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Program helps women develop business skills

Updated: January 16, 2014 6:44AM

Alicia used to set up her tamale stand at 6 a.m. daily near the busy intersection of Montrose Avenue and Pulaski Road on the North Side.

At 11 a.m. she would pack up her things and head home to finish preparing more batches of chicken, pork, cheese or corn tamales. She had to go back for the late afternoon rush hour.

Many nights she slept two or three hours. Tamales take awhile to cook, and she had to put them on the stove by 3 a.m. to be at her crudely constructed stand three hours later.

The sleep-deprived single mother stuck to the routine for 12 years to feed her four children.

She hopes those days are gone for good. Alicia now carries business cards and delivers her home-cooked goods to a client base of 200. “Thank God, I live off this,” she said last week at a holiday market at the Museum of Mexican Art.

The fair was the culmination, sort of a graduation, of an 18-week Empresarias Del Futuro (Future Businesswomen) cohort. In the 14 months or so since the program was launched by the nonprofit Mujeres Latinas en Accion (Latina Women in Action), 80 women have completed the program.

The idea brewed between CEO Maria Pesqueira and program director Claudia Alcantara for about three years. Their organization assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, provides guidance for public benefits, and offers programs on leadership and parenting.

In helping victims of violence get on their feet, Alcantara said she realized many women underestimated their ability to earn regular income from the makeup, clothing, crafts or food they sold to keep their families afloat. These were things they did on the side, Pesqueira noted. “But they could make it a core thing.”

The cohort offers basic principles on finance, marketing and running a small business. Participants are mentored as they develop business plans.

Small business loans, from $500 to $25,000, are administered through the Women’s Business Development Center. It can be risky since the loans have high interest rates because many of the women have no credit. It’s a warm welcome and cold reality in the world of small business.

The groups get backing from Chase, Allstate and Verizon. It’s a wise investment for companies because these women want to be more than bit players for the economy.

Women must have a background in business, whether it’s selling Mary Kay or running a coffee stand, to qualify for the cohort. That wasn’t a problem for Angelina Marquez of Cicero.

The mother of two said she tried selling clothes and makeup to supplement her income as a teacher’s aide before finding her niche with homemade salsa. Two restaurants buy from her, “but I want to be in the stores,” she said. “I need to do this for my kids.”

Really, this project is about empowerment, especially for victims of violence and low-income earners. (The women’s action group has a privacy agreement in place with participants, some of whom declined to give last names.)

Excitement and nervousness were in the air at the holiday market. Alicia spoke proudly of offering delivery service for her tamales as opposed to enduring the city’s extreme cold and hot spells at a corner stand.

It’s still quite a bit of work, she said. “But if there’s an emergency with one of the kids, I can be there.”


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