Catholic Charities Omaha: Erasing Poverty through Entrepreneurship

Innovative member agency program seeks to break the cycle of poverty 

As a cleaning professional for six years, Sylvia Sanchez Enciso had gotten used to working into the evenings, missing her children’s soccer practices and working on weekends. “I would work until 6:30 p.m. Monday to Friday,” Sylvia says. “Often, I would work weekends too, at least Saturday.”  

Her friends told her to look into a program at the Juan Diego Center, a hub for Catholic Charities of Omaha (CC Omaha) that provides a variety of emergency and supportive services to Nebraskans in south Omaha. Her friends shared that the center’s innovative Microbusiness and Asset Development Training Program was an opportunity for her to learn critical skills she could use to start her own business and take control of her work and life.  

“Before I came to the Juan Diego Center, I was thinking about starting my own [cleaning services] business,” says Sylvia through a Spanish language interpreter. “But I didn’t know how to do it. When my co-worker told me about the program, I didn’t think twice, I went right away.”  

CC Omaha has been helping members of the community, like Sylvia, through its microbusiness program for over 27 years. It’s one of the many ways CC Omaha helps to combat poverty in its community by providing low-to-moderate income adults with business knowledge, resources and capital to become small business owners. 

“Poverty is a major issue in our community here in Omaha and it’s a major issue in every community,” says Father Mike Eckley, Executive Director of CC Omaha. “This program helps people break that cycle of poverty and to find new hope and new opportunity…new promise.”  

CC Omaha has helped clients in the microbusiness program launch over 1,500 new ventures through a proven three-pronged approach, with an ever-expanding offering of resources and educational opportunities. At the core of the program is business training through a 16-class course taught over eight weeks that covers all the basics — writing marketing plans, branding, identifying target markets and audiences, understanding taxes and accounting, creating financial projections, securing insurance, and formalizing a human resources function.  

Tailored trainings are available for an in-depth personal financial education, while also learning basic computer skills and QuickBooks for accounting, invoicing, payroll and payment functions. Clients can also apply to the Cleaning Academy, an eight-class course that teaches industry best practices and standards, chemical safety, and health and safety regulations. Upon completion, graduates receive a certification from the Cleaning Management Institute, one of the most recognized education and certification providers in the professional cleaning industry.  

After graduating from the academy, Sylvia felt her knowledge and skills acquired over her six years in the profession were validated. “It showed me that what I had been doing all those years was correct,” she says. And learning the regulatory side of business management helped her feel confident as she became an owner. “I didn’t know about OSHA,” says Sylvia about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a regulatory agency for the United States Department of Labor.  

The microbusiness program offers two additional core educational components to clients — business loans and technical assistance with on-going learning and support. CC Omaha offers micro loans of up to $10,000 for clients who successfully complete the training program, submit a feasible business plan, and complete a loan application.  

“The microloan program helps people get on their feet,” says Theresa Swoboda, Vice President of Program Services at CC Omaha. “People maybe aren’t bankable at the time, and it really establishes a foundation for them.”  

Business partners Wilfredo Amador and Fredi Tornes sought out the microbusiness program to build a foundation for a new construction business after Wilfredo moved his family from California to western Iowa, near Omaha’s eastern border. Wilfredo teamed his years of sales experience with Fredi’s years of construction experience, and through the microbusiness program they launched T&A Construction, LLC in early 2020.   

“The training and staff in the business program helped us understand all the licensing requirements and insurance,” says Wilfredo. “They also helped connect us to the City of Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s REACH program that helps small construction businesses meet all the necessary requirements to be a legal business and be hired as a sub-contractor by the city and large private contractors.” 

The technical assistance curriculum of the microbusiness program is focused on CC Omaha staff helping clients refine processes and find business solutions to a wide range of issues.  

These are the breaks in the cycle of poverty that CC Omaha’s microbusiness program seeks to create. “This program is one way that recognizes the dignity of the individual and rewards that person who wants to work hard and take a risk,” says Father Mike.  

With over 25 years of operating a successful model to stop the cycle of poverty in its community, CC Omaha applied to Catholic Charities USA’s Innovation Challenge that encouraged member agencies to develop and implement innovative solutions that have the potential to alleviate, reduce, or eliminate poverty. Their proposal was to reach outside of Omaha to train other member agency staff on how to implement their proven model.  

In October 2020, CC Omaha was announced as the winner in the small agency category for their proposal to end poverty through entrepreneurship. The three-year project aims to deliver an online microbusiness model to budding entrepreneurs at six Catholic Charities member agencies across the U.S., providing low-to-moderate income adults with business knowledge, resources and capital to become small business owners.  

In the first year, CC Omaha added staff and capacity in the business specialist and training roles. In August 2021 they officially launched their first microbusiness program outside of Omaha by engaging the Catholic Charities member agency in Puerto Rico.  

“We launched with Puerto Rico because they’ve been through a lot with natural disasters and they have been greatly impacted by COVID-19,” says Father Mike. “Catholic Charities USA saw an opportunity for us to work together and drive new beginnings and to help get their economy going.” 

The CC Omaha team quickly discovered the need to adapt many of their processes, resources and learning materials as they began to develop the program for Puerto Rico.   

“We went through a long and thoughtful process with Padre Enrique, the Executive Director in Puerto Rico, to ensure we got the program right,” says Russell Rieck, Director of Microbusiness and Asset Development for CC Omaha. “There was a lot of learning regarding the cultural and governmental differences between the mainland U.S. and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”  

Another big adjustment was to the technical assistance and guidance given to clients during or after the training related to business plans and market research and procuring the correct certifications and licenses.  

“In the business world there is a lot of uncertainty. We teach our clients that there’s not just a straight path,” says Karol Gonzalez Rivera, a Business Specialist at CC Omaha who teaches most of the training to clients. “You have to be creative, innovative and find a solution. We are applying that same mindset to our project right now. We have to be adaptable and find solutions that will work.”    

“It’s been a great learning experience for the team and agency overall,” says Father Mike. “Sure, it might be easier to go to an agency closer to where we are culturally and with similar business regulations. But we’ve learned a lot from working with Puerto Rico.”  

The CC Omaha team has been actively searching for two additional member agencies they can engage over the next 12 months. In the final year of their three-year plan, they will add three more agencies to reach their Innovation Challenge grant goal of engaging six member agencies in total.