A helping hand to ESL business owners

The first graduating class of ESL Entrepreneurship program. (Photo: Dallas County Community College District)

When Hugo de la Mora immigrated to the United States 13 years ago, he saw a “whole world of opportunities,” as he put it, all around him.

He started a job in the fast food industry; eight years later, he launched his own company, The Best Hot Dog.

De la Mora now owns several hot dog vending carts, provides catering services and has six employees, but he felt he could improve his English and business practices.

De la Mora recently graduated in the inaugural class of the ESL (English as a second language) Entrepreneurship program, a collaborative effort between the Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) and the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The free program teaches small business owners greater fluency in English and basic business practices at DCCCD’s Bill J. Priest Institute for Economic Development.

Expanding opportunities

The ESL Entrepreneurship program was the brainchild of Gloria Smith, DCCCD’s district director of adult education and literacy services, who said she saw small business owners struggle to access resources that are available to them.

“We saw this (program) as an opportunity to help small business owners who are non-native English learners,” Smith said. “They work hard and have the big potential, and the resources we provide can help them expand and grow their businesses. We are teaching them how to run their business and also how to improve their English fluency.”

Smith added that she wanted to support small business owners by providing the right tools and resources so that they can create jobs and improve their ventures.

“On the surface, they look fine, but if you ask to see their books, they’ll pull out a shoebox,” Smith said. “They don’t know how to structure their businesses. They don’t know that they need to pay taxes quarterly. I want to reach those at-risk businesses which have great potential, but they don’t know the technical requirements that they need to comply with.”

The paperwork side of business

Gabriela Carvallo, vice president of economic development at the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the GDHCC was approached by DCCCD to put a course together that combined English as a second language with entrepreneurship. Some of the biggest challenges Hispanic entrepreneurs face include language proficiency, education and finance, she said. In addition, many of those entrepreneurs are not technologically-savvy, so the program teaches them financial software.

“We have learned a lot about how entrepreneurs develop,” Carvallo said. “When we ask them to provide us with their financials, a general ledger or an income-and-loss statement, they bring their income tax statements. For them, that’s how much they make after expenses. As a result, we try to teach them early on that they really need to have documentation to be successful and to be able to make decisions.”

Carvallo said the two-month-long program committed to having 15 participants in the first cohort, but they accepted 16, all of whom graduated. However, they also put many other applicants on a waiting list for the next cohort, which starts this week.

“As soon as we said we had a class that combined ESL with entrepreneurship, we had 37 RSVPs,” Carvallo said. “We already have 43 applicants for the second cohort.”

Rick Ortiz, GDHCC’s president and CEO, said the idea was so successful that they didn’t need to do any outreach in the Hispanic community.

“The demand is there, but it’s also a matter of being able to meet the demand,” Ortiz stated. “We’d love to be able to help as many of our clients as we can, but we want to make sure we do it right. We don’t want to do something halfway.”

Knowledge into practice

Diana Nava, who owns a financial services consulting company and who was one of the program’s graduates, said she was an entrepreneur in her native Colombia. She came to the United States with “a great desire to succeed.” However, she didn’t know how to be a business person here, and she faced a language barrier.

“I had to start from scratch because the laws and the culture were new to me,” Nava said. “I had to familiarize myself with small business procedures because I didn’t have enough knowledge, and I needed guidance. In addition, my lack of English presented a great challenge.”

Nava said one of the best parts of the program was getting to know and network with the other students.

“It was good to combine the learning aspect with the practice,” she said. “I heard many colleagues talk about their challenges – some failed because they didn’t know how to do a contract or deal with competition. Our instructor taught us how to deal with adversity.”

Meanwhile, De La Mora woke up at 5 a.m. daily to run his business and then went to class for another three hours. While it seemed exhausting at the time, he said it was worth it.

“One of the reasons I have been successful is because I have my family’s support. But I also employ six people, so six other families depend on me,” de la Mora said. “I was never a salesperson, so I needed to learn more about how to run a business.”

About the Author

Cesar Canizales
is the news communication manager at the Dallas County Community College District in Texas.