Suazo Business Center Expands to Serve Latino Entrepreneurs in St. George
By Elainna Ciaramella
Since 2003, the Suazo Business Center has provided much-needed business services to Latino and underrepresented communities in the Greater Salt Lake Area. Now, it’s opened a satellite office in St. George at Atwood Innovation Plaza at Utah Tech University, but to fully understand the true meaning behind the Center, one must go back to a terrifying beginning.
Suazo Business Center was founded by a Colombian named Gladys Gonzalez, who worked as a high-level bank executive for Chase-affiliated banks in Colombia during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. Why is this relevant? As a legitimate banker, she endured a life-threatening situation due to the tyranny of Colombia’s drug cartels.
Going to work every day in Colombia was deadly for Gonzalez—there was such a power deficiency from the Colombian government as a banker, the bank she worked for had to hire private security to go door-to-door in the mornings, gather all the bank’s staff and transport them to a secure warehouse that was not an actual bank. The bank employees would do their jobs, then be escorted home—that’s the only way the bank could protect their lives.
After Gonzalez endured several death threats and extortion attempts against her family, she migrated to the United States. She moved to Utah County, enrolled her children in school, and a hopeful Gonzalez made her way to Chase Bank with her resume in hand. She told the bank about her decades of experience in banking, but they weren’t interested.
After the first door closed, Gonzalez applied for jobs at several more banks and they all said, “Thank you for coming. We appreciate your drive and spirit, but we can’t hire you.” When she asked, “Why not?” they said because banking in Colombia is not the same as the United States.
Back in Colombia, Gonzalez was a high-level banking executive, not to mention the Colombian ambassador to Ecuador, and when she immigrated to the United States as a Latina, she got a job as a…cleaning lady.
Gonzalez found employment working for a cleaning company, and one of its contracts was with Chase Bank. One day, while she was cleaning the bank, she bent down to pick up the trash bin. She looked around and realized she was in a man’s office, a man who had the same job she had back home in Colombia.
When she came to America, this was the job she was expecting to get, but instead, she was cleaning out this individual’s garbage and vacuuming his floor. Gonzalez thought to herself, “This isn’t right. I am in the U.S., the land of opportunity,” but that opportunity comes primarily in the form of entrepreneurship, explained Edward Bennett, the director of business development at the Suazo Business Center.
As Bennett told Gonzalez’s story, he said she recognized that in order to achieve the American Dream, she had to become an entrepreneur. With entrepreneurship in her sights, Gonzalez realized there was no Spanish language print news that was viable in her community, so she founded a newspaper called Mundo Hispano, which blew up so quickly, Gonzalez could not meet the demand.
To get help with her business, Gonzalez went to the Small Business Development Center, the Women’s Business Center, and she took advantage of Small Business Administration and other mentoring programs, but she ran into problems because she was an immigrant. She found that the well-meaning staff at these organizations did not know how to help her. Some of them spoke Spanish, but they did not know how to help minority communities—this led to real challenges.
Gonzalez met a woman who told her she had to speak to a man named Pete Suazo, who lived in Salt Lake City. Suazo was the first Latino elected to the state senate in Utah. He was a pillar in the community, an activist for the Latino and Hispanic communities, and a champion on the Hill for anything that had to do with minority rights, said Bennett.
Suazo helped Gonzalez devise a business, marketing, and finance plan. He helped mentor and guide her so she could succeed as an immigrant entrepreneur. Thanks to Suazo’s compassion, Gonzalez’s publication thrived, and she was able to secure funding and grow her business. At its peak, she had a circulation of about 15,000 per week. Gonzalez eventually sold Mundo Hispano, started a few more businesses, sold them. Now she owns a real estate investment company with her daughter.
As they recently shared a meal, Gonzalez told Bennett that she had the idea in 1999 or 2000 to create a nonprofit organization that could do for the community what Suazo did for her. Then, tragically in 2000, Suazo passed away in an ATV accident. Gonzalez told Bennett that by the grace of God, she suddenly felt that since Suazo was gone, she needed to create the organization in his honor, and she wanted to name it after him.
She spoke with Suazo’s family and told them how she had this idea for a couple of years, and with their blessing in December of 2022, she formed the Pete Suazo Business Center, which started serving Latino entrepreneurs in northern Utah in 2003.
Suazo Business Center’s Four Pillars
Suazo Business Center is not a Chamber of Commerce, nor does it operate like one, explained Bennett. Instead of helping existing businesses network and increase their presence in communities, the Center guides Latinos on their entrepreneurial journeys, often before they’ve even begun.
According to Bennett, the Suazo Business Center has four pillars, including: 1) individualized one-on-one mentoring and advising, 2) classes (they have a basic, intermediate, and advanced track that meet Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings because most of the Center’s clients have jobs), 3) workshops, and 4) a microloan program.
“We don't want to loan our money,” Bennet says. “We want to find mainstream funders for our clients, so we call ourselves, ‘the lender of last resort,’ even behind the Federal Reserve.” The Center works directly with clients to help them get solvent enough to where they can actually go to a bank or credit union, the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI), or another organization to obtain funding for their companies.
Suazo Business Center takes a client from idea creation through the Center’s academic classes, its mentoring program, and ultimately workshops and financing to get them on a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5-year cycle. Hopefully, by the time they’ve been working with the Center for several years, they’ve outgrown it, explained Bennett—it was designed that way.
Suazo Business Center Lands in St. George
Now that the Center has been serving Latino clients in northern Utah for 20 years, it has expanded its reach to serve clients in southern Utah, specifically in St. George and Washington County, an area with a growing Latino population due to in-migration.
Cristina Zavala is the business advisor at Suazo Business Center in St. George, whose husband is a local entrepreneur. Zavala doesn’t need to work, but she was looking for a new adventure. She promised herself that if she returned to work, she wanted to do something for the community. She jumped at the opportunity to run Suazo Business Center’s newest location in Atwood Innovation Plaza at Utah Tech University.
Suazo Business Center started offering free to low-cost business services in Spanish to Latinos in the St. George community in January. Zavala says she understands the struggle from migrating here, and not having the same opportunities due to language barriers. She’s thrilled to fill a need that’s been unaddressed in Washington County until now.
“Of all the people I have consulted with, they're very excited because they have never had programs in St. George available to them, especially being in the Plaza and knowing everything they offer for new or current businesses,” Zavala says.
Suazo Business Center is now serving the Latino community in St. George and Washington County, helping them access different types of business resources as well as English classes.
“Utah Tech is now offering ESL, which the university never offered before until recently. So, that's another crucial thing that we're connecting them to. If we don't have the resources, I can try to connect them with what's available so they can take advantage of them,” Zavala says.
Suazo Business Center is headquartered in Salt Lake City, but its St. George location is inside Atwood Innovation Plaza at Utah Tech University located at 453 S 600 E, St. George, UT 84770. The Center is open to all members of the Greater St. George community—one does not have to be a student at Utah Tech University to take advantage of their services.
“We are thrilled to expand to southern Utah and the Washington County area. With the region’s growth and population changes, there is an ever-increasing need for our services,” says Silvia Castro, the Suazo Center’s President and CEO.
“Utah Tech University has been a great partner, working together to better serve our historically underrepresented community, where they live and work. In the past, diverse business owners were driving all the way to Salt Lake City to be served. Now, we can meet them where they are,” she added, when asked about the Center opening a location at Atwood Innovation Plaza.
To contact the St. George office, call the main number at (801) 521-1709. Walk-in hours in St. George are Mondays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.. However, people can make an appointment to meet with Zavala during other hours.
Elainna Ciaramella is a business journalist and writer living in St. George. Elainna interviews business owners, researchers, university leaders, and c-suite executives from all over the country. Her curiosity is endless and she is constantly seeking information that will intrigue and inspire readers.