Providing support: Evolving program aids minority, female business owners

Luis Morteo (left) and Britney Neyen demonstrate a foot detox bath and shoulder massage at Gaia Waxing Beauty & Wellness Studio in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL

Chrystina Morteo performs a brow shaping on Candy Clemen at Gaia Waxing Beauty & Wellness Studio. PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL


As Chrystina Morteo forged her way into the entrepreneurial realm, it became clear that she wasn’t cut from the same cloth as many others in the business community.

Morteo said her Mexican-American heritage set her apart, especially in a small community. On top of that, being a woman only complicated efforts to get her foot in the door.

“Dubuque has a tendency to be a who-you-know type of community,” she said. “I think that is a big reason why I struggled getting the financing I needed.”

Morteo overcame these hurdles and now co-owns Gaia Waxing Beauty & Wellness Studio, a small business that occupied a storefront on Locust Street before recently transitioning to an expanded business model and a new location in the Millwork District.

During the past year, however, a sweeping pandemic and corresponding economic downturn threatened to undo the progress she worked so hard to attain. Against this backdrop, Morteo has been thankful for the Targeted Small Business Program, a statewide initiative that benefits dozens of Dubuque-area businesses.

Her business received funding through a special one-time grant program made available during the pandemic.

“It gave us the freedom and the ability to move forward,” she said.

Layers of support

Overseen by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the program offers multiple layers of support for businesses owned by women, minorities, individuals with disabilities and service-disabled veterans.

Iowa’s Targeted Small Business program dates back to the 1980s, according to Jill Lippincott, team lead of innovation and apprenticeship for the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

“These are historically disadvantaged groups,” Lippincott said. “We know women and minority-business owners typically have disadvantages when it comes to accessing capital and launching products and services in larger markets. This (program) tries to address that and give them a leg up.”

The Targeted Small Business program helps participating businesses in two primary ways.

First, it provides a financial boost through a regular loan program and, in the midst of the pandemic, a special grant allocation.

On top of that, the initiative offers certification for qualifying businesses. Certified entities join the Targeted Small Business directory, which provides increased exposure, enhanced networking opportunities and an opportunity to learn.

Despite its lengthy history, the program has evolved significantly in recent years. Previously overseen by the Department of Inspections and Appeals, IEDA took over the Targeted Small Business certification program in 2017. Soon after, IEDA launched a new website for the initiative and introduced new application portals that provided easier access for businesses.

The number of certified businesses has leapt from 368 at the conclusion of Fiscal Year 2016 to around 900 today. This includes about 30 entities in Dubuque County.

PS Styling, of Dubuque, is among them. Owner Jessica Pfohl Paisley, a Hispanic woman, said the company provides image consultation and coordinates community events around fashion.

“A big part of (being certified) is just access,” Pfohl Paisley said. “It has connected me to others in the industry.”

Safety net

Pfohl Paisley said the program helped her in another way in the past year.

The pandemic dealt a major blow to PS Styling, leading to the cancellation of the large-scale events that served as a major part of the business.

On top of that, Pfohl Paisley’s mother fell ill with COVID-19 and required a lengthy hospitalization. Because her mother had provided 50% of the child care for Pfohl Paisley’s young daughter, the sudden illness forced Pfohl Paisley to stay at home and limited her ability to work.

The Targeted Small Business grant program provided a major boost, infusing the cash needed for PS Styling to build out an expanded virtual presence that kept the business afloat.

“It allowed us to pivot,” Pfohl Paisley said.

Overall, the recent, one-time round of Targeted Small Business grants benefited 364 businesses and provided more than $600,000.

Morteo, of Gaia Waxing Beauty & Wellness Studio, said the pandemic forced her business to close completely for two full months. She credited an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, distributed by the U.S. Small Business Administration, for helping the business avoid a worst-case scenario. The funding from the Targeted Small Business program allowed the business to transition forward.

Morteo in November combined her waxing studio with a massage and spa business operated by her brother. They opened the newly merged entity at 1065 Jackson St. in the Millwork District in November.

Morteo attributes the positive momentum in part to the support provided by the Targeted Small Business initiative.

“It was a godsend,” she said. “With what my business had been through, the support was life-saving.”

Jeff Montgomery writes for the Telegraph Herald.

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