Cristina Villanueva is helping to uplift Latino business owners in Milwaukee and beyond | WUWM 89.7 FM

Cristina Villanueva’s mission is to help and uplift Latino business owners throughout Milwaukee. Villanueva is the owner of Ambas Financial Services LLC, a bilingual tax preparation and accounting business serving Milwaukee’s south side. He is also the co-founder of negozee, a social learning platform aimed at Hispanic entrepreneurs across the country.

For Villanueva, her interest in entrepreneurship began when she was a student at South Division High School. She says her teacher, Vicki Kalman, had a passion for teaching her students about accounting and finance, something that stayed with Villanueva.

Villanueva followed that path by working for a national tax firm while also being the go-to person for her family and friends for tax help.

“People would come and bring me their letters and I’d say, ‘Wow, they just need somebody to help them and I called [the] The IRS came with them to translate,” Villanueva recalled.

As she noticed an explosion in new Latino business owners in Milwaukee, she changed directions and founded Ambas in 2017 to meet the growing need for bilingual services. Villanueva notes that she started with just over 100 customers that have now grown to about 1,000 through word of mouth and community outreach alone.

“It’s definitely evolved, especially since COVID,” he says. “I’ve noticed that there was a huge demand for Latinos to have access to resources. And that’s where negozee came in now because we were noticing that there were all these amazing programs available for them, like the PPP loan and grants and help for their business, but they had no access to it.”

The app offers access to education, resources, networking, classes and more to help entrepreneurs succeed and grow. 100% in Spanish also serves Hispanic entrepreneurs beyond Milwaukee, and Villanueva said she was surprised at first to realize how few Spanish-language resources there were.

“But at the same time it shouldn’t be a surprise … because it’s not that the resource isn’t there, it’s that a lot of these Latino business owners don’t have a relationship with any bank, so they don’t have a personal banker who is able to give them help with their finances,” he explains.

“So I don’t want to say that we as the United States haven’t done a good job of creating resources, but we haven’t done a good job of finding a way to connect that resource to the end user,” Villanueva adds.

The average negozee member is a Latina mom who is about 39 years old and has one or two employees in their business according to Villanueva. He says part of the resource’s growth is due to the company meeting clients where they are and guiding them long-term to successful growth.

“I’m drawn to negozee because now I can help someone like my mother who is probably starting a business and doesn’t know the language. So our own community gives back to each other,” says Villanueva. “There are professionals here who have the knowledge or are those experts and then help the small business owner get them where they need to go.”

He says in order for Latino businesses to succeed in the Milwaukee area, a space needs to be created for Latino entrepreneurs to share their stories and create a support system. Villanueva says there also needs to be an emphasis on financial literacy for business owners and education on how business owners can get to the next level.

“There’s such a great need. Latinos have been crying out for help … and it honestly makes me so happy to see all these diverse communities now come together in Milwaukee and we’re moving in the right direction,” she says.

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