Seventeen businesses will participate in the program, which is offered in Spanish and English.
Growing up in Chile, Leslie Villanueva recalls watching her grandfather make wedding dresses. Villanueva eventually learned to sew on her own and after taking some courses, she launched Peppermint Lingerie in December 2020. Designed to be inclusive, she creates handmade pieces for everyone including transgender customers.
“I make lingerie for all people, this is the main idea,” she says.
Peppermint Lingerie exists as an Etsy store at the moment and Villanueva wants to expand. She hopes to gain the knowledge and skills to do so by participating in a new Spanish business accelerator program led by Entrepreneurship for All Northwest Arkansas.
“I want to grow my business and then I hope to give a hand back for other participants of the program,” Villanueva says.
EforAll is a nonprofit organization that partners with communities to help underrepresented individuals start and grow a business through business training, mentorship and an extended professional support network. Programs are offered in English and Spanish (EparaTodos) and alumni have launched more than 700 businesses during the last decade.
The organization started in Massachusetts and has spread to communities in states like Colorado and New York. EforAll expanded to Northwest Arkansas in 2021 and Rodrigo Salas was appointed executive director last July. As a business owner himself, Salas knows well the challenges facing entrepreneurs, especially those just starting out. Salas is the founder of Molli Sauces, a company created in 2013 that sells Mexican hot sauces and simmer sauces to supermarkets in Texas.
“I realize how hard it is to start and to grow a business and I’ve been fortunate enough to have the resources and the support network to help me with it, but there are many people that don’t have that,” Salas says. “So I was very excited to see that there was an organization that was doing this kind of work to help the local communities develop and grow.”
Seventeen early-stage businesses were selected to participate in the first two cohorts — one Spanish and one English — of the Winter Accelerator Program which begins next week. They will occur simultaneously and are being offered for free thanks to financial support from the Walton Family Foundation.
The accelerator program runs through December and will have a hybrid approach with most classes and meetings being held virtually, while the advance and final presentations will be in person. As part of the 2022 winter cohort, entrepreneurs will have access to specialists who will discuss topics tied to starting and running a business, as well as opportunities to win seed money.
Participants will also be paired with a team of mentors, which Salas says is the most valuable component of the program. These volunteers will motivate and guide entrepreneurs throughout the 12-month program as they develop and start executing a business plan.
“We’re here to help anybody that has a dream and that are willing to bring it really to life and take the next step to make that happen,” Salas says.
Two sessions of the business accelerator will be offered each year with one beginning in the winter and the other in the summer. While there are opportunities to grow, EforAll Northwest Arkansas only has three employees and relies heavily on volunteers, which Salas says is a major challenge for the organization.
“I’m trying to build as many relationships as possible with organizations and with the people in the area because that is the biggest hurdle for us to expand and to make it grow,” he says.
Program participants’ experience ranges from having an operating business they want to change significantly, to simply having an idea for a business. Michelle Pedro falls into the latter category and is participating in the English cohort in hopes of launching Marshallese Interpreting Services. Northwest Arkansas is home to one of the largest populations of Marshallese residents outside of the Marshall Islands.
Born and raised in California, Pedro picked up some of the language through friends and church. Since moving to the Natural State, her co-workers at Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese have instilled even more knowledge in her.
“We’ve talked about interpreting services for more than a couple of years here in Arkansas and I wanted to do something that would give back not just to the community, but to the elders of my community and the youth of my community,” Pedro says.
Translation services are much needed and Pedro wants her business to help formalize and certify the translation process. She also envisions including Marshallese elders who could teach classes and bridge the gap with the youth. It’s important to include elders, Pedro says, because they know the language.
“To preserve the culture is to redeem the culture and so that’s what I want to do is preserve it and redeem our culture and our people, our language and history,” she says.
Through the accelerator program, Pedro hopes to gain insight into how to maintain her business because once she launches it, she expects it to “blow up like wildfire.”
“I’m just really excited to learn more from mentors, from people who are in the program because I also think that everybody brings something to the table and I just like learning different perspectives and ideas,” she says.
The first two cohorts of the EforAll Northwest Arkansas Winter Accelerator Program begin their classes next week. Applications are open for the summer program which begins July 12. The deadline to apply is May 12. More information is available at www.eforall.org.
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