It started simple enough: with a picnic.
Leonor Hipolito noticed that some of the children in her neighborhood did not speak Spanish and seemed uninterested — even embarrassed — in their immigrant parents’ Latin American culture.
“I knew they were losing out on such a source of strength and pride. And I vowed that my children would be bilingual,” said Leonor, president of the Central Valley nonprofit Pequeños Empresarios. “I saw an opportunity to do something.”
That spirit and the ability to intuitively notice gaps has served her well as she passes on entrepreneurial skills to young children, along with lessons in leadership, kindness, persistence, goal setting, and generosity.
About 50 kids ages 7 to 12 participate in the Pequeños Empresarios program. When the pandemic forced everything online, the participation base grew. Now, children join in from San José, Victorville, and even out of state. Most are local though, from the Fresno area.
“Yes, it’s partially about building a business mentality. But Pequeños Empresarios is about more than that,” she said.
Entrepreneurship is something Leonor knows well. As a kid, she was a natural salesperson, putting aside the shyness that holds many back.
“I loved talking to people and being my own boss. And I liked having my own money! I felt such a sense of independence at a young age,” she said. Her first sales on the streets of her Mexican neighborhood were mango preserves. She coaxed a friend into selling with her, and then a neighbor kid, and soon enough, she had a network selling everything from cakes to wedding dresses.
She did not go to school because her parents didn’t think it important. They kept her home, preferring that she help with duties around the house. It made her relish her self-determination.
Eventually, her family moved to the United States, settling in the Central Valley town of Madera. She got married, started a family and became invested in children’s development as her kids grew up. She would invite the neighborhood children over, and during picnics and park outings, she taught them Spanish.
Her children started their own ventures, selling paletas, little toys, and doing makeup for customers.
“Aha,” Leonor said. “A light bulb went on.”
Pequeños Empresarios started organically with those neighborhood groups about a decade ago and became a nonprofit in 2013.
Leaders like Leonor, with deep roots in their local communities, are paving the way to economic justice for Latinos, step by step. Entrepreneurship, along with other policies and practices, can transform California’s future into a one that is equitable for all.
According to a 2019 study by Stanford, the number of Latino business owners in the United States continues to grow significantly faster than the U.S. average. Over the past 10 years, the number of Latino business owners grew 34%, compared to 1% for all business owners in the United States.
Top officials are taking note. On March 30, Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen tweeted: “I’m confident Hispanic entrepreneurs can lead us out of crisis again. Hispanic workers can power our recovery— potentially in an even bigger way than a decade ago— so long as we remove some of the longstanding barriers that have been in the way of prosperity.”
The participants of Pequeños Empresarios are that hope. The program has had many highlights, including young entrepreneurs selling secondhand clothes online and a 13-year-old named José, who is now a youth reporter with Radio Bilingüe in Salinas.
Leonor measures success kid by kid, coaching their progress, celebrating when they overcome their own individual obstacles.
“We had a girl named Luna who was painfully shy. She would hide, she never spoke up. But slowly she began to engage and now she has her own YouTube channel,” said Leonor.
Leonor hopes to expand to more rural areas, places like Mendota and Firebaugh. These communities have a high percentage of Latinos and many of the families there work in agriculture.
“I want the children to appreciate the work their parents do, no matter what it is,” Leonor said.
Above all, she said, she wants each kid to internalize two key lessons: Do not take “no” for an answer and follow your dreams. They are possible.
Many countries throughout the world celebrate a Children’s Day, honoring the tiny, young, spirited members of the community. In Mexico, “Día Del Niño” is celebrated on April 30. On this day teachers in schools organize games, music, and sharing food. Families focus on the kids with outings to parks and sports centers, which hold special events.
Follow Pequeños Empresarios:
on Instagram @pequenosempresarios
on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pequenosempresarios
Learn more: www.pequenosempresarios.org
Stanford State of Latino Entrepreneurship 2019: https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publication-pdf/report-slei-state-latino-entrepreneurship-2019.pdf
Written by Olivia Muñoz, Economic Justice Manager at the Latino Community Foundation