Restaurateur Carlos Pineda knows first-hand how networking helps to keep small businesses afloat.

“My wife and I own El Patrón Mexican Grill,” Pineda says of his Keizer restaurant. “We opened about two years ago, and it’s been a difficult journey to start, but it’s been a fun ride so far.”

At his restaurant, Pineda is living his dream of making people happy with lots of “good, fresh and authentic” Mexican food.

“It’s very important to us to have fresh food because we want to provide the best to our customers,” he says. “Our menu is all of my mom’s recipes. I was blessed to have a mother growing up who always cooked homemade meals.”

To help with his venture, Pineda joined the Latino Business Alliance, an organization launched in 2010 to advance the financial growth of Latino businesses in the Willamette Valley.

“Joining the Latino Business Alliance has been one of the best decisions we have done since we opened our doors,” Pineda says. “We were struggling in the beginning and joining the LBA has helped me keep my doors open.

“The LBA gave me resources I never knew I had,” he adds. “The LBA has motivated me to keep going and not give up on my dream. And the monthly meetings for networking have been a great way to meet other business owners, having the opportunity to know other entrepreneurs like me.”

Pineda believes it’s important to have Latinos help one another as well as actively participating in the business community.

“The LBA always finds time to answer your questions and help you with your needs, no matter what the situation,” he says. “They are always available and willing to help. I appreciate their help and friendship.”

The idea for starting the LBA took root in conversations several small Latino business owners had in 2008 at the height of the nation’s recession.

“They talked about how to work together in order to help each other succeed through the difficult times,” says José Gonzalez, president of LBA’s board of directors.

Two years later, the informal group of business owners evolved into a movement, complete with a board of directors and nonprofit status, he adds.

“Today, we focus most of our efforts on building trust throughout our whole community,” Gonzalez says. “This allows us to support and connect people and resources already out there. We are in essence a bridge between groups of people which have traditionally not had the proper structure to share resources and knowledge.”

The LBA is funded by a combination of private foundation grants, corporate sponsorships and membership dues. Its goal is to improve not only access to economic and business education, but to connect members with programs, resources and services designed to improve the integration of the Latino community into the wider business community. The organization also promotes entrepreneurship and professional development in the Latino youth, Gonzalez says.

“We just passed our five-year mark after spending our early years building our capacity and finding our place in this community,” he adds.

LBA holds monthly meetings that attract up to 50 members at a time, and also hosts an annual event, Expo Negocio, drawing some 200 participants to take part in co- branded informational sessions with the Salem Chamber of Commerce.

“We just held our first political forum with over 50 in attendance,” Gonzalez says.

“We have two staff people who help our members connect to trusted resources, and are now developing partnerships with other community organizations.”

According to Gonzalez, LBA has assisted hundreds of entrepreneurs to begin and better their businesses. The organization is working to create a partnership with SCORE, a nonprofit that provides business help, to create a free mentor program.

“And the partnership with the Salem Chamber of Commerce has exceeded our expectations,” Gonzalez says. “We have taken a bold step together and have great plans for the future. We currently have a co-membership model and are working collaboratively to improve our local economy by supporting our local entrepreneurs.”

Also in the works is developing a rotating fund for small business owners, Gonzalez says.

“One area where we still see a huge gap is access to capital,” he says. “We would like our program to essentially help business owners become ‘bank ready.’ Since the recession, the number of loans under $200,000 given to small businesses has dropped, which means many won’t have the tools to grow and hire more people.”

Getting help is only “a call, email or Facebook message away,” he adds.

“We have two initial points of contact,” Gonzalez says of the organization. “Alejandra Hernandez, our membership coordinator, handles incoming calls and emails in order to properly route them. Ismael Zuñiga, our business outreach person, spends a lot of time out in the field connecting with small business owners. Lastly, those on our board of directors are our ambassadors out in the community.”

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