him.

"If the company grows, maybe in another five or 10 years I can go back to my country and enjoy the beaches," he said.

Times staff writer Vicki Torres can be reached at (213) 237-6553 or via e-mail at vicki.torres@latimes.com.

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