Enterprising women launch businesses at flea market

It’s 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and Ricardez and Finch, along with 10 other women entrepreneurs from all around Silicon Valley, get ready for business at the world’s largest open-air market — the San Jose Flea Market. “This is something I did for myself,” Ricardez says. “This is mine. I didn’t want to be 60 and say, ‘I wanted to do this, but didn’t.’ “


The Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment of Silicon Valley is a Bay Area nonprofit organization that focuses on helping low-income, high-potential women start and run their own microenterprises. Marking its 20th year in 2009, it continues to offer training, resources, classes and microloans to women.


This summer, the initiative partnered with the San Jose Flea Market to provide an incubator for women launching businesses with the skills they learned in the 20-session business course. Although low-income, these women still had to pay their tuition and do their homework. They learned how to do market research on the Internet to come up with a business they liked, connected with wholesalers to provide them with inventory, wrote a business plan, applied for and received business licenses and, with the Flea Market as their site, launched their own businesses.

“It was a good match,” says Theresa Bumb Navarro, consultant for the Berryessa Flea Market. “Students have progressed enormously, and they are able to raise funds that they didn’t have. They’re helping the household income, and everyone helps each other out.” The flea market has offered these women free spaces for their businesses for the time that they are in the program.

Half of the initiative’s clients participate in its Spanish-language program — Alternativas para Latina en Autosuficiencia (ALAS) — which has gained momentum through its new partnership with the San Jose flea market.

Business family

There were 63 graduates of the ALAS program in San Jose alone this year, says Gonzalo Martinez, the initiative’s small business trainer and consultant. The program, first launched by the Women’s Initiative in 1990, is also offered in San Francisco, Oakland, Concord and Novato, and up to 80 percent of the clients come by way of referral. The San Jose location at 1401 Parkmoor Ave. is the latest addition, joining four other locations last year.

“These women are creating a community,” Martinez says. “They tell their niece or cousin or sister, and they keep coming because they’re selling.” One of the major obstacles for anyone trying to start a business is the fear of failure.

Martinez has been helping women gain the confidence to start their own businesses for seven years. “It’s normal for them to be fearful,” he says. “We take them to the edge of the abyss but don’t let them fall. In the end, they become independent and give back to their communities.”

Cupertino resident Nubia Finch says the change from being an office secretary for 15 years in her native Bogota, Colombia, to having an outdoor business is different and refreshing. “It has been very interesting starting my own business,” Finch says. “I never thought I’d do it so quickly. There was an opportunity, and I took it.” She began the program in March along with Ricardez and found herself a second family.

“This group is very united,” she says. “We help each other out. We have all watched each other grow.” All of the women in the program who launched businesses started by either sharing a table space or with one table for themselves. Now, all have a minimum of two tables. Finch has three tables covered with her gold, bronze and silver jewelry and her first employee — a peer from her ALAS group.

“It’s very important to give back,” she says. “It helps the economy of the country. It creates a fountain of jobs and encourages those who want to start a business. Like they say in Colombia, ¡para adelante! (to the future).” Women in the program come from a wide range of backgrounds and places, but most have a single thing in common — all are determined to be self-sufficient.

According to the initiative, the average income of their graduates more than doubles four years after participation, and 71 percent make steady sales five years down the road. Last year, recent graduates created 1,000 new jobs in the area.

“I don’t have family here in this country, and [ALAS instructors] are always telling you that you could do it and show you people that have done it,” Ricardez says. “They introduce us to other women who started out like us.” Ricardez, a North Willow Glen resident, immigrated to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, a stable region where few leave their homes. There, she was a computer programmer and lived at home with her mother and six siblings.

She came to the United States in search of better pay when she was 18 and found a job at a dry cleaners. Ricardez was paid per item ironed for more than a year. She was forced to quit after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She moved on to janitorial work for the next 10 years.

“I was all alone here and decided to move back to Mexico,” she says. “But I came back to a life totally different. Everyone was married and had their own lives. All I had to show for the last 10 years was a house I built in Mexico and the education of my two sisters. I was just as alone in Mexico as I had been in California.” She began a business in her hometown and after another year, decided to come back to the U.S. “I decided that I wasn’t going to waste my life away and so I came back,” Ricardez says. “I went to school, learned English. I have aspirations.”

She began her business with the help of ALAS and $300 she had saved. She chose jewelry because it was small and she could carry it with her on the bus, her only form of transportation. At first, none of the costume jewelry sold. “I felt like I was failing,” she said. But with the support of her husband and the other students in her class, she researched, market trends and found different inventory to invest in and began selling. Now she makes an average of $300 every two days and reinvests it into her shop’s inventory.

“This is just the beginning,” she says. “As the days go by, your dreams just get bigger. I started this business in the midst of this economic crisis and it’s growing. Imagine what it would be like if it was in the good times?”

To date, Alvizar has taught three other women how to launch and sustain their own businesses, and all three have branched out and carved a niche for themselves in the events planning industry. She also gives classes on the side to teach women to use their skills to make and sell their crafts. “Look for your skills,” Alvizar says. “Women know how to do things and should base their businesses on that. Whether it’s painting or sewing, it doesn’t take much to start.”

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