About 80 business owners and entrepreneurs were on hand Saturday as Norfolk hosted its first Latino Small Business Conference at the Lifelong Learning Center.

Juan Sandoval, assistant director of the Nebraska Business Development Center in Norfolk, was of the event’s organizers.

“It was great. It was a great event,” Sandoval said. “We brought a speaker from Grand Island, one from Omaha, and I did a session, as well. We had really good attendance, and we were really happy with the results.”

The Norfolk conference was the last in a series of three that took place this year. The same gathering was conducted in Grand Island and Omaha on the Saturdays prior to the Norfolk conference. This was the second year the conferences have taken place in Nebraska. It was created last year as a partnership between SCORE, the Nebraska Business Development Center and Nebraska Extension Hall County through the Rural Prosperity Initiative.

“We started last year,” Sandoval said. “The whole idea was to connect Latino entrepreneurs to resources.”

Sandoval said the COVID pandemic revealed weaknesses in communication that were especially detrimental to Latino business owners because they struggled to access assistance that helped so many other businesses during that difficult time.

“What we knew at that time was that a lot of people after COVID didn’t receive assistance from the state or federal level,” Sandoval said. “They were impacted in some way, and they were looking for resources — they were looking for a small loan or looking for people that could help in different ways.”

Sandoval said the idea was to create an event that would help business owners and entrepreneurs take a preventative approach to emergencies like a pandemic or natural disaster rather than be reactive.

The 2021 conferences drew a total of 150 individuals and were conducted in Grand Island and Omaha. This year’s conferences drew a total of 300 attendees and vendors.

Featured speakers included Marta Sonia Londoño, who founded the Midwest Business and Projects in 2020.

Currently, Londoño’s group has a contract with the Nebraska State Department of Economic Development to provide strategic guidance to Latino businesses and ensure their sustainable growth by working in partnership with various organizations and educational entities.

“We were able to share information about the ARPA funds coming through the state,” Sandoval said.

A representative from the Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s REACH Program, which focuses on construction, gave a presentation on tips for estimating construction project costs.

Sandoval spoke at the event about entrepreneurial networking and steps business owners can take to increase their presence in the community, such as joining the chamber of commerce, participating in ribbon cutting ceremonies and business after-hours events, as well as getting involved in service clubs and various marketing platforms.

“There was a lot of information,” Sandoval said.

Plans for next year’s conferences are already in the beginning stages. Sandoval said other communities — including Scottsbluff and a city in Iowa — have reached out in hopes to bring a similar event there.

“It would be exciting to do it in a market where we haven’t done it so much. It would be even better to connect with businesses and talk about what they’re doing,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval said he, Londoño and Sandra Berrera, the University of Nebraska Extension educator for Hall County, have raised funds and handled the marketing and logistics for the events for the past two years.

He’s hoping to find a sponsor or sponsors to help fund next year’s conferences, and he’s hoping more people will take an interest in helping to organize the conferences in the future.

“We need a larger team,” Sandoval said. “That way we’ll be able to share responsibilities. ... It would be great to work directly with the chamber of commerce in those communities. That way it’s a benefit for the chamber of commerce and a benefit for us as a member of the university.”

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