Minority female entrepreneurs give back to their community
Little did Elizabeth Rodriguez know that serving coffee and breakfast to neighbors in Queens, New York would evolve into a respected community group in Scranton many years later. Rodriguez is the brainchild behind Giving Back to the Community, an organization made up of small, local businesses in Scranton that host community events.
She recalls how she would bring along her daughter, Sabrina Guzman, while working with Neighbor Housing Services in Queens.
“(Working in the community) is second nature for her, because I used to drag her with me,” Rodriguez said during a recent chat over alcapurrias, a Puerto Rican fritter dish, at
Papi’s Kitchen in the city’s south side.
That bond between mother and daughter continued when both attended and graduated from Plaza College in Forest Hills, New York. Rodriguez was the valedictorian of that graduating class and continues her leadership role today with Giving Back to the Community.
Rodriguez, along with Lisette Miranda, a community advocate from Scranton, and fellow Latino women entrepreneurs Jennifer Alvarez, of Scranton, and Iesha Gray, of Hazleton, form the backbone of Giving Back to the Community. They are also behind a major push in Scranton to bring small businesses and community members together. Their goal is to create connections that strengthen the fabric of neighborhoods throughout the city.
“When Liz presented this idea, I loved it. I’ve always wanted to do something like this. I love giving back,” Miranda said.
Rodriguez creates custom hair bows, hair accessories, tutus, and t-shirts at her business Cutesy Bowz and More. Like the other women in the group, Rodriguez began her business during the pandemic. She started making face masks to combat the restlessness that she and so many other people felt during that time. With her mother in the hospital, Rodriguez needed something to keep herself busy.
Once businesses started reopening, Rodriguez realized that many of her favorite establishments didn’t survive the lockdowns. She remembered feeling grateful for the customers who kept her business going through those dark times. She also wanted to help the businesses that were still operating but hurting.
“I wanted to do something as a thank you to loyal customers who supported us. They bought a t-shirt here, a hair bow there,” Rodriguez said.
Her vision, Rodriguez said, was to create an event that integrated small businesses and the community. After months of planning, the group held its first event for Halloween in October 2022. Four hundred children dressed up and attended the trunk-or-treat set up by Giving Back to the Community.
“We were crying when we looked around and saw all of these people,” Guzman said. She added, “It was clear how many people wanted and needed this type of event in our community.”
Guzman started her business, Beyond Ur Expectations, in late 2019 just months before the pandemic made its way to the United States. Her party-planning business has its roots in her days working at a local nightclub as a bottle waitress.
“People would come in to celebrate an anniversary or birthday. I’d put something together for them and I realized this could be a business,” Guzman said.
She enjoys creating affordable, themed party spaces for her clients. Guzman said when she opened Beyond Ur Expectations, her main priority was to “provide party planning for families of all incomes on a budget.”
Guzman said that while social media can be a great tool, it can also create barriers for local businesses. That was a significant impetus for her to help create Giving Back to the Community.
“Things get lost on social media. You see things that you like and you start buying them, but it’s coming from California. And a lot of times people right here in Scranton are doing the same thing. So, we wanted to show people that too,” Guzman said.
Iesha Gray’s road construction flagging company, Speedy Traffic Control,
Inc. in Hazleton, opened in 2021. Gray worked as a flagger for other companies and was compelled to start her own business after learning that workers were not fairly compensated.
“I wanted to change the game for everyone and do right by the flaggers because a lot of companies I worked for didn’t give you the full payment you are supposed to get,” Gray said. She also wanted to show her employees respect for the hard work they do. Gray said it’s important that her workers know their time and work are valued.
A Chicago native, Gray now lives in Hazleton but is an integral part of Giving Back to the Community. She became a mother as a teenager and wants to make sure other parents and children have opportunities for safe, family fun in their communities.
“I’m a mother myself. So, I’m a sucker when it comes to kids and making them happy. I want to help families that don’t have things to do because maybe they can’t afford it,” Gray said.
Likewise, Jennifer Alvarez of Scranton joined the group to make a difference for children. She said doing this type of work comes naturally because she has previously held events like toy drives and Easter basket giveaways. Alvarez owns and operates Jen’s Plant Heaven out of her Lackawanna County home. She said she discovered her green thumb during the pandemic and put her creativity to work by creating arrangements for her clients.
“The joy of seeing the satisfaction on my customers’ faces when they pick up the creation I made for them (inspires me) because there’s more interaction with them - not like when you go to the big box store and you just grab a plant and go,” Alvarez said.
As Latino women who run businesses, all the women agree that there were benefits and challenges. Gray believes being a Latino woman is a benefit because she shows other women who are minorities that success is possible, especially single mothers.
“I’m showing women and single mothers we can do this line of work and be a business owner and also give second chances to other (women),” Gray said.
Guzman noted that some of the challenges the Latino business community faces come from conventional wisdom and beliefs within Latino cultures. "Our culture teaches us not to ask for help. Be independent. Don’t beg. Don’t ask for help. But there are so many resources so people should know about that.”
Chiming in, Gabriel Williams, owner of Papi’s Kitchen said, “It’s the same thing as being a kid. It’s a fear of being rejected.”
The women also said that it could be difficult to ask for help within their adopted hometowns because of fear and assumptions by long-time residents.
“As a woman looking for sponsors for community events, that becomes more difficult. We’re not as established,” Guzman said.
Rodriguez agreed and added that while there are many festivals for groups hailing from parts of Europe, she hasn’t seen the same for the Latino-American residents in the area.
“The Latino community is underserved. Statistically, Scranton has the highest population (in Lackawanna County),” Rodriguez said.
Both Rodriguez and Guzman think owning a business as a woman gives you a different drive and determination. Guzman wants other women to know their power and worth.
“I want other women to not be afraid of our gender role. If we can do it, you can do it,” Guzman said.