Skip to main content

Small, Smart and Ready

Leticia Rodarte’s gallery, Reciclarte Studio, is filled with her work.

Gordon Walek

At Reciclarte Studio, Leticia Rodarte’s art gallery on Ashland Avenue, almost everything for sale is made from recycled materials, much of it by Rodarte herself. It’s a fun, funky kind of store—the type of place that brings in visitors from across Chicago to Pilsen.

But Rodarte knows that a good idea alone usually isn’t enough to keep a small business like hers afloat. So she jumped at the chance to sign up for a set of workshops dedicated to giving local small business owners the tools they need to succeed.

Now, Rodarte has a business plan in hand that has helped her market Reciclarte Studio more effectively, and she’s even added to her selection of merchandise due to the workshops. 

“They helped me think about how to focus on what people are interested in at the store, what makes us special,” Rodarte says. “The economy is bad; it might be hard to pay for a painting. But they like coming in and seeing what we have. So we’ve added bookmarks with my art, and we’re offering classes too, for people who are interested in doing hand arts.”

The best news, she says, is that it’s working. “I’m seeing more revenue come in. My business has done a 180-degree turn for the better,” she says proudly. “I love these workshops.”

Hands-on and Having an Impact

Rodarte is one of 29 small business owners in Pilsen—ranging from the salon Por Siempre Bella to Del Sol Realty—who’ve taken advantage of the workshop series, organized by Dr. Monica Gavino, an associate professor of management at Saint Xavier University.

The four-week course, built in conjunction with the Greater Pilsen Economic Development Association (GPEDA), LISC Chicago, and the Resurrection Project, covered creating a business plan, maximizing human resources, marketing and more. Sponsors also included First Midwest Bank, Best Buy, St. Aubin Haggerty and Associates, Groupon, Star Diamond, and Great Lakes Financial Partners.

Victor Zilinskas, co-owner of the Pilsen consignment shop Round Two Resale and Consignment, talks with other business owners at a workshop.

Gordon Walek

“We’ve gotten such amazingly positive feedback from the businesses,” Gavino says. “What’s really awesome, though, is that everyone keeps coming back each week. That’s how we know the workshops are working.”

Gavino says that from the beginning, she and other faculty at Saint Xavier (Pam Schwer led the lesson on business plan development and Deb Rapacz on marketing) were focused on providing a robust, hands-on experience each Monday morning. Staff from Best Buy came to the community room at Casa Morales in Pilsen to set up laptops for every session so that participants could do their assignments in class. And the business plan that each participant created in week one was presented to experts from Bryce, Downey and Lenkov, First Midwest Bank, SommerCor 504, Center for Economic Progress and Great Lakes Financial Partners the next week to get valuable real-world feedback.

“We want the businesses to be engaged,” Gavino says. “Before every session, we give them questions to think about that relate to what we’ll be learning. This isn’t just an information dump on them.”

Victor Zilinskas, co-owner of the Pilsen consignment shop Round Two Resale and Consignment, walked into the workshops with a business plan already in hand for his clothing and accessories store. But he says that the ideas and information from Gavino and the other presenters changed his approach.

“I thought a business plan was all about numbers, but they added so much more,” Zilinskas says. “There’s the question of how you hire people. Insurance, to show that you’re well structured and fundamentally sound. We got insight into the perception of how your customers see your business, and even how to grow when the business does well.

“I definitely think this has been beneficial,” he says. “I think the workshops have been fabulous.”

Eugenia and J. Agustin Bahena at their restaurant, Fogata Village, with their five-year-old son, David.

Gordon Walek

For Eugenia Bahena, the sessions on marketing have had the greatest impact. For the past nine years, she and her husband Agustin have run the popular local restaurant La Fogata Village. Prompted by the workshops, they’ve thought a lot harder about what makes their food special: It’s fresh, organic and cooked to order (Agustin gets up early every day to make the tortillas).

Now, with these talking points in mind, Eugenia is using the workshop training in online marketing to spread the word far and wide.

“This week we’re emphasizing that we serve organic food,” she says. “We’ve got a coupon going up on the Pilsen Portal and our Facebook Page. The class has been very useful; we left with the idea and a plan that everybody has to know what’s special about La Fogata.”

Planning for success

The success of the workshops has been no accident. A Spanish translator was on site for every session, for example, and to bring in participants, Natalia Rodriguez from GPEDA, Elizabeth Rosas-Landa, the Smart Community manager at The Resurrection Project, and Tiana Juarez at the Instituto Del Progreso Latino went directly to the businesses with which they’ve already been working and made the personal connection.

“We know that depending on ads and flyers doesn’t work in the Latino community,” says Gavino, whose experience running a series of workshops a few years ago in West Lawn was a lesson in why direct outreach is so important. “They will commit when someone they trust says it’s worthwhile.”

From 2000 to 2010, the Latino population in the U.S. grew by 43 percent, and self-employment rose from 5.6 percent to 10.3 percent. Yet Latino-owned businesses are at greater risk of failure and have lower rates of success on key business indicators. Gavino points out that research has shown that one reason is that many of these business owners have little formal business education and receive minimal or no guidance on establishing and operating their businesses.

Those kind of statistics are behind the recent economic development momentum in Pilsen. “The New Community Program quality-of-life plan in Pilsen has a focus on the local economy,” says Ulises Zatarain, the NCP director at The Resurrection Project. “We’re giving that issue a lot of attention—we helped establish the Greater Pilsen Economic Development Association and we’re working closely with them, and we’re using the Pilsen Portal as an economic development tool.”

For businesses like Reciclarte Studio, that momentum is making a difference. “When I found out that the Pilsen Portal has free ads and listings for local businesses, I signed up right away. And through that, I met Natalia at Greater Pilsen,” Rodarte says. “I fell in love with the program. Everything they do I sign up for, and I tell other business owners I know about it, too.”

That kind of networking has also been woven into the workshop series, with lunch provided after each session and encouragement from Gavino for the participants to get to know each other and the day’s guest speaker. 

“It’s been great to take the time and get to know other businesses and what they’re doing,” Zilinskas says. “I’ve gotten some great, innovative ideas that way. We’re even partnering with a local spa—we gave them ten coupons for our business to give to their best customers, and they gave us ten for us to use.”

Graduation Day

Casa Morales community room was filled to overflowing on October 22 with its new duty—graduation hall for the 23 small business owners who earned a certificate of completion for attending all the classes in the workshop series.

The graduates of the small business workshop series in Pilsen, with supporters and faculty.

Gordon Walek

The characteristics that made the workshops work so well were easy to discern: Partners from Saint. Xavier, LISC Chicago, The Resurrection Project, GPEDA and sponsors from First Midwest, Best Buy and Great Lakes Financial Partners were in attendance. The event started with the unveiling of a new video on the Pilsen Portal of Mariachi Mexico Vivo, a local band headed by workshop participant Enrique Leon. After the lively certificate ceremony, everyone stays to chat over lunch provided by Ciao Amore’s Cesar Pineda, another workshop participant.

Looking back at the classes, Adela Salazar says that for her, the most useful lesson was the session about human resources and customers. It’s already led to some changes around her restaurant, La Esperanza Restaurant.

The waiters at La Esperanza, for example, won’t sweep up around a table now until a customer has paid and left. It’s a small difference, but for the kind of atmosphere she’d like to present, it adds up. “I’ve learned a lot,” she says.

“This workshop series all came together very quickly, but in the end, it really is a good model for how to help small businesses,” says Dionne Baux, the Smart Community program director at LISC Chicago, which helped bring in partners like Best Buy and GPEDA when the workshops were first proposed. “The workshops had so many experts to work with the businesses. There was technology involved in every step. Everyone got to work with each other and build that sense of community.”

Baux says that LISC is hoping that it can help foster more small business trainings and extend them to other communities in Chicago where it works. “Working with Saint Xavier University, First Midwest Bank and all the partners has created something great,” she says, “so we hope that can continue."

Posted in Smart Communities News

Share your opinion

Sign in or join to comment

Find training and internet access near you

Use the City of Chicago's mapping tool to find libraries and other locations with free services.

Tech Locator