A graphic rendering of the Knoxville, Tennessee street gridA graphic rendering of the Knoxville, Tennessee street grid
Community Stories

A Two-Way Bridge: How Centro Hispano de East Tennessee Is Closing Cultural and Language Gaps

Centro Hispano de East Tennessee is bridging the gaps facing the Hispanic community in the Knoxville area.

Imagine you and your family have just moved to a new city. 

It’s a busy city, bustling with life: schools, restaurants, shops, and small businesses. You need to figure out how to enroll your kids in school, find a new doctor’s office, help your spouse start a new job—and, on top of all that, you want to start a small business like you had at home.

But the city is different from what you’re used to. There’s a language barrier, and, even more significantly, a cultural barrier. 

What you need is an organization that bridges the gap between cultures.

That’s exactly what Centro Hispano de East Tennessee has been doing for the Knoxville area for the past eighteen years. 

Identifying the Community’s Needs

Centro Hispano works to build bridges by offering connection, support, tools, and resources to the local Hispanic community. 

To address the needs of the community holistically, Centro Hispano offers services in three main areas: Youth and Family Engagement, Community Resources, and Workforce Development. 

“We’re trying to make sure that we’re helping both the kids with school and the parents with workforce development—whether that means helping them build skills, write resumes, or prepare for interviews,” explained Brandon Ledford, the Director of Workforce Development at Centro Hispano. 

“We’re helping the entire family achieve whatever looks like success for them, and we’re also helping them become financially stable and contribute to the greater regional community's growth.”

Part of Centro Hispano’s holistic workforce development efforts includes supporting Hispanic entrepreneurs, but that also means addressing the gaps in available support. 

Despite an absence of formal business support in their language, Hispanic entrepreneurs were still starting businesses, as many immigrant families do when they arrive in the US. But to succeed in business, you don’t just need entrepreneurial grit and a good idea—you also need to know how to navigate the legal environment, do your taxes properly, and set up the best structures and systems for your business. 

Assistance with those aspects of business were readily available to English speaking entrepreneurs in Knox, but as much not to the Hispanic community.

For Centro Hispano, this gap was as much an opportunity as it was a challenge. 

"Making sure that we're creating a bridge that goes two ways and not just one way is really important. You have to actually go out to where the people are to make them see the willingness that you have to work within and respect their culture."
-Brandon Ledford, Director of Workforce Development at Centro Hispano de East Tennessee

Bridging the Resource Gap for Entrepreneurs

Centro Hispano’s goal for business support was twofold: They wanted to offer resources tailored to Knox County’s Hispanic entrepreneurs, and they wanted the wider community to recognize  the value Hispanic entrepreneurs had to offer. 

To offer helpful resources to the Hispanic entrepreneurial community, Centro Hispano first had to recognize the community’s needs and the barriers that were holding them back. 

Lots of business resources written for a predominantly white and English-speaking audience didn’t have translations—and even the ones that did still had cultural barriers, because businesses often operate differently in immigrants’ origin countries than in the United States.

Centro Hispano also recognized that, in order to help support the Hispanic community, they would need to build trust by building relationships with the Hispanic community and bridging the gaps between cultures.

“Making sure that we’re creating a bridge that goes two ways and not just one way is really important. You have to actually go out to where the people are to make them see the willingness that you have to work within and respect their culture,” Brandon said. 

“We’re also making sure that we’re taking the time to invest in those relationships—that way they have the confidence to invest in our organization.”

Centro Hispano set out to build these relationships with the Hispanic community through programs like their popular ESL course, which has over 300 students a year, and their business development course, “Grandes Sueños en Pequeñas Empresas (Big Dreams in Small Businesses),” which uses the Spanish translation of CO.STARTERS Core as the base curriculum. 

So far, about 75 entrepreneurs have graduated from the program’s “Grandes Sueños” program.

“The community is very driven by word of mouth, so it’s important to have someone who speaks their language, helps them break into the English-speaking market, and gives them feedback,” Brandon explained. 

Building Bridges Between Business Communities

Part of Centro Hispano’s work also revolves around building a bridge between the Hispanic business community and the greater Knoxville business community, to show that the Hispanic business community is a vital piece of the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Using CO.STARTERS programs has helped with that goal, because the Knoxville Area Urban League and Knoxville Entrepreneurship Center were already using CO.STARTERS. Centro Hispano’s adoption of the Spanish translation of CO.STARTERS Core gave the organization credibility with the wider community as a business resource provider. 

Centro Hispano hosts a public pitch night for every cohort they graduate. Two or three of the new graduates present business pitches in Spanish, with translated follow-along guides available in English. 

Centro Hispano invites members of the larger Knoxville business community, including the Chamber and other community organizations, to these pitch nights so they can witness the outcome of the program and ask questions about the pitches through an interpreter. 

These pitch nights are held in areas of Knoxville that are often occupied primarily by white, English-speaking entrepreneurs, like the community colleges or the downtown city center. 

Brandon explained that Centro Hispano wants to encourage the Hispanic entrepreneurial community that those spaces are for them too, just as much as they are for any other Knoxville entrepreneur. Centro Hispano also encourages its entrepreneurs to attend English-speaking pitch competitions, so that they can take advantage of those resources too.

“Creating a mini ecosystem that contributes to the larger ecosystem is really huge,” Brandon said. He’s seen graduates recommend the program to other Hispanic entrepreneurs, and act as mentors for them as they progress through the program.

“We want them to see that their dreams are attainable. We want someone who looks like them, speaks their language, and understands their culture encouraging them and showing them that it’s possible.”

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