For Virginia Castillo, owner of Nena’s Hair Studio on International Boulevard in Fruitvale, opening her own business in 2015 was a dream come true. “Since I was nine years old, I have had scissors in my hands. I didn’t find them, they found me,” Castillo said in Spanish. “I haven’t been bored, I still like it.”
Ever since she opened Nena’s Hair Studio, Castillo had been running her small boutique on her own. Things got worse when the pandemic brought daily life to a halt and hair salons were hit hard. In accordance with state COVID guidelines, cosmetics-based businesses were completely shut down until January of last year. “I was like, ‘What am I going to do because now I have to keep the store open, but I still can’t work,'” she said.
Then, through volunteer work Castillo was doing in the neighborhood around food insecurity, she met an employee of The Unity Council, a Fruitvale-based nonprofit. The nonprofit organization provides a variety of services to business owners, housing tenants, and families living in Oakland, primarily in the Fruitvale area.
“They told me not to close my business and that if I didn’t have money to pay the rent, someone from their organization would help me fill out the grant applications and their lawyers could help me. to negotiate with the owner if I had any problems,” Castillo said.
In November, the Unity Council expanded that work by launching a program called Onward Oakland: Adelante Oakland. Castillo was made aware of this opportunity. “Now that I’m working with them, I realized that I didn’t do well in opening my business. But now I know what to do,” she said.
Breathing new life into lifelong dreams
Onward Oakland: Adelante Oakland is a bilingual program created by The Unity Council to help small business owners with marketing, online sales, legal, accounting and business plan development. business. The program is open to all businesses in Oakland, and translation services are available in Spanish, Vietnamese, Mam, Tagalog, and Arabic.
So far, approximately 100 companies have used the program and completed the Onward Oakland Admission Form: Adelante Oakland requesting technical assistance. He saw greater turnout among Latin American businesses in Fruitvale, as well as Black and Vietnamese business owners in the nearby “Little Saigon” area of East Lake. Currently, Onward Oakland: Adelante Program is funded by Wells Fargo’s Open For Business grant and is expected to run through the end of next year.
Onward Oakland: Adelante Oakland is meant to be a response to the lasting impact of COVID-19 on small businesses. One of the main goals is to teach business owners how to market themselves online and on social media. Many immigrant-owned businesses in areas like Fruitvale currently have little to no online presence. “We want to help businesses move into the 21st century, but we also need to figure out how to keep them alive now,” said Mayra Chavez, business director of The Unity Council.
Attendees can learn how to use a computer and laptop, create an email account — something Castillo learned in a training workshop — and beyond. Participants receive help setting up and managing social media accounts, or verifying their business on Yelp and other e-commerce platforms.
Other businesses, such as La Nieta de Pancho, a retail store on International Boulevard, needed help starting a business, such as applying for permits. Rodolfo Baron and his wife Guadalupe Garcia opened their store last year after working as street vendors selling a variety of goods throughout Oakland.
At La Nieta de Pancho, they sell everything from dried chili peppers to sweets to an assortment of spices. Baron and Garcia know how to sell and make people feel at home in their store, but their limited English skills made it difficult to navigate the Oakland business application process. Thanks to what they learned from Adelante, they were able to complete the necessary permits to officially open their business. “If I knew how to do it, I would do it myself, but we needed help,” Baron said.
For Castillo, learning basic digital skills like using email and a computer has revived his lifelong dream of owning a salon. It’s a dream that has already seen big bumps in the road, long before the pandemic. She had always wanted to be a hairdresser and knew how to cut hair, but for many years she was unable to apply for a cosmetology license due to her undocumented status. “I had to take jobs cleaning houses and babysitting because I couldn’t become a hairdresser yet,” Castillo said in Spanish.
In 2014, Castillo was finally able to get a work permit thanks to Obama-era immigration policies that allowed relatives of citizens to do so. “Once I got my license, I tried applying to salons but couldn’t find steady employment,” Castillo said. “So I decided to open my little salon.”
By the time the pandemic hit in March 2020, she was tired of handling everything herself with little customer growth. “I was going to close my shop in February [of 2020] because I worked alone and only made a little money, a little for myself and enough to keep the store open. My husband said to me: ‘Wait a little longer, it will be fine,’” she said. Thanks to Onward Oakland, her store is now listed online and has an official business email. She hopes the Unity Council will find a way to keep it going beyond next year.
Rodolfo Baron de La Nieta De Pancho and his wife Guadalupe Garcia are also happy with the help they received and would now like some help in setting up a website for their store. “I want everyone to see the different types of spices we offer before they walk into the store,” Baron said. “I think that would help.”
Currently, the program is scheduled to end next year. Mayra Chavez of Unity Council said that while Onward Oakland: Adelante Oakland may cease to be a formal program, their organization will continue to offer the same digital literacy training and workshops and will also expand its services.
“Our services are driven by business needs as this pandemic evolves, and so are the needs of business owners,” Chavez said. She says she wants to continue involving more immigrant-owned businesses. Along with her work with the Unity Council, she helps her mother run Mexican restaurant La Huarache Azteca, and she’s seen firsthand the benefits of having an online presence.
“As someone who grew up watching my parents run the business, we 2nd generation business owners know the importance of preparing a business for the 21st century,” Chavez said, “and that is what we are trying to do here.”
Ia Tiendita de Pancho is located at 3300 International Boulevard. Open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (variable hours). Nena’s hair salon is located at 3451 International Boulevard. Open Mon. through Sat. from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.