by Shayai Lucero
Owning a small business is hard. Owning a small business in a rural area is even harder because entrepreneurs there struggle to access resources that are taken for granted in urban regions, including loans, healthcare and infrastructure. Unfortunately, most lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and even here in New Mexico aren’t aware of the challenges rural entrepreneurs face, and until they gain that understanding they won’t be able to take actionable steps to support rural entrepreneurs and the communities they serve.
I understand this because I purchased a floral design business in Old Laguna about 10 years ago from the previous owner, and almost immediately I faced a series of challenges.
The first major problem I had to tackle was getting a loan. Seeking capital wasn’t a choice, because no loan meant no business for me. I tried traditional banks, but ran into roadblocks almost immediately: I could not use my home as collateral. I am part of the Acoma and Laguna Pueblo, and I live on tribal land. While I own my home I do not own the land on which it sits, and thanks to a long history of mistrust and misunderstanding between Native Americans and non-native peoples, big banks generally do not comprehend the financial needs of native people.
Eventually, a smaller local bank took a gamble on me with a low-interest loan of $125,000. Without that loan–and my own persistence–I would not be in business today.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t get a lot easier for rural small business owners once our businesses are up and running. For example, whenever I or a family member need medical care, especially urgent care, it ends up being a serious burden on my business. Once when my dad was seriously ill, I had to drive him to the nearest hospital, which was 90 minutes away in Albuquerque. In order to take care of my dad I had to close up shop for the day, pick him up and then drive him to the hospital.
I’m not alone in trying to navigate these difficulties. A new report from Small Business Majority found 4 in 10 rural small business owners said accessing capital is a personal problem for them, while roughly 1 in 3 rural small businesses rated healthcare costs as one of the top issues facing their business.
The biggest challenge for rural small business owners, however, often has nothing to do with resources. Instead, it’s ignorance. I’ve had the privilege to advocate on behalf of Native and rural entrepreneurs many times over the years, and when I explain the challenges I face to traditional banks or government officials I’m sometimes met with blank faces because few people in positions of power know how to handle or help native people working in small businesses.
Fortunately, much can be done to help business owners like me. A good place to start would be for states and localities to use tax credits to incentivize investment in rural communities and to strengthen and expand local lending options, especially community banks that are more likely to serve rural entrepreneurs. Next, we must provide more options for consumers in counties that have few or no participating insurers in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces by allowing them to buy in to Medicare or Medicaid. Finally, we must ensure governmental support for physical infrastructure projects that directly benefit small business commercial enterprises.
In the meantime, I’m also doing all I can to make sure my voice is heard in Washington. I traveled to our nation’s capital during my busy season this year–two days before Valentine's Day–to share my story with lawmakers, policy experts and others who can help rural entrepreneurs.
Despite the many challenges I face every day, I’m proud to say I run a successful small business and make a positive difference in my community. Just imagine what I or others like me could achieve if lawmakers would make a sincere effort to address the needs of rural entrepreneurs.
Shayai Lucero owns Earth and Sky Floral Designs and Gallery in Old Laguna, New Mexico.