Women entrepreneurs thriving in the Mission
Walking into Casa Bonampak on Valencia Street, it’s hard to not be immediately swept away by the kaleidoscope of colors. Paper flowers that are larger than life adorn every corner of the store; paper banners and streamers line the ceilings; handmade Mexican folk art, clothing and other crafts are found along every wall.
This is Nancy Charraga’s dream come true: to celebrate the things that she loves—Mexican and Latin American culture and the indigenous artists that are largely keeping that culture alive—and to make a living though supporting it. In achieving her entrepreneurial dream, Charraga also has made a small contribution toward reversing a national trend, the widening wealth gap that hobbles women of color in the United States.
Charraga, who is originally from Chiapas, Mexico, works directly with artists to preserve the traditions of culture and community that she holds dear and with which she identifies.
“There’s a lot of poverty where I come from,” says Charraga. “This is about a desire to share the beautiful things that come from there with another market.”
The other market that Charraga refers to is San Francisco in general, but the Mission specifically. And while Charraga always knew that she wanted to share the artistic fruits of her ethnic heritage with others, she had to admit to herself that when it came to running a business, she had little guidance.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. Ten years ago, Charraga was self-employed, selling items at flea markets and fairs. But her real goal was to open a shop.
And that’s when the Bay Area-based organization Women’s Initiative came into the picture.
Women’s Initiative is a non-profit that trains, funds, and provides ongoing, long-term support for women entrepreneurs—women who want to build and develop successful small businesses and, ultimately, achieve economic independence.
The organization, which has an office on Valencia Street, encourages its clients—women who are “high potential, low income,” much like Charraga—to hone in on their passions and utilize the skill sets they already have and combine those elements to create a self-sustaining business.
“Our entire mission is about empowerment,” says Women’s Initiative Interim Executive Director Nicole Levine. “We’re helping women help themselves.”
Charraga went through the program’s training course seven years ago. She learned everything from developing a business plan to pricing inventory and services to managing the day-to-day operations. And, once women have graduated the business development program, they have access to not only continuing training, but also a large network of alumni services called “Success Link,” which connects graduates to conferences, seminars and other networking opportunities.
Charraga is not the only business owner in the Mission who is a graduate of Women’s Initiative. In fact, there are close to ten other businesses in the neighborhood that are owned by women who went through the program: Mixcoatl Arts, Arkay Workshop, Bianca Starr, and Luz de Luna Gift Shop, just to name a few.
Rachel Kinney graduated from the program two-and-half years ago. She approached Women’s Initiative because she “wanted to feel confident” in opening her own business.
“I didn’t know how to do a financial plan, sales projections, the technical stuff that’s essential,” says the thirty-two-year-old Kinney.
Within a year after graduating, she opened Arkay Workshop on 24th Street. Calling upon her background in metalsmithing and a general interest in crafts and local designers, she filled her store with a mixture of budget-friendly, sustainably produced items like apparel, jewelry and bath and body products.
Kinney says the program facilitated her transition from knowing what she wanted to realizing that it was within reach. For Kinney, owning her own business meant she was responsible for her financial destiny.
“Women have a hard time getting paid what men are paid,” says Kinney. “Being an entrepreneur and having control over that is a step towards being paid a fair wage. An essential part of Women’s Initiative is having control of your own money.”
Now more than ever, the services that organizations like Women’s Initiative provide are vital. Earlier this year, the Insight Center for Community Economic Development revealed alarming data about a widening wealth gap in the United States, particularly with regard to women of color. The study, “Lifting As We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth, and America’s Future,” pointed out that “while income is vital for day to day survival, only wealth can generate further income, provide collateral for loans, be passed from generation to generation through inheritance, [etc.]” The Insight Center warns that “women of all races experience a gender wealth gap … but the disparities are greatest for women of color.”
Among some of the most troubling findings of the report: Single black and Hispanic women have a median wealth of $100 and $120 respectively, while their same-race male counterparts have $7,900 and $9,730. The median for single white women is $41,500. And nearly half of all single black and Hispanic women have zero or “negative wealth,” which happens when debts exceed assets. Only one percent of single Hispanic and 4 percent of single black women own business assets compared to 8 percent of white women. Additionally, the report found that “women of color are more likely to work in service occupations that usually don’t provide wealth-enhancing benefits such as retirement plans, paid sick days and health insurance.”
The report offers a series of recommendations to help close the wealth gap for women of color; one proposal is to “encourage self-employment and small business development by women of color by allowing micro-enterprise training”—which is exactly the focus of an organization such as Women’s Initiative. One hundred percent of it’s clients are low-income; 80 percent are women of color; and 20 percent are single mothers.
Barbara Mark, president of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, says that it’s more challenging for racial and ethnic minorities to be successful because there’s not as much access to opportunity.
“More and more women are starting their own thing,” says Mark. “Corporate America is sometimes not as inclusive to women, especially ethnic and racial minorities.”
“I really believe that [Women’s Initiative] is helping eliminate poverty,” says Levine. “At the same time, women are becoming leaders in the community.”
Connie Rivera, 38, opened Mixcoatl Arts after graduating from Women’s Initiative in 2005. Though she was born in Mexico, she moved to the Mission 25 years ago. Like Charraga, it was always a goal of Rivera to go into business by supporting Mexican and Latin American artists, but she lacked the resources and training to make her goal a reality.
Rivera learned of Women’s Initiative and took advantage of their programs. She says she was encouraged to believe in herself and found guidance from the women who had come before her.
“I thought to myself, if they could do it, then I could do it,” says Rivera.
For Rivera, Mixcoatl Arts represents an intersection of her passions. In opening her own storefront, she has created the opportunity to not only sustain and promote the art and traditions of her native culture, but also to give back what she says Women’s Initiative gave her: to be a role model for other women in the neighborhood.
“I want to encourage every woman; to let them know they can make it,” says Rivera. “They can create the opportunity for a better life like I did.”
Nicole Levine of Women’s Initiative says this desire to set an example for others is a big motivation for their clients: “These women are role models not only for their family and children, but also for people in the community.”
“If you think of business, you think of white men in suits,” says Karuna Jaggar, Women’s Initiative executive director for the East Bay. “If you don’t have role models, you don’t see yourself getting to that level … when women can say ‘I see people like me’ in those positions, they’re going to think that could be them.”
Nancy Charraga of Casa Bonampak is equally concerned with supporting women in the community. Her multicultural staff—mostly Latin—is comprised entirely of women who all, including Charraga, live within a few blocks of the store.
As for Rivera, says she’s blessed to have grown up observing her grandparents—themselves artisans—being supportive of one another.
“Where I come from, men usually decide what to do and they tell you how to do it,” says Rivera. “But my grandmother was a strong woman who was equal with my grandfather.”
It’s important to Rivera that she uses her grandparent’s relationship as a model for her own relationship with her husband. She refers to him as her “partner,” in business and otherwise.
Rivera says that the opportunities and resources that Women’s Initiative offers are unique to the United States—and this is something that concerns her.
“If something like Women’s Initiative were in Mexico, believe me, I’d be there.”