After an abusive marriage left her battered emotionally and physically, Maria Welch was homeless and filled with despair. Her father had just died, the business she had co-owned had fallen apart along with the marriage and she sent her mother back home to Costa Rica because she did not want to tell her they were about to lose their apartment.
It is hardly the usual genesis of a business success story.
But today, 10 years later, Welch’s company, Respira Medical of Linthicum, provides home health care services and equipment to patients in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. The $10 million company has 55 employees.
Welch is one of a number of entrepreneurs who have helped Maryland see a surge of Hispanic-owned businesses. From 2002 to 2007, according to U.S. Census data released this year, the number of such Hispanic businesses rose to 25,742, a nearly 68 percent increase. A report by hispanicbusiness.com, done by its research arm, HispanTelligence, says the number of Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States is expected to grow 41.8 percent in the next six years to 4.3 million.
“It doesn’t surprise me that the percentages were so high” for business increases, said Raul Medrano, business development specialist at the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development. “The entrepreneurship spirit in the Hispanic community is alive and well.”
Immigrant communities are accustomed to “doing more with less … with taking risks,” Medrano said. During economic crises, “the mind-set is to be resourceful, to seek opportunities, to adjust to change, to be flexible.”
From homelessness to
an entrepreneurial spirit
Welch, 47, was born in the U.S. to parents who legally migrated here.
Her mother was born in Costa Rica and her father was Colombian. At the age of 12, she was promised in marriage to a much older man and at 14 was wed for the first time, but the union did not work out.
“I have a very wonderful relationship with him and he’s married to the loveliest woman and best stepmother to my son I could have asked for,” Welch said.
Her father had a good job as an ironworker and had helped fund the veterinarian business she had co-owned, Welch said. But he contracted asbestosis, and even with his good health insurance, the disease “slowly took him away from us and it was a horrible situation,” Welch said.
After her second marriage collapsed, she moved into a House of Ruth shelter for women who had experienced domestic violence.
As part of an assistance program to encourage women business owners, she was asked: If money were no object, what kind of business would you want to start?
“I said, ‘I have no credit. I’m homeless. How can I start a business?’” Welch said.
But after seeing how hard her mother had worked to care for her ailing father, she drafted a plan for a home health care service. Her proposal was one of 200 submitted to the nonprofit Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore and was among the 20 selected for startup assistance.
“It just gave me so much hope to be there, and a few weeks later I received a letter saying my proposal was accepted,” Welch said.
The 13-week class that was part of the requirement was intensive and “very holistic in nature because they rebuilt me,” Welch said. “I was very submissive and doubtful of everything I’d say and they rebuilt me.”
In the past 10 years, Respira has served more than 24,000 patients.
Welch said her personal experience has taught her the importance of providing good patient care.
With so many seeking to demonize those who are Hispanic, whether they are in the country legally or are undocumented, Welch said it is important to her to tell her story to counter the anti-Hispanic hysteria.
“We’re hard-working,” Welch said of Hispanics.
“We’re people who just want an opportunity,” said Veronica Cool, chairwoman-elect of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
While some of the growth in Hispanic businesses is due to the rising number of Hispanics in the state, it also stems from Latino entrepreneurs seeking to make their own opportunities in the country, Cool said. The Hispanic population grew nearly 47 percent from 2002 to 2007 in Maryland.
Hispanic-, minority- and women-owned businesses in general tend to be more creative and able to react faster to changing economic conditions, said Cool, 36, who is of Dominican heritage and is vice president of small business banking for Wachovia Bank in Baltimore.
“They have the entrepreneurial spirit that they bring from their own country,” said Lorna Virgili, founder of National Hispanic Communications Group, a public relations firm in Silver Spring that targets the Hispanic community for political campaigns and commercial advertising. “The growth is just unbelievable.”
Virgili, 45, was 5 when her father left Cuba, and the family was separated until 1980, when they were able to reunite under a State Department program, she said.
In a way, she owes her career and her love of writing to the early events of her life.
“I loved my father and when he left Cuba, back then there were no phone lines, no Internet, so the way to communicate was by writing and I would write letters on almost a daily basis to my father, who had moved to Spain,” Virgili said.
Americans of Hispanic descent fought in the American Revolution and settled the Western states of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona long before other settlers moved there, she said.
“People have stereotypes embedded into them,” Cool said. “We need to share to people that immigration is not something to fear.”
Maryland overall recognizes the positives that Hispanics have brought to the community, Virgili said.
“The truth of the matter is we’re here and we’re here to stay,” Virgili said. “Our numbers are growing in every way from just the numbers to education levels to income levels.”
Theresa Daytner, 46, who was born to first-generation Hispanic-Americans, is part of the entrepreneurial surge. She started Daytner Construction Group in Mount Airy in 2003 — after establishing two other businesses, a residential roofing company and an accounting firm.
Daytner said her family’s background may account for her interest in running her own businesses. The granddaughter of immigrants from Chile and Venezuela, she said her father, who was born and raised in New York City, grew up poor, spoke only Spanish at home and lacked access to education.
“The harder you have to work for something, the more innovative you have to get,” Daytner said. “I think that passed down to me — the industriousness.”
By the numbers
-The number of Hispanic-owned companies in Maryland soared 67.7 percent from 2002 to 2007, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. During those five years, the number of such businesses increased to 25,742 from 15,353.
-That outpaced the national growth rate of 43.7 percent. By 2007, there were 2.26 million Hispanic-owned companies in the U.S.
-Receipts for Maryland’s Hispanic-owned businesses skyrocketed even faster, to $4.39 billion in 2007, up 83.0 percent from $2.40 billion in 2002. Nationally, receipts for these companies grew 55.5 percent to $345.18 billion in 2007 from $221.93 billion five years earlier.
Source: U.S. Census
Congratulations to Maria Welch, MDHCC Chair, and Veronica Cool, MDHCC Vice-Chair, for being featured in The Gazette. Theresa Daytner of Daytner Construction Group is also a member of MDHCC.
For more information on how you can become a part of MDHCC and share in the success of our members, please visit us at www.mdhcc.org.
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