For almost seven years, Lilia Vizcaino handled janitor duty at a coffee shop near UC Berkeley, cleaning up at closing time. But Vizcaino, who came to the U.S. from Mexico and now lives in Albany, wanted something better for her family.
“I wanted stability, and I needed to do something else for the future,” she said.
Today Vizcaino no longer mops floors at a coffee shop. She owns her own, El Tiny Cafe in Berkeley. It’s a cute neighborhood joint that offers Americanos and iced horchata lattes, made with coffee beans sourced from women-owned farms in Mexico. The kitchen serves sandwiches, overnight oats and avocado toast with eggs and salsa macha — and boasts five stars on Yelp.
Vizcaino made it here with help from the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, a business incubator with headquarters in San Francisco and satellite centers around the Bay. For the last four decades, Renaissance has helped people — 2,500 last year, with an emphasis on women, people of color, low-income folks and the formerly incarcerated — start small businesses. The group provides online training classes in English and Spanish, networking events, help with capital acquisition and one-on-one consulting with business experts.
“Entrepreneurship is a proven pathway into self-sufficiency and breaking the cycle of poverty,” said CEO Sharon Miller. “There are so many people who have great ideas, but they don’t know the business aspects of what to do to be successful. People aren’t born knowing how to do accounting or map distribution channels.”
In Vizcaino’s case, the center guided her through the tricky process of opening her first cafe. “I could never have made it without Renaissance,” she said. “During the pandemic, I had an adviser from there for almost a year telling me things like ‘Now you need to get a permit, do this and that,’ and keeping me on track.”
The center also helped Vizcaino draft a business plan, which she believes was crucial to getting a lease for her cafe. “When I presented it (to the landlord), it was a very good presentation with all this information that I had tailored to the neighborhood,” she said. “The guy liked that. He said, ‘You are not really good with your credit, but I like the business plan and the idea, and I think you can do it.’”
Renaissance hopes to raise $10,000 through the East Bay Times’ Share the Spirit campaign, which provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The funds will be used to deliver 10-week, Spanish-language courses for 30 lower income, Spanish-speaking individuals.
The courses will help these aspiring entrepreneurs build the skills, business acumen and support networks to become successful small business owners. Afterward eligible participants can apply for small business grants of $5,000 to $10,000 that Renaissance has already secured from the state of California.
Bay Area locals might be surprised at the familiar names that had a boost from Renaissance. There’s the buzzy Poppy’s Bagels in Oakland, the famous quesabirria spot, El Garage, in Richmond and Nana Joes Granola in grocery stores throughout California.
“If they have an idea, that’s where we start with them,” said Tatiana Hermeston, program manager at Renaissance’s East Bay center. “They don’t have to be in business. We can start them from pre-startup and get them through, as long as they have the grit and determination.”
D’Andrea Robinson is the CEO of Queens Gettin’ Lit!, a San Francisco curriculum program that helps Black girls develop literacy skills and gain exposure to positive Black history and culture. She relied on Renaissance to develop her business plan and focus her vision through one-on-one coaching.
“Let’s first acknowledge that with being a Black woman CEO, there are systemic institutional barriers that are always at play as a new business owner, especially when it comes to finances,” said Robinson. “Renaissance is truly a blessing, because I did not have a business plan prior to this course. There was a lot of information I didn’t know and wouldn’t have known, had I not been a member of the cohort.”
Anita Leiva took business classes with Renaissance and won a grant that injected capital into Utku Kids, which makes Peruvian-inspired baby goods.
“Being an immigrant is a great challenge, and only our perseverance and effort to move forward opens the paths for us to move forward,” Leiva said. “However, this path to achieving our dreams becomes viable because there are organizations like Renaissance that unconditionally support communities like ours.”
Vizcaino is now comfortable enough at El Tiny Cafe that she’s thinking of starting a second enterprise – being a coach for other small-business owners.
“I would like to learn more to help other businesses like mine survive, because I see a lot of them close their doors,” she said. “I’ve started to take classes in marketing, and I want to translate for other people who only speak Spanish.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Donations will help Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center deliver 10-week, Spanish-language courses for 30 lower income, Spanish-speaking individuals, to help aspiring entrepreneurs build the skills, business acumen and support networks to become successful small business owners. Goal: $10,000
How to give
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or print and mail in the coupon.