Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 40)
This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Ryan Starks, managing director of business services at GOED, and Silvia Castro, executive director of the Suazo Business Center.
Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.
Ryan Starks: (0:20) Welcome to the Business Elevated podcast. I’m Ryan Starks, managing director of business services at GOED. My guest today is Silvia Castro, the executive director of the Suazo Business Center. Silvia, thanks for joining us today. How are you surviving this pandemic?
Silvia Castro: (0:38) Thanks for having me. We’re surviving. It’s been quite hectic, and it’s an interesting, new, normal, as we’re starting to kind of shift into COVID being a new reality.
Ryan Starks: (0:53) It is a new normal, and I like many people am sure you feel like you’re ready to be done.
Silvia Castro: (0:58) I wish there was some button out there that we can just flip off. That would be great. We have been really busy. So first of all, what we do at the Suazo Business Center is we’re nonprofit. We’re a 501c3 that has been around the community here in Utah since 2002. Our focus is on economic development and economic empowerment for the minority community. We’ve been doing that through financial literacy and also to business creation, teaching people how to start a business, and then also teaching people how to stay in business. Since the pandemic hit, a lot of those businesses were the ones that had to close down.
We’ve been on the front lines, per se, of all sorts of different businesses, trying to help them navigate the resources, the changes and the new normal.
Ryan Starks: (1:55) Well, that’s really important work today during this era of COVID-19, like you said, so many businesses have taken really hard hits, especially within the minority business community. Wouldn’t you agree?
Silvia Castro: (2:08) Definitely. I think a lot of small businesses were really hard-hit, and it’s hard because there’s nothing wrong with the business. It wasn’t something that they did wrong. There’s nothing at all wrong with the business. It was a completely external force that, with the pandemic, we had to take that hit on a lot of the businesses whose companies were impacted were in companies that are disproportionately, usually in the minority community.
We have restaurants, virtual services, but I think it’s something that there’s so much confusion. I love the analogy that with COVID we’re building the bridge as we’re walking on it.
Ryan Starks: (2:57) I’ve also heard it said that we’re building a plane while flying.
Silvia Castro: (3:03) Yes, that too, that seems like a little scarier. The bridge is just more comfortable. I’m afraid of heights. Can you tell?
Ryan Starks: (3:12) Yeah.
Silvia Castro: (3:14) We’re trying to help them navigate the change. It’s like changes are constant now, even more so in terms of not just being able to figure out how to open up, but also how to operate, that’s what’s been really interesting. It’s fascinating how quickly we all switched to a digital platform. It almost seems like overnight. That’s one thing I think that we’re not going back to whatever we had in February. Now that we have experienced as consumers have this new digital reality. A lot of them enjoy it, and now a lot of them expect it.
Ryan Starks: (3:59) They do. I think we’re seeing people realize more and more that working from home is a really good option across the state. It’s better on the air. It’s better on quality of life and work-life balance. Like you, I think it’s really interesting to see what’s going to happen as we emerged from COVID-19.
But before we talk more about the Suazo Business Center, and I have some really good questions, I’d like to get to know you a little bit better. How did you get involved with the Suazo Business Center? Maybe even before that. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How long have you been in Utah? What are some of your favorite hobbies?
Silvia Castro: (4:39) I’m originally from Ecuador. My family moved here when I was 14. I have lived in the United States longer than I lived in Ecuador. It’s funny because you cannot tell by the accent, but I basically have grown up in Utah most of my life.
I went to high school here, college, and then went on to get my master’s degree. Right after graduating from college, my first job was actually with the Salt Lake Chamber. I graduated with an international business degree. I started in the international business department with the Salt Lake Chamber teaching small business owners how to do international trade.
Ryan Starks: (5:29) Wow.
Silvia Castro: (5:30) We did a lot of the research. We did a lot of one-on-one consulting with them and trying to figure that out. I really enjoyed working with the business owners. From there, I moved up to the Women’s Business Center. That’s where I was the assistant director.
This was back in the late ’90s to kind of date myself a little bit. I think my passion for working with entrepreneurs began. I love to be able to see somebody with an idea. I love to be able to not just start them with an idea, but help them open that business and then help them go to the next level.
One really cool thing about small businesses is they are part of our community. There’s going to be more effort to buy local, and I think that’s a good thing.
From then, I basically worked with small business owners since 1999. I also had a couple of corporate things. After I got my MBA, I thought, ‘Hey, I got to get into the dot.com boom, right? I started working for Overstock.com and then ended up taking a job with a company in San Francisco.
Ryan Starks: (7:03) Okay.
Silvia Castro: (7:05) Then I got a bit lost and ended up in government.
Ryan Starks: (7:10) When you say government, are you allowed to tell us which agency?
Silvia Castro: (7:15) Yes, so it’s an agency that actually is no longer open. It’s no longer functioning. I served under Gov. Huntsman and then a little bit under Gov. Herbert as the state director for Hispanic and Latino Affairs. It was part of the Office of Ethnic Affairs. It was great because we had different directors from different ethnic groups. We were able to work together in specific areas. My area is more on the business side, and I actually got to work a little bit with GOED. We were able to do a lot of fun stuff. We had them with the ethnic business conference, and it was great because I was able to work with different minorities while looking at their business. What’s interesting is at this time the Suazo Business Center was born. And I loved the idea of it. I remember the people that founded it. At one point, I actually served as the secretary of the Board. Then I moved out of state. I have continued to be in roles that involve entrepreneurship. I also worked for the youth and micro-enterprise loan fund. I also worked for the Small Business Development Center here in Salt Lake City.
I then worked with the Miller Entrepreneur Center first with the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business programs, as a contractor. I also work with the Salt Lake Small Business Development Center. They’re great people. It’s interesting because all these agencies have one thing in common-they’re trying to help business owners.
Ryan Starks: (9:12) Sure.
Silvia Castro: (9:13) This was interesting, how I ended up at Suazo again. I was actually back in government. I was working for the economic development department for Salt Lake City when the position came up for the executive director back in 2017. Okay. So I’ve been the director for almost three years.
I started on September 11. So you seem to remember September 11, 2017. I’ve been with Suazo ever since, and it has probably been the most wonderful experience being part of this organization and seeing the growth. Also, one of the things when I first started, I just saw so much potential for how we could impact lives and what we did at Suazo.
It has been wonderful to be part of this evolution. We’re helping more and more people every year.
Ryan Starks: (10:08) Well, you’re the perfect person for this position, with your background and an MBA, and working for the Small Business Development Center and local government, and working in the private sector. It just seems like you’re the perfect fit. What’s the most rewarding part about working for the Suazo Business Center?
Silvia Castro: (10:27) I think the most rewarding thing is seeing our clients succeed. We see it as kind of like human capital. We see when our clients come in; there’s so much potential. A lot of the times we see more of their potential this year.
Ryan Starks: (10:46) Yeah.
Silvia Castro: (10:53) The Center has been around since 2002. One of our most successful clients is Rancho Market. They began with us in the beginning, and it was wonderful because Ellie came in and she had a dream. She had a dream of having a grocery franchise, and at the time, she only had one.
She wanted to have two, then three, and now it’s amazing to see the growth where she has taken it. We have also had Linguistic International, which is also a local company that is a translation interpreting company. Last I checked, they were in six different states and just kept on growing, and their offices are in Utah. We have people that have kind of taken off to that level. Then we also have had people that sometimes their business is what fits their family. We see families starting a business to lift themselves up. That’s what’s wonderful is to see them succeed, like basically the start of the business.
It’s very exciting, but also scary. Not only do they do well, but then they come back and talk about let’s open up a second location. My favorite part is to see our clients realize their potential now and take it to the next level.
Ryan Starks: (12:30) That’s so wonderful. I’m sure that’s very rewarding for you and your staff. Speaking of which, how many staff members do you have on your team?
Silvia Castro: (12:38) I have, let me check. I have eight staff people, and then we have five contractors. One of the unique things about our organization is we’re focused on the minority community.
A lot of my staff comes from all sorts of different backgrounds. They come from different countries. My staff is, except for one, is bilingual and trilingual. Even though they have come from different countries, they are kind of like me where they have grown up here. They understand the transition it takes from an immigrant into the community. The other thing we felt very strongly about is our advisors and teachers all own a business.
Ryan Starks: (13:33) Oh, that’s excellent.
You’d mentioned you’re from Ecuador. I spent a couple of years in Ecuador, so it’s a fun bond that we share.
I love Ecuadorian food and people. I love speaking Spanish, and maybe on a different podcast, we can put my Spanish abilities to the test.
Silvia Castro: (13:53) Let’s do it.
Ryan Starks: (13:55) All right. What are some of the other languages that are spoken within the Suazo Business Center? Is it just Spanish and English? Are there other language capabilities?
Silvia Castro: (14:05) No, we have Spanish and English. Then we also have Italian, Portuguese and Mandarin.
Ryan Starks: (14:12) Okay, so pretty impressive. When you say working with the minority business community, it’s not just the Latino community. Still. it seems like people from all different walks of life can come in and can benefit from meeting with you and your staff.
Silvia Castro: (14:28) Yes. That’s funny because sometimes we get somebody that is not a minority. I mean, our focus is minorities, and 95% of who we serve are minorities. That includes Pacific Islanders, the Black and Asian communities as well. We actually have had a lot of clients from those communities start with us and also continue to advise them with us and the workshops. But it’s interesting; it’s mainly because of the demographics in Utah. I think sometimes we’re seen as a Latino only organization, but we’re more than that. From the very beginning, our mission included all underserved communities. We also have a lot of refugees that come through our Center too.
Ryan Starks: (15:14) Wow. So you’re based in the Salt Lake Valley. Do you only service Salt Lake County residents, or do you go beyond?
Silvia Castro: (15:23) Before COVID, we were already across the state. We already have a lot of clients throughout the state. We also have a lot in Park City and Wendover. It’s a bit funny because they actually live in Nevada, but the businesses are on the Utah side.
Ryan Starks: (15:46) Oh, is that right?
Silvia Castro: (15:47) Yeah. That was kind of interesting. It’s kind of funny because it’s kind of a mixed blessing. COVID moved us to this digital platform, and because of that, we actually have been able to get into more areas that we wouldn’t hear so much from before. Now we’re getting calls from those in Duchesne County and from Carbon County and other areas that did not know that we’re here and can access us fairly easily.
Ryan Starks: (16:17) That’s important, especially during this time of COVID-19, it’s important to reach the rural communities. Kudos to you and your team. As you know, about a month ago, GOED was able to secure some money from the federal CARES Act, and we entered into a partnership with the Suazo Business Center.
That’s been a really fruitful partnership. We appreciate the good work that you do on behalf of the state. Maybe you can just tell us a little bit about the efforts that you’ve made specifically during COVID-19, and what are you telling your clients? How are you best helping them?
Silvia Castro: (16:53) We’re very excited about the partnership we now have with this new funding to continue our work. For COVID, a lot of our services had to be modified. First of all, what we did is we started a workshop series that was more focused on the digital literacy component. We wanted to ensure that as things were shifting, a lot of our clients were not left behind. So we expanded our role a little bit more to include the digital literacy part of it.
I learned, along with that, digital operations and digital marketing. We have had advising solutions to help people apply to programs. We do a lot with other resources that have a lot of amazing, wonderful grants. Also, the loan program in the beginning and the bridge loan program.
A lot of people sometimes feel a little overwhelmed. They’re like, I know I might qualify for something, but I’m not sure. We suggest that you sit with us, tell us a little more about your situation, and your business, and we’ll tell you everything you qualify for. First of all, we help them figure out what they qualify for. And then we help them apply for it. Sometimes it’s financials getting caught up, application packages and things that may seem daunting, may seem scary, and that’s what we’re here to help. We’re here to help them kind of navigate the process. The one thing we have to our advantage is we’ve been doing this quite a bit.
We’re doing this a lot, so we know exactly the best way to put that together. We also have a great relationship with you in terms of figuring out what we can do. Every now and then you might have a case that is something we never imagined. This is where we’re thankful with our partnership with you because we can handle those cases fairly swiftly
Ryan Starks: (18:50) Speaking of that partnership, you know, I just wanted to interject really quickly and just point out that as the Legislature created new programs and has funded these programs, many of them are coming through GOED. The beauty of this partnership is you are an extension now of GOED, so we’re in that together. We’re reaching these rural communities and these minority business communities. I just want to give a shout out to you and your team for really being that extension of us and helping us get the word out on some of these important programs.
Silvia Castro: (19:21) We so appreciate you guys on so many levels. Not just with this partnership, but there’s been kind of an evolution with the resources. One of the things that I have to give a shout out to you for listening to us in the beginning.
The money was not moving as fast, and you were really good about touching base with us. Some different other organizations that help small businesses say, ‘how can we do this better’? I was really impressed with how you listen, and you took it back, and changes were made, and they were made so quickly. I don’t think people realize how quickly the government and banks acted.
Because it’s so unprecedented, so to speak, I think there’s a core user value in that we’ll jump in together, and we help each other out. I think you can really see that right now, especially during this time.
Ryan Starks: (20:22) Yeah. I would totally agree with that. The speed in which we’ve been forced to move has just been unprecedented and really exciting to see a government entity move as quickly as we have. That really happens because of the great partnerships that we have with organizations like yours.
Silvia, as we wrap this up, I wanted to ask if I’m a minority-owned business, and I need some counseling or some help to understand some of these COVID relief programs, or if I just want to grow my business, what recommendations would you give me? Where should I go? Who should I speak with?
Silvia Castro: (20:58) You have all sorts of different ways to get a hold of us. You can call us directly (801) 521-1709. Or if you are more the email type, we actually have a specific email, which is firstname.lastname@example.org. The other favorite is through social media, where we are available through Facebook Messenger. We have a lot of people who send us messages. We have two pages. One is exclusively in Spanish; the other one’s in English. Whichever language you speak, we will be able to respond to you.
Ryan Starks: (21:36) Excellent. So is there a cost for services related to COVID-19?
Silvia Castro: (21:42) There is no cost. I am glad, because of this partnership, we’re able to continue that because unfortunately, during this time, there have been some businesses that actually have taken advantage of promising things they can not fulfill, and at a cost that is so ridiculous.
We really don’t want people to not apply. We want them to apply. We don’t want anything on their way, because we want to ensure that we’re all successful because that’s what will make the economy better. I cannot emphasize this enough, that what we’re doing is all free. There really isn’t any kind of a barrier for you to use us.
Ryan Starks: (22:25) That’s right. We’ve been very impressed watching you work with banks, working with even communication channels like Telemundo. You’ve translated materials for us. You’re really doing a great job of reaching out to the minority business community. That’s so important for this economic recovery.
So lastly, I just wanted to say thanks again for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you and learn more about your Center and its mission and the good work that you’re doing. And just as a recap, if somebody wants to learn more, they can go to what website.
Silvia Castro: (22:59) They can go to suazocenter.org, can call us (801) 521-1709. Or you can email us email@example.com. And again, through Facebook, you can just search for Suazo Business Center, and you’ll be able to find us, and you can leave us a message anytime.
Ryan Starks: (23:26) Wonderful. Well, thanks again, Silvia. It’s been a pleasure, and we will talk with you soon.
Silvia Castro: (23:32) All right. Thank you.
Thanks for listening to the Business Elevated podcast, a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Listen to other episodes where you get your podcasts or at business.utah.gov.