What drove you to start your small business? For our customer Leah Retamozo, the 2008 economic crash led her to start her St. Paul, MN-based immersion preschool, Bilingual Child Care and Education Center.
Up until the recession hit, Leah was working as a consultant to non-profit organizations. Within two months of the crash, most of her contracts had dried up and her business slowed to a halt. At the same time, she became a mom for the first time and began looking for a Spanish immersion daycare in St. Paul. When she couldn’t find any within easy driving distance, she decided to jump into a new venture and open a daycare. 10 years later, the Bilingual Child Care and Education Center has grown from renting space in a church basement to two locations (with plans for a third location underway).
Read our interview with Leah to learn more about:
- How Leah turned her passion for Spanish language and culture into a business
- Growing a business from the ground up over 10 years
- Some of the challenges she faced as a female entrepreneur
Turning a Passion into a Business
As Leah says, “I’ve always been drawn to cultural and language learning, and I have a background in Spanish and Latin American studies – I also studied abroad.” It was important to her to raise her children as bilingual, and she suspected there were others in her community who felt the same way.
To fill that need, she created a daycare center that “provides childcare for families who are interested in raising bilingual children. So, we provide a Spanish immersion environment where children zero to five can be immersed in Spanish language while getting ready for kindergarten, which includes the typical developmental learning that goes along with being kindergarten-ready.”
The center also hosts a number of community activities, so it has become a hub for families to get together. For Leah, it’s been “a dream come true to work on a mix of all the things that I love – working with children, language, culture, families and community.”
Growing a business from the ground up
Similar to many other small business owners, Leah has found that the best part of owning her own business has been the ability to build something from the ground up directly related to her passion. She says, “What I love about being a business owner is having the opportunity to create something from scratch with a group of amazing employees who support what you’re doing, and to make a huge difference in the lives of the children and the families that we serve.”
To build a thriving business from nothing, she had to see her company through many different stages of growth. As she says, “The changes I’ve seen from year one to year 10 are huge. When we opened, we started from scratch, so we developed the entire program in the first five years. It focused a lot on accreditations and quality and best practices. And then for the last five years, we’ve been focusing a lot more on physical expansion, going from renting in a church basement to occupying two full buildings.”
For her, the highlight of building her business from scratch has been seeing her business plan come to life: “I’ve had a business plan for a number of years that, little by little, we’ve been taking steps and meeting those goals, one of which is having three centers fully functioning. It’s been so rewarding to get to the point where my business is as I first envisioned it.”
“I have found it very challenging in the banking and financial world to always face panels of men who are judging your finances and your ability. It’s important to seek out other female business owners, entrepreneurs, bankers, insurance brokers. I think as women we have a unique perspective that helps to help provide support for one another.”
Challenges with Financing
The biggest challenge Leah has faced running her business has been “growth and supporting growth financially. It’s been a process looking for resources in order to support the development and growth of the business.”
Leah started out with a small loan from a friend and was also able to get a grant from a nonprofit that supports child development in the Twin Cities. Beyond that, she’s relied upon small loans from banks to help fuel growth.
However, she’s found working with banks frustrating: “The biggest challenge with that is I feel like I continually hit a wall with a bank; they’ll help me with one step and then it’s very hard to get to the next step. It’s very difficult to create an ongoing growing relationship with banks.”
When she decided to expand to a second location, she opted to work with OnDeck instead to get a line of credit, which gave her the flexibility she needed during expansion. She also found the process simpler: “As I went through working with banks and other sources, I really realized that the process with OnDeck was a million times easier; the staff is amazingly easy to work with, supportive, responsive; and the price is not that much different when you look at conventional loans that are long-term. OnDeck has a different product – they do a shorter term, but the pricing is actually comparable.”
Challenges Facing Women Business Owners
When seeking financing, Leah found it especially difficult to get the funds she needed as a woman business owner. She says, “I have found it very challenging in the banking and financial world to always face panels of men who are judging your finances and your ability. It’s important to seek out other female business owners, entrepreneurs, bankers, insurance brokers. I think as women we have a unique perspective that helps to help provide support for one another.”
The other area Leah has found challenging is negotiating on areas such as building leases, prices from suppliers and so forth. To negotiate successfully, she always makes sure to come in with other bids. As she says, “I think all too often people go in and just take what they’re offered from the first person, and I think it’s important to seek out other options so that you can say, ‘Can you do something better for me?’ People generally want your business, and if you have someplace else you can go for a better deal, it’s a lot of leverage to be able to bargain the price down.”
Above all else, Leah has found that persistence has been the key to her success with Bilingual Child Care and Education Center: “I think what’s helped me get to where I am more than any other thing is persistence. I have hit walls many, many times where, if I had given up, I never would have overcome those challenges. So really, being told no should not be ever a reason for you to give up because there’s always another way.”