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WBC Provides Services for Women Business Owners

It grabs you — right from the start. Seeming to draw spirit and strength from the surrounding Rocky Mountains, the Mi Casa Resource Center for Women in Denver gets hold of your heart and never lets go.

Mi Casa actually means "my home," and that’s just what it is to countless numbers of women who are dreaming of improving their lives. And the SBA women’s business center there is a place where women plant dreams of entrepreneurship that, with a little determination and nurturing, sprout into better lives for themselves, their families and their communities.

The Mi Casa Resource Center for Women was originally founded in 1976 by several Head Start mothers, who envisioned a place where women could make a better life for themselves and their families. It offered a variety of services, counseling and assistance. Later, in 1990, Mi Casa was among the first organizations to receive a grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration to start a women’s business center. It was a natural extension of the organization’s community-based services, promoting self-sufficiency programs through small business ownership. Since then, the Mi Casa Women’s Business Center has served close to 1,500 clients.

The Mi Casa WBC offers a variety of business programs. The Evening Enterprenurial Training Project provides entrepreneurs with affordable training at the start-up or expansion phase of their businesses. Another program, Project Success, is designed for women receiving public assistance. This program combines entrepreneurial-skills training with an extensive life-skills curriculum, individualized assessment, case management and links to other supportive services. The Individual Microlending Project provides access to capital. The process not only solves the problem of where to obtain capital, but also teaches the borrower how to be a successful candidate for traditional lending.

Agnes Tallamantez Carroll, director of the Mi Casa Women’s Business Center, recently developed a Spanish curriculum designed specifically to meet the needs of the Latino population. This curriculum, Mi Negocio, will be used by Mi Casa’s instructors and will be introduced at the Association for Enterprise Opportunity's Conference in May. Mi Negocio uses a workbook comprising 11 individual booklets, including a fill-in-the-blank business plan. Very comprehensive and flexible, the curriculum can be taught one class at a time for 11 weeks — or condensed into a seven-week course. Individual booklets sell for $10, but the entire workbook retails for just $35. Mi Casa has received requests from all over the country regarding its expertise in training the Hispanic population, and the center staff is excited to be able to offer this unique curriculum, which wholesales for $25.

Several years ago, Mi Casa started its now-famous "suit sale" for women in the Denver area. Today the event involves hundreds of women and truckloads of donated business clothing for women not only in Denver, but in the Pueblo and Colorado Springs areas as well. This year’s 6th Annual Business Suit Sale will take place on June 23rd. Mi Casa collects professional clothing — dry-cleaned, gently used and on hangers — in all sizes, from banks, corporations and other community partners. These items are sold for $20 or less. Although the sale is open to the general public, it is targeted at low-income women, enabling them to maintain their dignity and self-respect as they prepare to enter the work force or seek advancements.

Several beauty-related businesses also set up booths and donate services — make-overs, haircuts and styling, waxing, fashion and image consulting, etc. — to the attendees. The suit sale provides a valuable service, while also serving as a successful fund raising event for Mi Casa, raising between $5,000 and $8,000 annually.

Another Mi Casa innovation is its Online Business Directory. When complete, the directory will list hundreds of businesses owned by previous Mi Casa clients. This directory, which provides display ads for the businesses, is a wonderful marketing tool that also provides Mi Casa with economic impact data required by Congress. The Online Business Directory is located at , and new businesses are being added every day.

Many of the new businesses being started use the skills women already have in areas such as sewing, child-care or cooking. With Mi Casa’s help, these skills are developed into cottage industries such as tailoring, crafts or even making tamales for local restaurants. Although Mi Casa’s services are targeted to the Latino population, there is a wide range of ethnicities represented in the center’s classes, including Asian and African-American. Clients, who range in age from 10 to 60, come from both rural and urban populations; most are low-income. They may hear about Mi Casa through word of mouth, newspaper, or radio. Most remain involved with Mi Casa even after graduating from the classes or services, often returning as volunteers, mentors, instructors — or even as directors. It just grabs your heart and never lets go.

Margaret Mora first came to Mi Casa as a client. When the center expanded its much-needed programs to the Colorado Springs and Pueblo areas in 1999, she became the director of those centers, putting her whole heart into the program.

Mi Casa is Margaret’s passion, and she never seems to stop working—she even finds potential clients among waitresses when she goes out to eat. As director, she plans programs for the monthly Women’s Networking for Entrepreneurial Training meeting, a mentoring and networking program for women sponsored by the SBA. She coordinates the many business classes offered, and counsels one-to-one with clients. In addition to these and many other tasks, Margaret makes important connections with community resources like the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, small business development centers, the Service Corps of Retired Volunteers, and the University of Colorado. Members of the Chamber of Commerce serve as instructors and guest speakers at the business classes, and graduate students from the University of Colorado provide additional one-to-one counseling. This type of collaboration creates a wonderful and beneficial relationship throughout the entire community.

While Margaret has help from an amazing number of volunteers and resource partners, her paid staff is tiny. Norma Aguilar serves as project assistant for the Colorado Springs office and helps develop marketing materials and client outreach programs. Dorothy Romero-Vigil, receptionist at the Pueblo office, oversees daily activities that keep her center running smoothly. Like Margaret, both Norma and Dorothy love their work—and it shows.

Hovering dutifully over Mi Casa is Lynnette Newman, the SBA’s district office technical representative. Lynnette oversees the SBA’s grant to Mi Casa and works closely with the center to ensure that all of the financial paperwork and other grant reporting requirements are properly prepared, while also coordinating special events, conferences and loan referrals. Lynnette considers her work with Mi Casa as one of the most rewarding parts of her job.

Mi Casa marked its 10th anniversary this year during the Women's History Month celebration on March 30th at the Westin Hotel. Tiffany and Co. donated engraved invitations; Coors and Wells Fargo were also sponsors. And USBank presented Mi Casa’s Women’s Business Center with a check for $25,000!

Among those honored were 11 Latinas in top management or ownership in media, along with Denver's First Lady, Wilma Webb. Elsa Holguin, under whose leadership and vision the Business Center for Women first began, was also honored. Among those attending were Patricia Barela Rivera, SBA's Colorado district director, as well many legislators and representatives from important corporations and foundations – in fact, the event was completely sold out!

The event raised $55,000 and celebrated the many success stories from Mi Casa, including Annette Quintana, one of Mi Casa’s first graduates. Annette went on to open Excel Professional Services, Inc., which grossed $31 million in 2000, has offices in six states and employs over 250 individuals. Annette recently opened a second business, I-stonish, a customer-service provider for companies doing business online. The local NBC affiliate presented Annette with the Channel 9 News Leader of the Year Award, recognizing her for her community service endeavors.

Many women interested in starting or expanding their businesses go to several places looking for help. Often frustrated at being shuffled around and brushed aside, they finally find a place at Mi Casa where they find a warm and nurturing atmosphere — and actually get their questions answered. Mi Casa becomes their place to be truly transformed and inspired. It’s a home for hundreds of women entrepreneurs, a source of spirit and strength that grabs your heart and never lets go.