Cristina Villanueva’s mission is to help and improve Latino business owners throughout Milwaukee. Villanueva is the owner of Ambas Financial Services LLC, a bilingual tax preparation and accounting business serving Milwaukee’s south side. He is the co-founder of Negoji, a social learning platform for Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs across the country.
For Villanueva, her interest in entrepreneurship began when she was a student at South Division High School. She says her teacher, Vicki Kalman, had a passion for teaching her students about accounting and finance that Villanueva had.
Villanueva followed this path working for a national tax firm when family and friends would go to him for help with taxes.
“People would come in and bring me their letters and I’d say, ‘Wow, they need someone to help them and call. [the] IRS with them to translate,” Villanueva recalled.
As she noticed a rise in new Latino business owners in Milwaukee, she changed direction and founded Ambas in 2017 to meet the growing need for bilingual services. Villanueva notes that he started with just over 100 clients which has now grown to nearly 1,000 through word of mouth recommendations and community outreach alone.
“It’s definitely evolved, especially post-Covid,” she says. “I noticed that Latinos had a lot of demand for access to resources. And that’s where the discussion started now because we were noticing that there were all these amazing programs available to them like PPP loans and grants and support. for their business, but they are not getting access to it.”
The app offers access to education, resources, networking, classes and more to help entrepreneurs succeed and grow. It serves 100% Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs outside of Milwaukee, and Villanueva said it was surprising at first to realize how few Spanish-language resources there were.
“But at the same time it shouldn’t be a surprise… because it’s not that there aren’t resources, it’s that many of these Latino business owners don’t have a relationship with a bank so they don’t have a personal banker who is able to help them finance,” he explains.
“So I don’t want to say that as the United States we haven’t done a good job of creating resources, but we haven’t done a good job of finding ways to connect that resource to the end user,” Villanueva added.
The average Negozi member is a Latina mother about 39 years old whose business has one or two employees, according to Villanueva. He says part of the resources’ growth is because they meet clients where they are and give them long-term guidance for successful growth.
“I was attracted to Negoji because I can now help someone like my mother who is probably starting a business and she doesn’t know the language. So it’s our own community giving back to each other,” said Villanueva “There are professionals who have the knowledge or those experts, and then help the small business owner get where they need to go.”
He says that in order for Latino-owned businesses to succeed in the Milwaukee region, there needs to be a space for Latino entrepreneurs to share their stories and build a support system. Villanueva said there needs to be an emphasis on financial literacy for business owners and education on how business owners can get to the next level.
“There is such a great need. Latinos are crying out for help … and it really makes me very happy when I see all these different groups coming together in Milwaukee now and we’re going in the right direction,” she said.
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