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Former La Luz leader now heads California Latino business fund

Veronica Vences knows the difference $100 can make to those in need.

She dealt with repeated instances of this between 2009 and 2013, when she was employed as a Sonoma County eligibility worker.

Vences examined the earnings of local families who sought access to Cal Fresh, Medi-Cal and other forms of government assistance. She had to determine if they qualified for these benefits.

Some of those families had been hit hard ― financially and emotionally ― by the Great Recession. Some of them struggled with the reality of needing the extra support, sometimes for the first time in their lives, Vences said.

“For me, the hardest story that I heard constantly was people making maybe a fraction too much to be eligible ... and to have to say, ‘Sorry, you make $100 too much and you don’t qualify,’” she said.

“What I learned there was that there were a lot of programs that tried to support our low income and struggling communities, but it felt it wasn’t enough,” she added.

This realization set Vences on a personal mission to hone her skills in order to better help families in need. It prompted her to go back to school to earn her master’s degree in applied economics and then to Sonoma Valley’s La Luz Center, a Latino advocacy nonprofit where she spent eight years, most recently as its development director.

She began the next phase of her mission on Feb. 14. It was her first day as the founding director of what has become a multi-million dollar entrepreneurship fund created to advance economic justice for the state’s Latino community.

Called the Latino Entrepreneurship Fund, the project is organized by the Latino Community Foundation, a statewide nonprofit that focuses on boosting the civic and economic strength of California’s Latino community.

The organization reported $16 million in gross yearly revenues in 2020, the most recent Internal Revenue Service reporting from the foundation shows.

This new role will put Vences, 35, in charge of overseeing the distribution of grants to Latino business owners and the nonprofits who support them, she said.

She’ll also try to secure federal coronavirus relief funds for such businesses and related programs, work on coalition building among Latino entrepreneurs and look at identifying and removing the systemic barriers that exist for Latino entrepreneurs throughout the state, Vences said. One example is the disproportionately low number of venture capitalist investments that are directed to them, she added.

“Through my role, and by continuing to unleash the power of Latinos, we’re saying there’s an opportunity to tap into entrepreneurs and small businesses,” Vences said. “There’s been such a great under-investment of businesses led by Latinos.”

Vences saw some of those disparities first hand during her tenure at La Luz, an organization that’s helped Latino families in the Sonoma Valley navigate life amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Many of the area’s essential workers, for example, were Latino, though they lacked health insurance, workplace benefits such as paid sick time and sufficient savings to be able to cover lost wages if they became ill with the coronavirus or needed to stay home to care for others.

There were also Latino small business owners who had trouble accessing coronavirus-Paycheck Protection Program business loans because they didn’t meet necessary requirements, such as employing other workers or having a bank account specifically for their business, Vences said.

“All of that basically manifested to saying that, ‘Hey, this isn’t right. The ones that suffer most are the most critical to our economy,’” said Vences, whose most recent role at La Luz put her in charge of fundraising and advancing donor relationships.

Masha Chernyak, the senior vice president of Programs and Brand Strategy at the Latino Community Fund, said Vences’ experience working at a Latino-serving nonprofit meant “she understands the challenges of the Latino community and the solutions that are coming from the ground.”

While the fund was first announced in 2020 and has been in the fundraising stages, Vences’ hiring puts staff behind the effort and will help the nonprofit steer policy discussions throughout the state related to Latino entrepreneurship, Chernyak said.

“It’s not just a philanthropic resource that we’re running,” Chernyak said. “We want to make a dent in the policy decisions.”

The nonprofit hopes to raise at least $100 million in private and public dollars for the fund, Chernyak said. Neither she or Vences were able to say how much has been raised so far.

Sandy Sanchez, the director of programs at La Luz who first worked with the nonprofit in 2015 to assist Vences with a project, said Vences was crucial to the growth of La Luz, an organization that started with only a handful of people but has now grown to nearly two dozen employees.

Among Vences’ greatest contributions to the nonprofit was spearheading data efforts within the nonprofit, Sanchez said, which helped not only quantify the success and needs of each La Luz’s program, but also helped better understand the people it serves.

That data was then instrumental to building relationships with local donors, Sanchez said.

“She always had that pulse, she’s super data driven and very analytical,” Sanchez said. “She really set the tone for the La Luz partnerships.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   

 

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