Frank Rodriguez, owner of Frank Hair Artist, talks about how online sales and a no walk-in policy have helped the salon stay busy during the pandemic.
Frank Rodriguez’s dream was to open a hair salon on Mass Ave.
He eyed the spot where it would be, on the 700th block, he said.
He and his boyfriend, Luis Perez, would walk by often and look through the window of the space that was up for lease.
“We knew exactly how we would decorate it and where everything would go,” Rodriguez said. “We had it all planned out already.”
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And he made it happen. He got the keys in 2017 and opened Frank Hair Artist, the 28-year-old’s second hair salon in Indianapolis, at 739 Massachusetts Ave.
Rodriguez’s salon concept was by-appointment-only and soon after he created a hair product line sold on his online store.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to shut down, Rodriguez’s business concept, the hair care products sold online and the customer-base he’d built through the years kept his business afloat, he said.
“I had such a good relationship with my clients and they wanted to help us out so they just kept buying products,” Rodriguez said. “And they would also buy gift cards and then would tell their friends and family to purchase products. We were so grateful for that.”
Through the years, many Latino small business owners in Indianapolis — and immigrants like Rodriguez, who is originally from El Salvador — have been able to grow their customer base through personal connections, word-of-mouth and without any type of business coaching or outside help from business grants or business advocacy organizations.
And way before the pandemic struck underrepresented communities, Latino small business owners in Indianapolis had already been left behind, as they often don’t qualify federal financial relief or don’t have a bank account to build credit, Latino business advocacy leaders told IndyStar.
The customer-base Latino business owners have built through the years in their community and their resilience has been key to remain open during the pandemic, Natalia Rodriguez Hilt, who is an assistant program officer, with LISC Indianapolis’ economic mobility, told IndyStar.
Frank Rodriguez (left), with boyfriend and stylist Luis Perez, at Frank Hair Artist, a full-service hair salon on Massachusetts Avenue, Indianapolis, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. Rodriguez said his family moved to Indiana fourteen years ago, following the murder of his brother to gangsters in El Salvador. (Photo: Robert Scheer/The Indianapolis Star)
“The Latino business community is almost isolated, some don’t qualify for grants and even some loans because they might not have a social security number, but at the same time, these business owners have been so innovative and have made it on their own,” Rodriguez-Hilt said. “They have not been getting the attention they deserve and support from organizations and we want to change that. We want to help them make more connections, introduce them to people and help them navigate the system here.”
And now, LISC Indianapolis, a non-profit organization that collaborates with different local organizations to help transform distressed neighborhoods through economic development and business advocacy organizations such as the Indy Chamber of Commerce are hiring more Latinos and bilingual representatives to better reach the community and help them succeed.
These organizations also awarding grants and creating mentorship and business workshop opportunities for the fast-growing population of Latinos and immigrants in Marion County.
“Keeping Latino businesses afloat is critical,” Rodriguez-Hilt, who is bilingual, was hired by LISC 10 months ago and focuses on southeast side neighborhoods, said. “We can tell the Latino business community is growing and organizations really need to do a better job at building relationships with them. If we can get them the resources they need, their chances of survival, of flourishing, are going to be better.”
‘We move the economy’
Rodriguez was only 15 years old in 2007 when he and his mom were operating a 300-square-foot hair salon inside a flea market on the west side of Indianapolis.
It wasn’t easy. When he got started, there were times he made only $150 per week and couldn’t afford to pay rent. But other times business was so good, that when the flea market was set to close for the day, he’d run out of time and would end up washing his customers’ hair at his house, he said.
He and his mom worked hard to get the word out about their hairstyling services and it paid off, he said. They put out flyers everywhere and told their customers to tell their friends and family about their shop.
But expenses and bills began to pile up when his mom got sick with cancer.
“One day I was just so stressed out that I ran out of the flea market, got in my car and started driving. I was crying, I just didn’t know what to do,” Rodriguez said. “Then I parked at this random spot and when I looked up and there was a space that was up for lease.”
Resources available:For Latino-owned, immigrant business owners in Indianapolis
Rodriguez took a risk, put down a deposit for that space and moved out of the flea market. Estetica Frank opened at 3600 Lafayette Road in 2009 and it’s still there today.
“It was a lot of hard work, a lot of stress, a lot that we didn’t know about but that’s how we did it,” Rodriguez said. “When we had to close because of (COVID-19) we had almost 700 clients on a waiting list for when we opened.”
Frank Rodriguez, at Frank Hair Artist, a full-service hair salon on Massachusetts Avenue, Indianapolis, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. Rodriguez said his family moved to Indiana fourteen years ago, following the murder of his brother to gangsters in El Salvador. (Photo: Robert Scheer/The Indianapolis Star)
After the coronavirus pandemic had slammed Hoosier business owners, Rodriguez became aware of resources available to help business owners like him. And that was the first time, in the 13 years he’d been in business in Indianapolis, he said.
“I had savings, I took risks, we never had a business plan. We just built experience and we never thought about reaching out (to get resources), to be honest,” he said. “Luckily we’ve always had clients now but back in 2009 I would have liked to have known more about payroll for my employees, known more about how to budget, so yeah there were things that would have been helpful back then.”
Rodriguez-Hilt said with the Latino community, business advocacy groups shouldn’t only make an effort to invite them to take advantage of resources, but advocates need to go to them.
“We have to think about the challenges of business owners. They are working 24/7,” Rodriguez-Hilt said. “But with Latinos is a lot more important to go to them, meet them on-site, talk to them in Spanish, because it’s more effective and it lets them pause and say, ‘yes, I do want to know more about this resource’.”
Rodriguez-Hilt went door to door this summer to encourage Latino business owners to apply for LISC Indianapolis’ Small Business Recovery Grant for Minority, Immigrant and Women-Owned businesses. More than 2,000 business owners applied and 125 of them received grants of $5,000 and others $20,000, Rodriguez-Hilt said.
If organizations make the effort to reach out and help business owners like him succeed, the city, in turn, can succeed, too, Frank Rodriguez said.
“Whether we’re documented or undocumented, us, Latinos, we move the economy in this country,” Rodriguez said. “At the end of the day, we live here in this city, we are part of the city and everyone should remember that.”
Mobilizing to help
Nearly 5,000 Latino/Hispanic owned businesses in Central Indiana generate more than $1.1 billion in revenues annually. The majority of these are small businesses or self-employed entrepreneurs, according to the most recent data by the Indy Chamber’s Hispanic Business Council.
Based on a Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative study released last year, Latino-owned businesses employ more than 3 million people and contribute nearly $500 billion in annual sales to the U.S. economy.
But after the pandemic, the numbers might be different.
Although there still little to no evidence on how the pandemic is impacting small businesses locally, an analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research released in June states that the number of active business owners in the United States “plummeted by 3.3 million or 22% over the crucial two-month window from Feb. to April 2020. The drop in business owners was the largest on record and losses were felt across nearly all industries and even for incorporated businesses.”
Latino business owners fell by 32% and immigrant business owners experienced substantial losses of 36%, the analysis shows.
That’s why Latino business advocacy groups are mobilizing to help.
Dolly Serrant joined the Indy Chamber’s Hispanic Business Council and became its director in March and around the same time businesses everywhere were struggling to remain open amid the pandemic.
Over the past few months, Serrant found that many small business owners, first-time business owners, and immigrants still struggle with language barriers and need help understanding the basics of running a business in the United States.
“My goal is to develop workshops in Spanish so business owners can understand more the regulations, the importance of certifying your businesses, the different certifications, etc,” Serrant told IndyStar. “We have to remember that for immigrants, doing business in the United States is very different than doing business in our countries of origin.”
Serrant is also a bilingual business coach said the Chamber also hired a bilingual sales representative.
“And the issue isn’t only that business owners don’t know about these resources, but also as organizations, we need to be inclusive and share the information and share it in other languages,” she said. “Diversifying organizations is essential. We need representation in order to reach this community.”
The Chamber has hosted virtual town halls in Spanish for business owners over the past few months. Serrant has also been promoting the Hispanic Business Council’s Mentor Protégé Program and Latinx Accelerate Program to help growing Latino and Hispanic small business owners.
She said the Conexion Event Series, featuring educational and networking events provides opportunities for Hispanic and Latino business owners and others interested in tapping into the market.
Some Latino business owners, who have been around for a few years in Indianapolis, say in order to take the next step and expand, they’d benefit from these business workshops and more training.
Las Mexicanas Supermarket off of South Sherman Drive, Wednesday, August 26, 2020. (Photo: Grace Hollars/Indianapolis Star, Grace Hollars/IndyStar)
Suri Camacho and her family have owned Las Mexicanas Supermarket at Sherman Drive and English Ave., on the city’s southeast side, for about eight years.
“When we bought the store we didn’t know much about how to do business but we had always wanted our business and we saw the opportunity and we took it,” Camacho said. “We had been washing dishes, I had been cleaning houses, so when we saw this opportunity we didn’t think twice.”
Through trial and error, the family figured out how to run their business.
Camacho’s neighborhood customers relied on her small grocery and butcher shop when bigger name grocers were running out items such as beef, canned food and toilet paper at the start of the pandemic, she said.
And though she and her family have pushed through over the years, she’d hope the store would be in a much better place by now financially.
“We’ve sustained the business,” Camacho said. “We want to grow but we don’t know how because we feel like we need to be here every day. I look at other businesses and I ask myself, ‘how do they do it? how do they run multiple businesses?'”
“So yeah, we want to know more about business administration,” Camacho said, “we want training for our employees, we want to know what we can do better.”
And some say the personal approaches and the efforts of hiring more Latinos to reach the community that business and Latino advocacy groups are trying are already working.
On the northwest side of Indianapolis, Juan Vasquez, who owns 3 in 1 Restaurant, said for years he tried to get help from organizations such as the Indy Chamber of Commerce with no luck.
Vasquez and his family have been making pupusas in Indianapolis for 15 years. It took a lot of work for people to become familiar with the Salvadorian dish, to walk into the restaurant and for the demand to grow, he said.
Vasquez and his family marketed themselves everywhere they could. And his business is now well-known in the community.
But he said it made a big difference when Serrant from the Hispanic Business Council approached him a few weeks ago about resources to help him expand his Salvadorean pupusas and tamales restaurant.
Serrant and the Chamber are working to help him get his pupusas and tamales served at schools, nursing homes or maybe even military bases, Vasquez said.
“I have talked to Dolly and several of her colleagues and we are moving forward,” Vasquez said. “Sometimes it takes time and one person like her to reach out and finally it has gotten to a point where we are getting somewhere.”
Reach IndyStar reporter Natalia Contreras at 317-444-6187 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter, @NataliaECG.
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