In the weeks following Maria, with no power, no telecommunication services and no reliable water in Puerto Rico, one of the bleakest projections in the media was that 4 out of 10 businesses would never reopen their doors.
“As we were designing the model for distributing aid soon after United for Puerto Rico was created in September, it became evident that economic development would be one of our five areas of focus in addition to water and food, health, shelter and social well-being,” explained Mariely Rivera, Executive Director of United for Puerto Rico. “Small businesses also became a top priority just as women and children, the elderly, the disabled and the homeless,” she added.
During the second week of April while power had still to be restored to large regions of Puerto Rico, three NGOs, the Foundation for Puerto Rico (FPR), United for Puerto Rico (UFPR) and Centro para Emprendedores (CPE) held a forum to share learning from initiatives designed to help small businesses reestablish themselves and provide services to the community.
Some of the learnings shared went back to a cash grant program executed by CPE weeks after the Hurricane supported by a grant from FPR. Providing cash grants, tools, and coaching to small business owners who were overwhelmed by the damages suffered and the lack of water, power and telecommunications services turned into a mission for Centro para Emprendedores (CPE). For CPE, it was an opportunity to reinvent themselves and provide much needed help right after the hurricane. “Like everybody else, María dashed our plans. We could not continue with our work, yet we suddenly realized there was much for us to do,” said Nerma Albertorio, founder of CPE.
Immediately after the disaster efforts focused on providing small businesses two cash grants separated by a couple of weeks. The condition for the second cash grant was that they had to remain open and they had to receive coaching from CPE. Arnaldo Cruz, Director of Research and Analysis of FPR, recalls there was a sense of urgency to act but they were concerned that any donations to businesses could affect their eligibility for disaster loans from SBA an important consideration. Assessing this potential issue, we realized the needs were urgent and required taking immediate actions. “There was no time. Businesses needed funds immediately to help them survive,” said Cruz.
About a month after the hurricane, Nerma and her staff organized a first meeting with small businesses to get a sense of their situation. At the time there were few public places that had power, they decided to request permission to meet at Plaza las Américas, the largest mall in the Caribbean and one of the only centrally located places with power. They were able to post one sole announcement on Facebook at 5PM on a Friday. The following Saturday morning there were 26 small businesses despite the lack of reliable telecommunications at the time. From then on, CPE took on the role of disaster relief for small business owners.
Through the FPR program, CPE was able to help 198 small businesses in 13 communities/municipalities. The significance of the impact that is being achieved is better understood by the testimony of those receiving the help. One of the businesses helped is a cake shop on Loíza street, “To feel we were not alone and that there were other people betting on our project made us discard the option of giving up because we knew then that it was no longer just about us,” said Yaritza Lozano, owner of Double Cake.
As the FPR program was drawing to a close and seeing its effectiveness, CPE expanded its reach with a grant from United for Puerto Rico to conduct a similar project in towns in the central mountain area that were hard hit by the hurricane. This program aims to impact an additional 75 businesses including providing cash grants to 25 business owners.
“By concentrating our aid in specific geographic areas, we can hope for a multiplier effect as one business activity impacts another business leading to a wider economic effect in the community,” said Rivera. “By finding ways to collaborate, our three organizations have been able to reach a wider audience”, she concluded.