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Building business with mental health in mind

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Funded by the Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Avanzar Business Accelerator Program offers classes, resources, and support to small businesses that are Hispanic, minority, veteran, or women-owned. 
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.  An economic developer, an aguas frescas chef, and a Peruvian stuffed-animal importer walk into a classroom. 

Their meeting is no joke; it’s a class. In this case, it’s the final installment of the Avanzar Business Accelerator Program, a free start-up workshop hosted by the Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (CSHCC) geared towards Hispanic-owned, veteran-owned, and other minority-owned Colorado Springs businesses.

“We’re taking your proven idea, and we’re just rocket-shipping this thing off,” said Zach Barker, a certified economic developer and the facilitator for the Avanzar Business Accelerator Program.

Colorado Voices

Avanzar Business Accelerator Program

Urpay and Dominguez have experienced marked growth in the past couple of years. Since founding My Momotoro a few years ago, Urpay has increased revenue from “$50 to over $50,000” in the last year. 

Dominguez earned around $8,000 in revenue from selling at festivals, parades, and events around the city. 

“So far, I am pretty proud of myself,” said Dominguez. “In one year, I went from not knowing [anything] to earning about $6,000 in profit.”

However, success has not come easy, and both Urpay and Dominguez acknowledged the hardships that they have faced in building their companies.

“Creating a brand is hard on mental health,” said Dominguez. “Being an entrepreneur… some people think you’ve already made it, but there’s still many trials and tribulations.”

Barker has experienced first-hand the physical and emotional challenges that come with starting a business. Now, he is hoping to address these challenges head-on through individual-centered development strategies and community building. 

“I’ve been teaching in these programs for a long time, and a lot of them focus on marketing and technology and funding. As long as I’ve done this, I’ve wondered, ‘What if we focus on the person?’” said Barker. 

Barker teaches the Avanzar Program on a “strengths-based model,” which emphasizes maximizing the strengths of each respective entrepreneur. This includes a focus on the individual’s work preferences, thinking patterns, and mental health. 

In keeping with this model, Barker welcomed Fred Dearborn, a certified mental health therapist, to moderate an open conversation with the class. 

Participants raised concerns around lacking familial support, as well as the strain that busy schedules place on their personal relationships. 

Dominguez asked about “career shock,” and his personal anxiety over his future and his “legacy.” 

“A lot of my peers have already moved out because they’ve put their time and dedication into a trade that put them ten years in advance to what I’m doing now,” said Dominguez, 20. “It’s a competition within myself.”

Urpay also described feelings of internal competition and high personal standards.

 “My hard moment right now as an entrepreneur is to reward me, is to say to myself, ‘Hey, you’re doing good!’” said Urpay to the class. 

The room shared questions, concerns, and support for nearly 45 minutes, which culminated in a round of applause for Urpay’s achievements and Barker breaking out to celebrate the final session. 

“So a lot of times that’s advanced sales, advanced marketing, understanding processes, understanding financing,” Barker said.

In recognition of the Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s growth and excellence, the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce awarded the CSHCC the Avanzar Business Accelerator Program in April 2023. 

For eight weeks, a group of 25 small business owners (though the class sometimes reaches up to 40) join in-person and online at The Catalyst Campus for Technology and Innovation for a one to three-hour learning session covering an array of subjects. 

Entrepreneur Roxana Urpay has never missed a class. 

Urpay is the founder of My Momotoro, a small company that sells products such as stuffed animals, bags, and ponchos hand-made by Latin American women. My Momotoro started in Urpay’s garage, where she sold them for anywhere between $20 to $50 per item. 

The name “Momotoro” comes from a Japanese folk hero Urpay came to love while stationed overseas with her military partner. She associates the name with fearlessness and courage, traits she always hoped to embody no matter where she lived.

After the brightly-colored stuffed alpacas started leaping off the shelves, Urpay decided it was time to expand. 

Avanzar proved the perfect solution. Not only did it connect Urpay with the Hispanic business community in Colorado Springs, but it provided her with a Spanish translator as well, which helped her comprehend some of the more technical business jargon. 

“It helped me connect more to my mission with my business and to my mission in life,” said Urpay. “For me especially, that was my main question: ‘Do I want to keep doing this?’ And I say, ‘yes!’”

Roxana Urpay offers little, hand-made traditional Peruvian hats to go with My Momotoro’s brightly-colored llamas and alpacas.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

Jose Dominguez, the co-founder and co-owner of Agua Fresca, is aiming for similar expansion.

Aguas frescas are fruit drinks often blended with ice, water, and sugar. “It’s a good synonym to Gatorade,” said Dominguez. 

Dominguez makes his product at home, often sourcing fresh fruit from connections made at local farmers markets and flea markets. His drinks are packaged in Agua Fresca branded bottles, with logos designed and printed by Dominguez himself. Over the past year, Dominguez and his drinks have appeared at about a dozen festivals and public events in Colorado Springs.

Dominguez has participated in other startup accelerators in the past, but he appreciated Avanzar’s hybrid online and in-person model and the connections it allowed him to make with other like-minded entrepreneurs in the Colorado Springs community.

“Once you’re in the network, the people who do understand what it’s like to run a business, they help each other out,” said Dominguez.

Jose Dominguez both makes his own aguas frescas and designs Agua Fresca’s labels.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

 Barker leads other startup accelerators across the country, and though it’s still uncertain whether another accelerator similar to Avanzar will be offered in the future (Avanzar was only funded for a single year), Barker hopes to continue supporting the businesses and entrepreneurs he has worked with over the past few months. 

“[Mental health], I would say, is kind of the keystone,” said Barker. “So what we’re doing is we’re building that culture of inclusion and acceptance.” 

Using the skills, resources, and networks she developed through Avanzar, Urpay is looking forward to continued growth for My Momotoro in the future. She plans on expanding her presence in local craft fairs and stores, but to begin selling nationwide as well. 

Urpay also hopes to be a role model, or a “role mother,” for other Latin American and mom entrepreneurs. 

“I want to show how powerful, how friendly and colorful is my culture,” said Urpay. “And also [be] a role mother for my community especially.” 

Dominguez has his eyes set on selling in restaurants and retailers. In addition to Avanzar, Dominguez has participated in other accelerators, and is currently an active member in the community. He hopes that the skills he has learned through Avanzar translate to other endeavors. 

Ultimately, Dominguez wants to prove to his friends and family that Agua Fresca and his entrepreneurial dreams are more than a hobby. 

“So far, I’m pretty proud of myself,” said Dominguez. “Someday, I’ll be able to show [my parents] and prove to them that this is not just a waste of time.”

Chase McCLeary is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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