The hottest startup dance move of the past two years has undoubtedly been the “Pandemic Pivot.” With COVID-19 transforming once surefire plans into uncertainties at best and impossibilities at worst, entrepreneurs have had to throw on their dancing shoes.
Entrepreneurs like Belén Rodríguez.
Dancing the Pandemic Pivot
A seasoned vet of the restaurant business, Rodríguez first envisioned bringing her Argentinian roots to the world in the form of Quebracho Charcuterie & Pies, a small-scale pop-up and event-focused catering company. Catering, as you probably remember, wasn’t a super-hot business in 2020. So, Rodríguez did what entrepreneurs do — she pivoted.
“I had to pretty much learn almost everything from scratch,” Rodríguez said. “Yes, I did have my pricing structure. Yes, I did have a lot of the basics of running a food business. But even then, bringing that from a retail point of view to a full-on wholesale operation demanded that I restructure absolutely everything in the business.”
And so, the Pandemic Pivot morphed Quebracho Charcuterie & Pies into Quebracho Empanadas, a “full-on wholesale operation” that creates frozen empanadas you can find right now in Lunds & Byerlys, Kowalski’s, co-ops, and other stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois.
But running a CPG company is much different than planning pop-ups. Coordinating ingredient delivery, warehouse inventory management, trucking fees, fuel surcharges… there’s a lot more to consider when you’re working to deliver your tiny frozen pockets of Argentinian joy to multiple distributors. At some point, the scrappiness that is often so essential to the early days of a startup just can’t cut it anymore.
“You find yourself in some situations where, perhaps with knowing the information you’ve learned throughout the first two years of your company, you still have an opportunity to continue learning and fixing things on the go,” Rodríguez said. “Once you start working with bigger chains or bigger distributors, that’s not a possibility anymore.”
Starting with early-stage guidance from the Northside Economic Opportunity Network and a later spot in Lunar Startups’ Cohort 4, Rodríguez tapped into Minnesota’s startup support system. Through connections made from Rodríguez’s time in the Lunar Cohort, she was introduced to HandsOn Twin Cities and participated in a pro-bono program the organization fostered with partner Unilever. From that opportunity (focused on business elements such as marketing and whitespace analysis), another came knocking in the new year — a pro-bono for small business program from HandsOn Twin Cities and Target.
Pro-Bono Boosts and HandsOn Help
The pro-bono for small business program began in June 2020. Much like other socially minded efforts of the time, it was sparked from the murder of George Floyd, itself a sudden, tragic burst of hyper-realization of the systemic injustices faced by people of color. Target and the Target Foundation made a $10 million commitment to invest in local and national partnerships to address social justice and committed 10,000 hours of free consulting services for Black, Indigenous, and people-of-color-owned small businesses in the Twin Cities. But while there was a promise, there wasn’t a program, and that’s when Target paired with HandsOn Twin Cities.
“What does 10,000 hours look like?” Joy Altmann, Managing Director, Pro Bono Advisory Program at HandsOn Twin Cities, said. “How do we shape that? And so, the model of up to 12-week projects with X amount of BIPOC-owned small businesses, X number of employees… we did just kind of a rough rendering, and then came up with a 10,000-hour engagement to fill those hours in 2020.”
Those 10,000 hours were completed in early 2021 with more than 35 small businesses served and plans for more consultations were made. HandsOn Twin Cities builds each program cycle, putting together all the resources for the corporate side of things (HandsOn Twin Cities also partners with other corporations such as General Mills for a similar programs) and selecting and vetting small businesses to make sure they’re not only at the stage where such consultations make sense, but that they’re also able to commit the time necessary to truly grow from the experience. Once HandsOn Twin Cities sends these “project approaches” to, in this case, Target, the big red bullseye says yea or nay. With Rodríguez and Quebracho Empanadas starting the pro-bono program this month, she is officially one of those yeas.
“[Rodríguez was] somebody at the height of that pandemic that said, ‘Wait a second, how can I survive?’” Altmann said. “In assessing a business owner and their business, that is exactly who you need — somebody who is innovative who is also thinking ahead. And she’s doing it. That really attracted me to her. Not only her beautiful story, but her incredibly intuitive business sense of what she needed to do as a business owner to survive through the pandemic and then the social unrest.”
Finding Your Place and Trying to Balance the Scales
In addition to finding her footing as a CEO, Rodríguez has also worked hard to find her place within the larger scheme of what it means to be a BIPOC entrepreneur. As a self-described fair-skinned immigrant of Czech, Spanish, and Italian descendancy, she doesn’t necessarily see herself as a BIPOC entrepreneur, but recognizes that she does — as a woman and an immigrant — belong to a marginalized population. And that’s a distinction that has, at times, caused a bit of internal struggle.
“In my particular case, what I decide to accept as assistance for BIPOC entrepreneurs brings a little bit of reckoning because I can’t help but think that sometimes I feel, ‘Is this really something that I should be taking advantage of?’” Rodríguez said. “[I want to make] sure that it’s something I’m not appropriating.”
As she navigates that personal reckoning on her entrepreneurial journey, something she picked up from a mentor (and something that’s sure to resonate with any entrepreneur from a marginalized community) stays with her.
“You have to have disproportionate [opportunity] in these populations to have it become equitable and fair because there’s so much underrepresentation in the past.” she said. “So, I think that’s great [programs like pro-bono for small business] are doing that for all of us who would otherwise not normally have access to the resources that we need to grow our businesses.”
Altmann and HandsOn Twin Cities approach the socially focused issues of these programs from a different angle. When giant corporations work with relatively tiny businesses, there is a clear power dynamic that needs to be kept in check. For many of these entrepreneurs, especially from the BIPOC and marginalized communities, their businesses are their babies. And when corporate partners start asking questions about finances, planning, roadmaps, and more, it can feel like the scales are imbalanced.
“When you couple [the entrepreneurs] with a corporate team, this might be the first time they have interacted so deeply with somebody from another culture or race,” Altmann said. “So, when you partner them together for up to 12 weeks, that can be a really touchy area. You have corporate volunteers asking what feels like most likely invasive questions to that small business owner about something they love. With that may come the perception of judgment. ‘Your receipts are in a shoe box. Why are they in a shoe box?’”
To combat that invasive feeling, HandsOn Twin Cities provides formalized training for both parties of the partnership. The training assists the corporate side to recognize cultural and business differences, helping them navigate them in a productive way, and prepares the entrepreneurs to be as vulnerable as possible in order to grow. Ultimately, Altmann wants this training to bleed into the fabric of the corporation at large.
“I hope that it has internal effects,” she said. “That they look at having these connections with this new population and it has an influence the next time that they interview someone or the next time that they look at vendors and who they’re buying from.”
The Future is Mind Blown
As it stands, there will be plenty more opportunities for the training to have those effects. Altmann says Target has made the commitment of at least 10,000 hours annually for continued support of the BIPOC and marginalized entrepreneur community. The program has also grown beyond Minnesota, now serving the Twin Cities, Chicago, Atlanta, and the Bay Area.
Quebracho Empanadas is growing, too. With 2020 and 2021 dedicated to establishing a strong foundation as a CPG brand, 2022 and beyond will be focused on putting the right strategies in place to take the business to a nationwide scale. And for Rodríguez, one thing is very clear — the support of people like Altmann, organizations like HandsOn Twin Cities, and programs like Target’s pro-bono for small business makes all the difference.
“I don’t know if it’s just a Minnesota thing, but I feel like the amount of people who want to see you succeed is something that I would have never imagined,” she said. “These are people in the middle of a pandemic with children, daycare issues, and fulltime jobs who are still putting their time and effort and energy toward helping us succeed. That’s pretty amazing to think about. It’s just… I don’t know… it’s mind… I feel mind blown.”
Rodríguez paused to chuckle.
“I can’t even find the words in English to express how amazing the community is.”