The Walton Family Foundation is rooted in Northwest Arkansas, a place infused with entrepreneurial spirit. Today, ensuring that all residents have the opportunity and resources they need to start and grow a business is central to the work of our Home Region program. A thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem not only strengthens the local economy, but helps ensure that Northwest Arkansas continues to lead as one of the most thriving and inclusive communities in the country.
To learn more about these efforts, I sat down with Rodrigo Salas, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas chapter of EforAll, a national nonprofit that helps underrepresented entrepreneurs successfully start and grow their businesses through training, mentorship and professional support. We discussed inclusive programming for the region’s growing Hispanic population, along with his vision to support local businesses of all kinds grow and thrive.
The following is an excerpt from our conversation:
Robert Burns: When you think about the mission of EForAll as it relates to underserved entrepreneurs, what challenges do they face?
Rodrigo: Underserved individuals are people that for one reason or another don’t have access to the same tools and resources as the rest of the community. Every individual faces different barriers, but systemically, we are talking about limited access to capital, business knowledge and access to social networks. When you talk about immigrant entrepreneurs, they also face additional challenges like language and cultural barriers, and a feeling that they don’t belong in the community. It creates a lack of trust that limits their ability to reach out for help and additional resources. That’s who EforAll tries to help. All we care about is that you have an idea and are willing to put the work behind it to make it successful.
Robert: It is so important to us that folks feel welcome, especially when we talk about some of the fastest growing populations here in Northwest Arkansas, like the Latino and Marshallese communities. They are both such an asset to the region. What kind of resources do you provide to help these groups feel a greater sense of belonging?
Rodrigo: We have two different programs designed to help these entrepreneurs. The first is a year-long accelerator program. Our entrepreneurs attend virtual classes twice a week and build out their business plan. Each entrepreneur is also assigned a mentor that we’ve recruited from the local community. Over the course of the program our entrepreneurs meet 25-30 new leaders in the community that can open up new doors and expand those networks for them.
Then, we move into execution. We not only support most with seed funding, we expand their access to capital by inviting local financial institutions to speak – like banks, CDFIs, and KIVA Hubs. They need to know what’s available so they can start building relationships with those institutions.
The second program is our pitch contest. I joke it's like Shark Tank without the teeth. We ask our entrepreneurs to pitch their business ideas, and we make sure the event is hosted in both English and Spanish. Sometimes it’s for cash prizes, but the underlying goal is for folks to really understand if their idea has a market. Does that market have enough people willing to pay for a solution? Because businesses fail without a market for their product.
Robert: Sam Walton once said that good ideas come from anywhere. You just have to look for them. And I think that's really significant when we think about entrepreneurs, because these are individuals, the idea is just kicking around and you just need to be able to bring it out. We want to support people, communities that are endeavoring to do this and bring out their ideas to make this area as vibrant and inclusive as possible. And we are really happy to learn and lead together. This is the way we work with our partners. We fundamentally embrace this idea that the best ideas come from the communities and the people in them. It takes an incredible amount of courage to become an entrepreneur – to turn an idea into action. We are grateful that groups like EforAll embolden them with the tools, the resources and the confidence to succeed.
Rodrigo: What you said is spot on. There's a lot of talented people here in Northwest Arkansas that can create great things in the future. These are really hardworking, committed, innovative individuals that are here to not only do better for themselves and their families, but also to create a more thriving, exciting, energetic community. And I think a big difference from other entrepreneurial ecosystems I’ve seen is that people here are not only excited to create something for themselves, but for the community that surrounds them. We are all working together towards the same goal, that is making Northwest Arkansas a great place to live.