From her office at the YWCA complex in South Tucson, Marisol Flores-Aguirre oversees construction of a commercial kitchen taking shape in a campus building. The project is the latest in a series of programs designed to help entrepreneurs launch or expand a small business.
Flores-Aguirre is the executive director of the YWCA’s Microbusiness Advancement Center and manages an award-winning Women’s Business Center and two developing programs: a Kitchen Business Incubator and a Women’s Impact Lending Fund, which will provide microloans of $500 to $50,000 to female entrepreneurs. The Women’s Business Center offers free services in both English and Spanish that include financial training and one-on-one counseling.
The construction of the commercial kitchen, which will open in November, is part of a Kitchen Business Incubator program that will give food entrepreneurs in South Tucson and on Tucson’s south side access to cooking, preparation, and storage space in a commercially licensed facility.
The Microbusiness Advancement Center, or MAC, provides training, counseling, and access to capital for small-business entrepreneurs. Why the emphasis on entrepreneur development for women and other underserved clients?
When you look at the marketplace, you’re going to see a lot of focus on entrepreneurship, on startups, on tech. What you don’t see is an emphasis on being intentional about serving women.
In Arizona, the faces of entrepreneurs are Latina women. Over 52 percent of all new enterprises started in Arizona have been started by a Latina woman. Yet we are one of the only, if not the only, business development organizations in Tucson that has a focus not only on supporting that marketplace but also on providing bilingual services, having bicultural staff, really being a culturally relevant space specifically for that demographic.
And so, that makes sense to us. For starting a food business, we’re right smack in the heart of 23 miles of Mexican food here in South Tucson. How are those entrepreneurs gaining access to support and service? That’s really where we’re finding our place.
Is it still difficult for entrepreneurs to obtain loans?
Yes. We’ve done a lot of work around partnership development and trying to understand what it is that we need to do so that our clients are the best possible risk. We have seen tremendous growth in the last year, something like 624 percent, but we still do see reluctance to take a risk on a start-up, especially a food startup.
What life experiences prepared and motivated you to work as executive director of the Microbusiness Advancement Center?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My dad has his own small business that I worked in for many, many years. My grandparents were very industrious people, and my grandmother ran her own kitchen and had her own experiences. I think the entrepreneurial spirit is really alive and well in my family, and it’s something that I really value.
An organization like the YWCA is taking it a step further and saying it’s not enough to do economic development. You have to talk about economic justice and you have to talk about the lives of people. Those things inspire me to want to really make a difference and work within the community.
The Kitchen Business Incubator program will begin at the YWCA South Campus this fall. How does a commercial kitchen fit into your entrepreneur development mission?
When we looked at the Women’s Business Center and the type of clients we were serving, the majority of them were in food industries and food-related businesses. With the new regulations through the health department, people could no longer work within their kitchen in their home the way that they used to be able to do. So, we did a gap analysis of how many commercial kitchens are there, of how people access commercial kitchen space.
When we started to do research last year around this time, we found there were a handful of commercial kitchens available for folks. When you dive through the giant list that’s provided by the health department, you find that the majority of those kitchens are in churches or schools—and they don’t provide long-term access to kitchen space.
For the entrepreneurs we were serving, that was a major pain point and we wanted to help solve that for them.
What are some entrepreneurial food businesses you’ve supported?
We serve a variety of food businesses, so we have a wide range of folks that we support. We really do run the gamut, from home cooks all the way to traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants. Our typical client is somewhere in the middle. We’ve incubated a juicing company called Dish for Dosha for about three years now, and we had an amazing team that helped put together Benny’s Restaurant on Grant Road.
Most folks start out through catering, and that’s a completely different type of market. Our clients cater on the side. They try to test and do proof of concept, and then go from there. Most are just looking for the place where they can test those ideas. They want somebody to talk about it with, and that’s really the purpose we serve.
Most of our clients already know what they’re doing in the kitchen. What they don’t know is how to create a business plan or how to project revenue, and that’s where the Women’s Business Center and MAC are really important.
What are some of your favorite memories of working with food entrepreneurs?
For our Women Who Kick @$$ Women in Food panel, the Women’s Business Center hosted four local successful restaurateurs to engage in dialogue and knowledge sharing with community members who were looking to start a food business. The exchange between panelists and attendees was an ah-ha! moment for many of the participants and for myself; this was one of the first events I hosted as director at the time, and I knew we were on to something. In creating this space for idea sharing, what emerged was more than just networking—it was empowerment.
One of the largest barriers entrepreneurs that we work with have is that they feel they don’t have mentors, or examples of “regular” people who have succeeded in their industry. In meeting and talking with restaurateurs, aspiring entrepreneurs felt closer to their dream and were able to get answers to their most burning questions. Seeing folks light up as they shared both their experiences and passions is one of the coolest parts of working with entrepreneurs. ✜
YWCA South Campus.
243 W. 33rd St., South Tucson. Visit YWCA.org. Clients interested in free, personalized counseling must attend a Women’s Business Center orientation session, held every other Monday in English and Spanish at the YWCA South Campus.
Cynthia Lancaster is a freelance journalist living in Tucson.