Still Open for Business: Working with Minority-Owned Rural Firms through the Pandemic


Racially and ethnically diverse populations comprise 21 percent of rural America—but produced 83 percent of its growth between 2000 and 2010, a trend that has continued since. Along with that, enterprising Latinx, Black and Indigenous entrepreneurs are launching businesses bringing new life to many rural communities – and creating better livelihoods for their owners and employees. But what has happened to these firms during the COVID-19 crisis? And how are rural development organizations adapting what they do to help these firms to get through the emergency and recover?

In this first Rural Opportunity and Development (ROAD) Session, rural minority business owners detailed their recent experiences, in partnered conversation with the regional intermediaries who have been helping them with technical assistance, funding and advocacy.

Our Speakers

Yesenia Peck

Yesenia Peck, Vice President of the Board, Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Yesenia defines herself as a “servant immigrant for the community of Nebraska.” Besides her day job as diversity and inclusion manager for the Nebraska Public Power District, she has volunteered for more than 13 years with the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, for which she currently serves as vice president, and was recently appointed by Governor Pete Ricketts to the Nebraska Latino American Commission.

Guadalupe Millan

Guadalupe Millan, Owner, All United Building Maintenance

Guadalupe is a bilingual entrepreneur who since 2009 has owned and managed the cleaning service company All United Building Maintenance. Based in Omaha, Nebraska, Guadalupe’s company serves urban, suburban and rural clients.

Vanessa Roanhorse

Vanessa Roanhorse, Co-Founder, Native Women Lead and CEO, Roanhorse Consulting

Vanessa is one of eight co-founders of Native Women Lead, an organization dedicated to growing Native women into positions of leadership and business. She is an inclusive solutions-driven problem-solver committed to social, environmental and economic change. A citizen of the Navajo Nation, she co-launched Roanhorse Consulting, an indigenous women-led think tank, in 2016. Vanessa is a 2020 Conscious Company Media’s World Changing Women in Sustainable Business awardee. 

Ahtza Dawn Chavez

Ahtza Dawn Chavez, Executive Director of NAVA Education Project and Owner, IndigeLens Media

Ahtza is a member of the Diné Nation. She is the owner of IndigeLens Media, which seeks to showcase indigenous voices, enhance tribal community, promote social entrepreneurship and increase the visibility of authentic representations of indigenous culture and language. Ahtza is also the executive director of the Native American Voters Alliance, where she has worked on GOTV campaigns in Indian Country (Navajo, Apache and Pueblo), and the fight for tribal broadband access.

Cynthia Terry

Cynthia Terry, Director of Entrepreneurship, Communities Unlimited

Cynthia supports entrepreneurs and startup businesses in her role with Communities Unlimited, a CDFI and Rural Development Hub serving the rural South. She also facilitates strategic, marketing, financial and operations planning sessions for business owners and entrepreneurs. For the past 16 years, Cynthia has been a practicing lawyer in Tennessee and, along with her husband, is the owner of two small businesses.

Cassandra Williams

Cassandra Williams, Senior Vice President of Community and Economic Development, Hope Enterprise Corporation

Cassandra works with small businesses and firms, connecting them to resources and supporting them through the funding process. Previously, Cassandra was HOPE’s Regional Branch Administrator for the Greater Memphis area.

Toni Walker

Toni Walker, Executive Director, Precious Hearts Student Center

In 2010, Toni founded the “Precious Hearts” Student Center, a 501[c][3] multi-purpose organization designed to serve and meet the needs of the citizens in Pine Bluff and surrounding communities. Precious Hearts has earned the highest certification available in the state of Arkansas as Arkansas State Quality Approved Better Beginnings STAR 3 for Child Care Ages 0-13. The center also provides mentoring and job skills to teens and young single mothers, a Community Food Bank, transportation for children and adults to and from school and work, among other activities.

The Moderator

Dell Gines

Dell Gines, Senior Community Development Advisor, Omaha Branch-Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City

Dell L. Gines focuses on innovative community development strategies designed to help transform rural and inner-city communities. Dell is a nationally recognized speaker on the subject of entrepreneurship based economic development and is the author of the Grow Your Own Guide, a primer on how to build urban and rural economies using entrepreneurship.

About the Rural Opportunity and Development Sessions

The ROAD Sessions will highlight and unpack rural development ideas and strategies that are critical in response to COVID-19 and to long-term rebuilding and recovery. Each month this summer, the ROAD Sessions will feature stories of on-the-ground practitioners who have experience, wisdom and savvy to share. The series will reflect and emphasize the full diversity of rural America, spotlight rural America’s assets and challenges, and lift voices and lived experience from a wide range of rural communities and economies. Each Session will include an added opportunity for peer exchange. Overall, the ROAD Sessions aim to infuse practitioner stories and lessons into rural narratives, policymaking and practice across the country, and to strengthen the network of organizations serving rural communities and regions.

The ROAD Sessions virtual exchanges are co-designed and hosted by the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, the Housing Assistance Council, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership and Rural LISC.

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