Born and raised in the Bronx, Esmeralda Herrera is an ecosystem builder who works at the intersection of business and social impact to support local entrepreneurs. As Director of Programs and Community Relations at Communitas America, Esmeralda manages an accelerator in the Bronx that works directly with founders – primarily women and entrepreneurs of color – to help build, launch, and expand social ventures that reach vulnerable communities. Esmeralda Herrera is driven by innovative approaches to creating impact. She is passionate about equity and social justice to ensure vulnerable communities have opportunities to flourish. Previously she worked with international organizations in India and China that empower local changemakers to revitalize their local economy. Coming soon to the South Bronx, the Communitas America will be located at Heyground, an innovation hub for the BIPOC entrepreneurial community, which will offer much needed affordable space and critical startup resources to help changemakers flourish together.
I was born and raised in the South Bronx, this is my home. I love the Bronx. It made me who I am, it taught me how to maneuver in this world, it informed my mannerisms, my accent, and so much about me.
When I was asked as a little girl what I was going to be when I grew up, I always answered: “I’m gonna go abroad to learn something and then bring it back to my community so that I can contribute to a positive change.” A lot of this mentality stemmed from my misunderstanding of knowledge or limited resources in the Bronx that would later change in life. But apparently, I knew from a young age that that was going to be my path. After I finished school, I had an opportunity to go abroad. In my last post I was working for a social enterprise accelerator in Bihar, India. As short as ten years ago, Bihar was known for their large kidnapping industry and a high murder rate for people from different castes and foreigners alike. New York Magazine described it as “hell on earth”. And yet, the social enterprise accelerator I supported was working with women entrepreneurs (which is still hard in some parts of India for cultural reasons), because they understood that if you empowered women, you were impacting entire communities. In that sense, the Bronx and Bihar share a lot of commonalities; they’re both stigmatized to death but once you actually look under the hood of what communities need and care about, you get a different picture.
When I returned to the U.S. and joined Communitas America, at first I couldn’t believe that people in my home community here in the Bronx were really doing this – putting entrepreneurial minds and skills to work to solve some of the local issues we face.
I couldn’t believe it because having grown up in an under-resourced community my exposure was limited.
Upon more reflection, I realized that this entrepreneurial drive has always been a part of my life but I had to learn to redefine it. Today as I support entrepreneurs across NYC, many mostly based in the Bronx, I hope that my community and our local economy can thrive. But I want to do it on our terms. That might sound selfish but I think it’s vital for local community members to recognize that they themselves are the thought leaders they’ve been waiting for and that they themselves are able to create the solutions we need locally.”
Social entrepreneurship in the Bronx
“As with many under-resourced communities in the U.S., the Bronx experienced a lot of red lining that – to this day – causes severe limitations. A lot of redline areas are places where rates of homeownership are low, poverty runs high, educational opportunities are severely lagging behind the national average, people live in food deserts and are generally less healthy than the average American.
For example, the Bronx has been the unhealthiest county in all of New York state for the past eleven years. We worked with an entrepreneur who was a teacher for fifteen years and started creating a curriculum for schools that was connected to the community garden so that schools can teach students how to grow their own food.This is how local entrepreneurs are defining as local answers.
People in the Bronx are more likely to talk about community leadership than social entrepreneurship but the idea of ownership and looking out for your community is the same.
As I mentioned, health is a huge issue here. Out of 70 social entrepreneurs who have gone through our programs to date, 30% have focused on improving health outcomes.
Maurelhena Walles, for example, launched a company called Equity Design that looks at how we look at facilities and how we can bring in more physical activity to institutions and their constituents. Imagine a school that has no equipment other than the classroom they teach in. Or a senior center with limited resources. Maurelhena and her team are able to tailor health, fitness and wellbeing programs to what any given institution has at hand to ensure that under-resourced communities have access to a healthier lifestyle.
On the education side, one major issue in the Bronx is that we have a high dropout rate: 28% of students in the Bronx don’t finish highschool compared to a national average of 13%. We have the lowest number of students who are graduating highschool and going to college from New York City. One reason is the lack of guidance counselors. On average, New York City supports one guidance counselor per 200 students – which is already a stretch. In the Bronx, that ratio is closer to 325:1, even though students from under-resourced communities like ours simply have a bigger need for additional support. In 2020 alone, we saw higher dropout rates because the few guidance counselors were not able to absorb the additional stress of police brutality and the impact of COVID-19.
One of the entrepreneurs in our acceleration program, Amber Peters, created an app for download which is called On Track: The app helps a student be able to keep up with application deadlines themselves, to inform them how they can take the initiative themselves instead of relying on an overworked and under-resourced guidance counselor.
Lastly, since I brought up the issue of food deserts, I want to mention Floritza Gomez, founder of Flor’s Flavor. As a health coach in New York, she recognized that our communities were less healthy because they simply lacked access to healthy choices in our local stores. Suppliers assume that they won’t be able to sell healthy foods in the Bronx and Floritza was able to collect data to figure out what people wanted, what their budget was and give them some actual choices in their price range.”
How does Communitas America support entrepreneurs?
“Our main mission is to support the social impact ecosystem in underserved communities and we do that in three ways:
Number one, which has yet to begin but hopefully will open up in June of 2021, is an innovation hub, six stories right in the smackdab of the South Bronx in one of the biggest foot traffic areas where different non-profits and entrepreneurs can gather, have a space to showcase their work and collaborate.
Number two is our social impact accelerator program. The Communitas Ventures Accelerator is a three-month-long social entrepreneur accelerator program that focuses on social impact community leaders. During that time, the changemakers go through our curriculum and regularly hear from different speakers and get mentorship which is key to our program” Speakers are really relevant. I think a lot about how to bring different types of local, citywide and international thought leaders that are a representation of our founders’ background and bring really relevant insights for these entrepreneurs. We want program participants to walk away with a more solidified pitch and more viable business plans as well as more confidence in their abilities.
Thirdly, one startup is awarded $10,000 to move their venture forward. We don’t have a lot of funding but we can push forward one person with an award of $10,000 so they can pilot what they’re doing. A lot of them are already bootstrapping and sometimes we have an opportunity to provide a second prize of $5,000.”
What’s your advice for idea-stage social entrepreneurs?
“I believe in the power of community above all. We have entrepreneurs from different cohorts who met through our roundtables and have established a deep connection with one another. It’s not unusual for me to get a text message at night from one of our female participants saying “Because I found these women, I feel like I won a million dollars!” These womxn entrepreneurs are grinding to the bone, they know every resource that there is in the city; in fact, they have probably exhausted their local resources, and they don’t even entirely serve their needs but they’ll get them to where they need to go. They feel a part of the community and every time we ask them what their biggest biggest takeaway is from the program they say “I now have a community of not just entrepreneurs, of not just social entrepreneurs, but women of color entrepreneurs who support me, who will die for me, and I think that’s great!
So aside from researching what resources are available to you, my advice would be honing in and creating a community for yourself. Get a rally behind your idea!”
How can we support you in your work?
“Support your BIPOC and women businesses locally! It’s the simplest and most impactful way to help social entrepreneurs out! For us personally, we’re always interested in meeting potential new mentors who resonate with our social impact mission and who want to become more involved with the Bronx and its women and BIPOC founders. Join our community because the bigger and more diverse we are, the better our perspective will be!”
Bronx, New York, US
Clinton AIF Fellow. Community builder and program manager. Die-hard Bronx rep.