Once a year, America acknowledges the egregious pay gap in which Latinas earn just 67 cents for every dollar a non-Latinx white man makes. It’s time we interrogate this fact year-round. The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latinx professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. This month, we’re talking with lifestyle influencer and entrepreneur Ada Rojas about the lessons she’s learned as an Afro-Latina entrepreneur, the pressures of being first generation, and how she's overcome it all to launch a second business.
Among the many businesses that have been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Latinx-owned small businesses are one of the groups that have been hit especially hard. Latinx business owners are reportedly approved for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) at half the rates as White non-Latinx business owners, and those that are actually approved have trouble receiving the full amount being offered. Additionally, five million Latinx business owners are at risk of bankruptcy with many seeing a 21% drop in small business revenue as of February 2020. This gruesome reality is rooted in not just the inequalities and systemic racism that still exists — with Black business owners also being less likely to get aid or secure PPP — but also the lack of resources that many communities of color have when it comes to entrepreneurship — like accessibility to bank loans and lines of credit.
But entrepreneur Ada Rojas doesn’t want these disadvantages to discourage fellow Latinas from starting their own businesses. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York to a Dominican immigrant family, Rojas didn’t grow up with the tools or resources to prepare her for entrepreneurship. But after launching her own lifestyle blog in 2009, titled Gypsy in the City (later rebranded to All Things Ada), and having major beauty brands pay her to review their products, she soon saw an opportunity to work for herself and eventually made All Things Ada into a company as an LLC. In 2019, she partnered with a beauty brand owner to launch a natural hair-care line that she has since exited from to focus on new projects including her latest venture: Vecina Couture, a lifestyle brand created and designed by Rojas herself, that will include one of her favorite at-home staples: robes.
As a business owner, Rojas now wants to see the narrative change around entrepreneurship. “When we think of entrepreneurs or when we think of people owning their own business, we tend to think of these very white corporate-types of businesses,” Rojas tells Refinery29. “Our communities breed entrepreneurs. There’s the lady on the corner that sells pastelitos, the lady that bakes Dominican cakes from her home, and the guy on that corner who owns a restaurant. Those are all entrepreneurs, so why haven’t we trained our minds to see those people as entrepreneurs?”
We sat down with Rojas to talk about the knowledge she’s learned from her first-time entrepreneur mistakes. From surviving first-gen pressures to finding the motivation to launch her second brand during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected her communities, Rojas shares with us some of the tips she wishes she knew when getting started, ahead.
The pressure to not fail
The pressure and economic stressors that exist for children of immigrants in the U.S. living in poverty is far too common. Even with Latinx communities becoming the fastest-growing small business owners across the country, the fear of failing and not providing for their families is still a reality for many young Latinx folks.
“Knowing that your parents and your family have sacrificed so much to put you in a position to even have the opportunities that you have and feeling like you can’t take advantage of that — is a constant pressure. There’s also that pressure of not wanting to let your community down because you have people who are cheering you on and watching your every move,” Rojas says. “When you have setbacks, it’s very hard because you're thinking about how this is going to affect your community. How are they going to take it?”
Rojas recalls feeling scared with how her supporters would respond when she decided to exit the beauty company she founded in 2019. “I was highly concerned with how everyone was going to respond to that because of all the love and support that they poured into that business,” she says. “But I’m at peace with that decision now and everyone has been really supportive.” That’s why Rojas recommends leaning into your story and the authentic experiences that engage and resonate with your community. Because if people are genuinely invested in you, they’ll follow you through all the ups and downs.
Working against the odds
Combined, Black and brown women make up less than 1% of all venture capital investment. This racial and gender economic divide puts them at a disadvantage in a system that has historically fought them from birth. “For many of us, we have a survival versus thriving mindset, which is ingrained in us because so many of us come from generational poverty. We are the first in our families to do things like attend and graduate from college — so we just don’t know,” Rojas says. “We don’t have access to capital or the same financial resources that our white counterparts do, so we’re having to fight tooth and nail for the same opportunities, then we have to work three times as hard as they do when we get the opportunity. There’s a lot of things fighting against us but we can’t let that stop us from figuring it out.”
That’s why Rojas is inspired to be an advocate for Black and brown small business owners. With her new brand, she plans on sharing more about her own journey as a businesswoman through her blog and social media channels, while also looking to lead workshops in the near future for women of color entering entrepreneurship.
One of the topics she aims to spotlight is learning the importance of dedicating herself to the financial parts of her business — something that can often be dismissed by entrepreneurs of color. “People in our communities went bankrupt during COVID because they didn’t have an LLC or those legalities set in place, so now they are taking on the burden of their business. These are things that we have to get more educated on,” she stresses. “I’m really trying to do better and learn what I can when it comes to the parts of my business that I may not necessarily be the strongest at or may not be as interested in... because if your business is not making you money then it’s not making sense.” In order to help it all make sense, Rojas recommends finding the right experts.
Invest in the experts
This year, Rojas was able to change her All Things Ada business from an LLC to an S Corp with the help of her accountant. She also was finally able to put herself on payroll, which she hadn’t done in her 11 years as an entrepreneur. She has quarterly meetings with her accountant and recommends that everyone — not just entrepreneurs — have quarterly meetings with themselves and with a financial expert to go over everything from budgeting, financial goals, and investments. With the money she’s made with her personal brand, Rojas was able to become her own investor for Vecina Couture. She’s also dedicated time to understanding and creating contracts with the help of a lawyer, another crucial business lesson she had to learn the hard way over the years.
“Your ideas are your intellectual property. Do your research and find a lawyer that can help you. I know it can seem scary when we think about these expensive hourly fees, but you can find a lawyer with a reasonable fee,” she says. “There are a lot of badass Black and brown lawyers out there doing the work.” Rojas recommends reaching out to the Small Business Association (SBA) in your local city and taking the time to sit with someone who is going to walk you through the process or put together contracts for you that will ultimately protect you should anything happen. As she wisely puts it: “You never know.”
Additionally, Rojas highly suggests setting up your business legally and making sure you have contracts for every little move from NDAs to freelancer contracts, and even blogger releases and manufacturing agreements. No matter what it is, she advises making sure you get it written and signed on paper.
This investment in trained professionals didn’t come easy for Rojas, who understands the overwhelming fears that come with finances for immigrants and their children. “Many of us are scared to even check our bank accounts daily. Get comfortable checking your bank accounts everyday. I finally did my taxes after four years of not doing them, and I paid my accountant a lot of money to do it, but that’s part of doing the work,” she shares. “It’s not always going to be fun, it’s not always going to be pretty, and it’s not always going to be cheap. But you have to invest in yourself that way. Find people who are experts in those areas that you lack and really lean into them. The more we talk about it and normalize these conversations, that’s how the community is going to grow and evolve.”
Finding the motivation
Launching a business during a pandemic that has ravaged Black and brown communities disproportionately, Rojas found the motivation in remembering why she was launching this business to begin with: honoring her family and culture. When her great great grandmother died, the women in her family found themselves fighting over her robes. “[My great great grandmother] had a bata she’d cook in, a bata she’d clean in, a bata she’d sleep in, and a bata she’d wear to just lounge in the house. Knowing all the women in my family were fighting over the matriarch’s clothing made me think about who is making batas like this for us — for the future matriarchs,” she says. “That was really the inspiration for the brand. I want to honor the matriarchs of our family while honoring the future matriarchs by making a line of comfortable classics that you can wear at home.”
A brand collaboration also served as catalyst when the success of this partnership showed the demand for product — which is key for any business. Last summer, TheraFlu reached out to Rojas to help curate a box for their latest campaign. She was asked to include POC-owned brands and wound up including a sample of her own made-to-order robes before even officially launching a brand. The boxes were a huge success and quickly sold out. It was the final push Rojas needed to officially launch Vecina Couture, which is set to be released soon.
Rojas hopes that people can look to her experiences and know that it’s never too late to start a first, second, or third business — even if it’s during a pandemic that’s working against you. She plans to continue using her platform to share the ins and outs of her entrepreneurship journey as an Afro-Latina from the Bronx. “I really hope that people are inspired to know that I’m not different from them,” she says. “I’m just a girl from the Bronx who had the audacity to think that I can have everything I ever wanted and that’s what I’m striving for, and I’m bringing people along the journey because I want them to feel seen and know they can have this, too.”