Local Valley program gives Latinos the power of entrepreneurship

Mirna and Fernando Cote pose with their daughter inside their business. (Photo by Andrea Estrada/Cronkite News)

GLENDALE – The first thing that hits you when you walk into Escuela de Electricidad Automotriz is the scent of auto parts and coffee. A large white truck is mounted on a lift in the middle of a spacious, echoey room along with tires, engines and other parts spread all over.

This shop looks, at least on the outside, like so many others in the Valley. But inside, its uniqueness comes from its owners, Mirna and Fernando Cote.

The married couple who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, were driven by their vision to open an automotive-electric school. The business has been up and running for a year, something that seemed, at one point, like an unattainable dream.

“The objective at our school is to train and prepare individuals who are seeking a short technical career,” Mirna said. “Our students learn about automotive electric technology, refrigeration,and engines.”

“My husband started this project in Mexico,” she said. “When we arrived to the U.S., we saw that the opportunities for us were very slim.”

“One day, I saw a commercial on TV about the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. I went to visit them, and they put me in contact with Fuerza Local Arizona.”

Fuerza Local Membership and Programs Manager Jose Urteaga explains how the program works. (Photo by Andrea Estrada/Cronkite News)

Fuerza Local Arizona, a program under Local First Arizona Foundation, was established to promote the growth of Latino-owned businesses.

Fuerza Local Arizona introduced its Fuerza Local Business Accelerator Program in 2013. The six-month curriculum, which is free and open to anyone, is taught in Spanish and offered in Phoenix, Mesa, Maryvale and Avondale.

Jose Urteaga, membership and programs manager for Fuerza Local Arizona, said those locations were not chosen randomly.

“We offer them in those cities because that’s where we’ve been able to assess that there is need,” he said.

Fuerza Local Arizona started the business-accelerator program mainly because it found the Latino community was being targeted by predatory lenders.

“It’s not that they have a bad credit score,” he said. “They (don’t) have a credit score (at all), so their only option is to go to those lending places that will give you the money you need short term but charge ridiculous fees.”

Students put away a small amount of money each week, and at the end of the program have $1,000 in their savings, which is what helps them build their credit score. Students then are eligible to earn a $1,000 scholarship from Mari Sol Federal Credit Union, which partners with Local First Arizona.

“So now, they’re graduating with $2,000 to put towards their business and a credit score,” Urteaga said.

Along with Mari Sol, Local First’s “Localist” giving program also helps fund students. Community members who want to be a part of the initiative can become individual donors by investing in Latino businesses.

Three students graduated from Fuerza Local Arizona’s first accelerator class in 2013. Five years later, its ninth class is expected to graduate 60 students on Jan. 24.

“We’ve grown quite a bit since then,” Urteaga said. “One of my favorite statistics is that at the end of 2016, 58 percent of our graduates were women. So not only are we trying to empower the Latino community in general, but Latina women, specifically, who maybe previously have been marginalized and not included in the business conversation.”

Mirna, who’s part of that 58 percent, is proud of herself and all the other businesswomen in her community. In the past, many women have focused primarily on being mothers and wives, she said, and not necessarily on opening their own businesses.

“Very proud. Not only because we are women, but because we are Latina women,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where they put us, we find a way.”

“(Mirna) always wanted to open up her own school of automotive electricity,” Urteaga said. “(One day), she decided to go for it. And she now is up and running.”

“We like to plant a little seed in our students to not be employees, but rather to take these trainings and think of being business owners one day,” Mirna said. “We tell our students, ‘You can qualify yourself here with us and then move on to Fuerza Local Arizona, something we’ve already lived through ourselves and know works.'”

Mirna and Fernando are on their third generation of students and have employed two of their previous students.

“Statistically, that may not be very symbolic, but for us it’s satisfying,” Mirna said. “Our students say, ‘Can you give me an opportunity to work for you?’ This lets us know that they are learning, that they do want to take that next step.”

There was fear and hesitation before opening their business, she added, but no more.

“With time, it’s gone away,” she said.

“My advice to anyone who is considering opening their own business, do it. No one guarantees us success, but I think that Fuerza Local Arizona gives the perfect structure to do it. This program tells us there are no limits.”