Latina entrepreneurs know they fuel the economy, but often aren’t acknowledged by the business community for their contributions. To address this, a small group of women business owners in Phoenix—led by former Arizona state lawmaker Ceci Velasquez —established an organization in September 2018 called ELLA: Empowering Latina Leaders in Arizona. The acronym is the Spanish word for “she” and is pronounced “AY-yuh.”
“We formed this team of women, ranging in age from millennials to veterans in business and politics, to pay our respects to those women who have come before us, and to advocate, educate and celebrate,” says Velasquez, who also works as a community support representative at the local headquarters of a tech company.
According to Velasquez, ELLA wants to advocate for economic equality for women entrepreneurs, educate the larger community about the accomplishments of Latina business owners, and celebrate women belonging to the business community.
“We want to call attention to the reality that a Latina typically earn $0.53 for every dollar a white male earns.”
That fact is a centerpiece of Latina Equal Pay Day, observed every year on Nov. 1 to signify that a Latina must work an extra 10 months and one day to earn as much as a white man earns in a year, according to a report by the National Partnership for Women & Families. Velasquez and her six ELLA co-founders decided to hold a Mujeres Mercado (“women’s market”) last November to give Latina entrepreneurs an opportunity to showcase their products that include clothing, accessories, jewelry, artwork, crafts and homemade food items.
Held on the patio of Fair Trade Café in downtown Phoenix—a successful business owned by ELLA co-founder Stephanie Vasquez—the event was intended to demonstrate that Latina entrepreneurs “are major contributors to the business community,” Velasquez says. She put the word out on social media and 20 local Latina vendors responded.
“We were only going to hold the mercado once,” she says, “but so many people who came to the event asked when the next one would be. So we’ve held three more so far in 2019.” The mercado in April attracted 61 vendors.
Gloria Elox is an ELLA board member and a regular participant in Mujeres Mercado. She calls her business La Pequeña (“Little”) Market and sells beautiful handmade clutch purses crafted by women in her hometown of Tepoztlán in Mexico.
“The items I have in my tiendita (“little store”) represent my culture, my roots and my familia,” she says on her website.
“It’s amazing to see so many Latina entrepreneurs participating in Mujeres Mercado,” says Elox, whose full-time job is as a social worker. “When I see how passionate these women are about the products they sell, it inspires me to continue with my own journey of becoming an entrepreneur. I’m definitely learning from them.”
“We’re creating a welcoming space for women to connect as they uplift and support each other,” Velasquez adds. “We don’t want to be competitive with other Latina entrepreneurs. We want to engage them in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
For many of the 58 vendors who participated in the most recent market, their businesses may be a hobby at this point, but Velasquez hopes the event will help them transform their efforts into significant income. Another incentive for Mujeres Mercado is to encourage shoppers to buy locally made or locally distributed items.
“Shopping at locally owned businesses helps the community so much,” Velasquez says. “It’s such an important investment in Arizona. Shopping for locally sourced items creates a bond with the community.”
Life hasn’t always allowed Velasquez to be as creative as she is today. Now 45, she became a mom at 17 and struggled financially for many years. In 2016, she pleaded guilty to unlawful use of food stamps and was sentenced to a year’s probation and community service.
“I should be accountable for my mistakes,” says Velasquez, explaining that she was trying to manage complications from a surgery about three years before that and neglected to notify the state Department of Economic Security that her circumstances had changed. “It was not at all intentional. That experience convinced me that as a woman of color, I have to try harder to help myself and my family financially. That’s one of the reasons why ELLA was created.”
The next market, the first-ever indoor event, is scheduled for June 27 at Tradiciones in Phoenix. Mercado Mujeres Noche Edicion will feature local vendors, artists and entertainment. In addition, another dimension of ELLA is in the works. Su Voz (“Your Voice”) is envisioned as a series of empowerment talks on topics that are important to the Latina community, particularly women business owners.
“One topic I’d like to tackle is how do we, as entrepreneurs, deal with everyday stresses when the roles we’re filling now have been male-dominated for so long?” says Velasquez. “Getting together to discuss issues such as this will help all of us realize that many of us have similar concerns and that we’re not alone.”
Story: Debra Gelbart
Photos: Mark Lipczynski