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Recap: #LetsTalkBusiness Roundtable San Juan, Puerto Rico

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WASHINTON, D.C., March 9, 2020 – As part of its ‘#LetsTalkBusiness Roundtable Series,’ the National Women’s Business Council (NWBC) held its first roundtable of the year in San Juan, Puerto Rico on February  27, 2020, at the Puerto Rico Convention Center, together with the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA). NWBC was joined by the Governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez Garced, who delivered remarks on the state of women’s entrepreneurship on the Island.

NWBC Chair Liz Sara greeted the roundtable participants and attendees and thanked Governor Vázquez Garced for welcoming NWBC to the Island. Chair Sara then provided remarks on the importance of improving access to capital and opportunity for women entrepreneurs and business owners in Puerto Rico and across the country.

Governor Vázquez Garced underscored her administration’s commitment to strengthening economic conditions for women, emphasizing that “Puerto Rico is open for business” and that women business owners on the Island are key to helping revitalize and further strengthen the Puerto Rican economy.

Following the Governor’s remarks, Council Member Nicole Cober prompted the participants to share the impact that natural disasters—the 2017 hurricanes and recent earthquakes— have had on their businesses.

One female founder in the freight and transportation industry whose business provides global logistics solutions in Puerto Rico shared an emotional account of the widespread devastation experienced across the Island. “Everyone was at risk. Our whole island was at risk…. But the hurricane [Maria] created an incentive to push Puerto Rico forward.” Her company was in fact one of the first responders, creating a temperature-controlled warehouse to store medication and ensuring that medicine was getting to the most vulnerable—even in the most rural and remote areas of the island.

Another participant, a roofing manufacturer, noted that women business owners on the Island, and Puerto Rican women business owners on the mainland, were instrumental to helping provide immediate emergency services. She shared, “We were up and running just four days after the hurricane and brought together the business community. We visited communities across the Island and formed a ‘business emergency group.’”

Council Member Cober noted how important it is to support healthy ecosystems in the post-recovery phase as women-owned small businesses are instrumental to helping save and ensure the continuity of a stronger Puerto Rican economy. She then directed the discussion to the topic of financial education, asking, “How does Puerto Rico institutionalize financial literacy and education in K-12 grades and at the university, if at all?”

A bed-and-breakfast business owner with businesses in Maryland and Puerto Rico stated, “This is not just a problem in Puerto Rico. This is a nation-wide problem. Entrepreneurs often don’t understand that the extension of business credit is based upon an individual’s personal credit.” She continued, “Most kids today graduate from high school and don’t even know or understand what a credit score is; and although women make 75% of all buying decisions, many don’t often have an understanding of the fundamentals of financial literacy.”

Jennifer Storipan, Executive Director of PRFAA, noted that the Governor “is committed to institutionalizing financial education through an ‘Institute of Financial Education’”. She added that Puerto Rico is exploring best practices by taking an interdisciplinary approach—incorporating financial literacy curriculums across Math and Social Studies academic disciplines.

Yvette T. Collazo, the SBA’s Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands District Director, noted the fact that all financial institutions, including credit unions, are certified in Puerto Rico. However, a challenge is that credit unions “are set up to provide personal but not commercial loans.” She also recommended to new start-ups that “while you need to think big, you need to start small, and for that reason microlending is key in Puerto Rico.”

District Director Collazo also noted how important STEM businesses were to the economy in Puerto Rico. Last year, the SBIR Road Tour made a pit stop on the Island for the first time in its history. Similarly, the SBA’s Emerging Leaders program was recently brought to Puerto Rico, a telltale sign of the economic and entrepreneurial potential on the Island.

Council Member Barbara Kniff-McCulla noted how the business community in her Iowa hometown chose to invest in STEM education. “In Pella, working with local manufacturers through a public-private partnership, we put in a STEM program in Central College. So, I would recommend that you look to local businesses to put money into your [education] program[s] because these are the businesses that will be hiring these students in the future.” She then asked the business owners to share some of the initial steps they took in looking for capital to start their business.

Another female lender—certified as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) by the U.S. Treasury and certified by the SBA as a 504 Development Company Loan Program—noted that her organization created an ‘entrepreneurs academy’ and added a childcare component for academy participants free of charge.

A National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) Board Member and business owner in the emergency medical services field also noted, “Because of my relationship with NAWBO, I’ve been supported and provided with mentorship. And today, we work with young ladies to provide them guidance and financial literacy.”

A Chicago-based lawyer/entrepreneur also reiterated, “Mentorship is great, but it’s not just mentorship. Women need sponsorship. Don’t just talk to women about how to do it, take her with you and walk her through the door.”

NWBC Council Member Rebecca Hamilton then asked the roundtable participants to share some of the primary drivers and top financial factors informing their decision whether to fund a prospective investment.

The head of an NGO in Puerto Rico stated that when considering funding an enterprise, their organization looks to certain criteria, which include ensuring: 1) there are at least two individuals tied to the project; 2) they have conducted a market study for their product or service; and 3) they commit to completing a curriculum and its required hours. Only after completing the curriculum do they get the funding.

A health tech female CEO also shared a gripping story that spanned from pitching her health tech start-up while five months pregnant to winning ‘Rise of the Rest Competition’ to raising $3 million for her enterprise with local capital. “I went through a whole acceleration process. Today, we are a woman-owned company with twenty-seven employees.” She shared that the road is not easy and that “you just have to get out there” and find opportunities to “expose your companies to Angel Investors.”

Council Member Cober wrapped up the roundtable discussion and reiterated the NWBC’s commitment to employ the feedback received as a springboard for the Council’s policy recommendations to Congress, the President, and the Administrator of the Small Business Administration. The Council appreciates the participation from diverse business owners and stakeholders in Puerto Rico.

For more information about upcoming events, please visit the NWBC website.

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