The President and CEO of the Suazo Business Center, Silvia Castro, left, and the founder of the Center, Gladys Gonzalez. Through their work with the Suazo Business Center, the two women have helped about 5,000 small businesses in Utah. (Courtesy of Silvia Castro and Gladys Gonzalez)
Estimated reading time: 8-9 minutes
West Valley – The Suazo Business Center has launched about 5,000 small businesses in Utah over the past two decades, about 93% of which are minority owned.
Two women have spearheaded this success: the Center’s founder, Gladys Gonzalez, and the current President and CEO, Silvia Castro.
The women, who are both immigrants from South America, know firsthand the challenges that first-generation immigrants face when it comes to “making it successful” in the United States. They have used these experiences to provide culturally relevant and multilingual business advice and mentor entrepreneurs across the state.
“The whole concept that I want people who look like me, who speak like me, and who understand me is to help me,” Castro said. “One of the amazing things about the work we do at Suazo is that we change not just this person’s life, but their family’s life… We can really change the economic trajectory of an entire family.”
Make the way easier for others
Gonzalez was in an established career when domestic terrorism forced her to immigrate to Utah from Bogota, Colombia, in 1991.
Drug traffickers are furious over the extradition of a Colombian suspect to the United States and an American pledge to send aid to help the Colombian government fight drug cartels. Terror campaign escalated. Gonzalez said the smugglers threatened to kill seven Americans or their employees for every drug trafficker handed over to the United States.
As an American bank executive, Gonzalez felt she had a goal on her back. The bank chief fled the country almost immediately, while Gonzalez and other employees began working from a secure apartment with motorcade escorts to and from work.
“It was a very scary time for my family, my children and myself,” she said. It was a terrible period because bombs were exploding everywhere.”
Her bank offered to move her to Los Angeles, New York, or Miami, but Gonzalez didn’t feel safe moving to a big city. Instead, she moved to Utah, which she had previously visited because of her belief in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was expecting to get a job in a bank, but was rejected several times. Her degree, ability to write, read and speak English, banking background, and experience as a diplomat mean almost nothing to US employers.
Gonzalez moved from working in one of the most important buildings in Bogotá, where he used a personal chauffeur and two maids to work three low-paying jobs to get the following: taking care, delivering newspapers, and cleaning offices.
“For me, cleaning floors in banks and all of this was an educational school because I learned to appreciate how much people need to fight when they come as immigrants,” she said. “I had to start from scratch to make a living in the United States”
Despite this obstacle, Gonzalez quickly launched Mundo Hispano, which became the largest Spanish-language newspaper in Utah and was eventually bought by KSL. During the newspaper’s first few years, Gonzalez and her daughter Sandra Gonzalez made up the staff. The duo juggled everything from writing and editing to designing and delivering the paper – all while still working full-time jobs.
At one point, Gonzalez, who was cash-strapped, thought she would have to shut down the newspaper. She went to then-senator Pete Swazo to tell him the news. The senator was adamant that Gonzalez could not shut down what he told her was the voice of the Spanish community.
Suazo Gonzalez helped get a small business loan for $10,000 — enough to keep the paper going. By 2009, the newspaper’s readership had grown to about 35,000 and had seven freelance writers, as well as one reporter in Mexico City and another in Colombia.
“It’s not in circulation today, but it was the one that allowed me to live the American dream,” said Gonzalez, who also owns several businesses, including an ad agency and a house flipping company. “The newspaper didn’t give me money because my money was already invested, but it gave me a vision and helped me achieve other goals I had.”
One of those goals was to open a business center that could help individuals in the same way that Suazo helped them. In 2001, after Suazo died in an ATV accident, Gonzalez founded the Suazo Business Center. Her vision for the center was “to bring together all the things we need to learn from American culture and the good things we bring to American society.”
“We Latinos have an entrepreneurial spirit; it’s a natural thing for us,” she said. “My advice is don’t believe that you are less than anyone else. You can get what you want. You can achieve your dreams as long as you believe in them and take action.”
Building on success
While Gonzalez was building a newspaper, Castro was going through the American school system.
Her family moved to Utah from Ecuador in the early 1990s, when she was 14, with the goal of ensuring that she and her sisters had a better education and, eventually, better chances to be financially secure adults.
Adjusting to “everything brand new” was not easy. Castro’s saving grace was that she and her two sisters were promoted together in the lives of their apprentices. They took the most advanced Spanish class their school had to offer – a little break each day from what Castro said was an entirely foreign education system.
“I quickly found out that it was kind of selfish,” she said. “That was pretty cool at first. And that’s what I kind of discovered, that there are a lot of systems here in this country that are self-propelled… So, that was one of the first lessons I got here and being a teenager.”
This lesson will serve her well as she navigates school and ultimately her career. From a young age, Castro knew she wanted to be in business. I made sure to take advanced (college level) economics and finance classes in high school, and participated in the business and finance clubs that Kearns High School offered. By the time she started at Westminster College, Castro said she was in a hurry to graduate and start her career. She graduated with a degree in International Business in three years despite working full time.
“I was a woman on a mission,” she said. “But looking back, I wish someone had told me to enjoy it a little bit more and get to know my classmates a little better—because sometimes education isn’t just about papers or going to school; it’s about people who will then literally sit you down. Let’s be Honestly, the people sitting next to you will probably have a big say in where your jobs are for the next few decades because it’s all about networking.”
It’s one of the things Castro said she didn’t know, as the first in her family to attend an American college.
Her first job after college was as an international trade specialist at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. In this position, I helped small businesses learn how to import and export products. The love she developed for small business stalled during that first job, though Castro’s career would extend to government positions, including director of Latin affairs for two Utah governors, nonprofits such as the Goldman Sachs Small Business 10K Program, and working with managers Executives and business owners of Fortune 500 companies.
Castro was working in the Salt Lake City Department of Economic Development when she opened her current position at the Suazo Business Center. She said something inside of her that told her she needed this position.
“I loved what he (Gonzalez) was trying to create with this center,” Castro said. “I just felt like they were doing this great job, but at the same time they could do more.”
She had two primary goals: to create a program for women to address the unique challenges they face and to drive the business to expand into key markets.
“As long as our customers only think of Latinos as their customers, they will always be young,” she said.
But in his five years with the center, Castro achieved those goals and more. The center has opened a second location in Ogden, has more than tripled its staff, increased its budget fivefold and increased its reserves exponentially.
She said the hardest thing she had to overcome to get to where she is today was low expectations — something she said was “just part of the minority experience”.
“As a Latina, I have to work three times as hard to get equal recognition. However, there’s always that low expectation,” she said. “There are always these low expectations when people are incredibly capable. If you just give them a chance, they’ll surprise you. But those low expectations are still there. And honestly, I think that’s why we’re so successful, because at Suazo, there’s no room for low expectations” .
Suazo Business Center offers basic, intermediate and advanced courses for entrepreneurs as well as advice on appointments in multiple languages. The center also provides assistance in applying for small business loans as well as internal micro-loans for those who do not qualify for traditional financing.
For more information about the center, visit suazocenter.org.
revision: An earlier version incorrectly identified Silvia Castro as executive director of the Suazo Center; She is the CEO and President.