Amid the agricultural region of Central Valley, Leonor Hipólito and Wells Fargo are teaching children the skills to become small business owners.
As a little girl in Michoacán, Mexico, Leonor Hipólito was called the “mango lady” — teased for selling mango preserves on the streets made from her dad’s fruit harvest.
The school was a 30-minute trek across a river. Flood? No school. And no school either if she didn’t first grind corn for her family to make masa dough for tortillas.
“I always dreamt of someone going to my parents and telling them, ‘Your daughter is smart and she needs to go to school,’” Hipólito said. “I wish someone would have grabbed me by the arm and taken me to school.
“I know my parents loved me, but they didn’t see those opportunities and thought things couldn’t be that way,” she said. “I see the same thing happen here in Madera and Fresno counties in the Central Valley of California. I want to be that person who comes alongside families and says, ‘Yes, your children can do this.’”
In one of the most underbanked areas in the U.S. — Fresno and Bakersfield in the Central Valley were among the top 10 nationally — Hipólito is now that encourager, changing futures and growing entrepreneurship among children through her nonprofit called Pequeños Empresarios.
Spanish for “young entrepreneurs,” Pequeños Empresarios teaches courses on language, leadership, personal growth, finance, business operations, manners, environmental stewardship, and other topics to children ages 7 to 12.
Yahaira Barron, a personal banker at Wells Fargo’s Madera branch, taught personal finance each Friday during Pequeños Empresarios’ spring session at Sierra Vista Elementary School. She also helps host students and parents at her branch for the program’s annual visit. (In response to COVID-19, programming has temporarily shifted to Zoom teleconferencing.)
“I never thought children this young would be as interested as they are in the money,” Barron said. “As a member of the Latino community myself, it’s important to me to help other Latinos learn how important banking and money management are to success — saving money, making money, setting future goals, and how business works.
“I love it when current students and graduates come in and say, ‘Hey, that’s the girl who helped me start saving!’ I know I made an impact on a child’s life that, some four years later, they still remember me and the guidance from those Wells Fargo Hands on Banking® program lessons.”
Hipólito founded Pequeños Empresarios after a medical crisis interrupted her own entrepreneurism — a dessert shop and business making traditional dance suits and dresses she’d started with her husband.
“A doctor told me that there was a 99% chance that I could end up in a wheelchair,” she said. “Fortunately, that was not the case, but it was that moment in which I changed my course of life. I asked myself what legacy I wanted to leave on this earth, and that time alone allowed me to see the need in my community: to support it by helping build a better future for children.
“That is when the idea of Pequeños Empresarios was born. We started with Spanish lessons in our backyard because we wanted kids to fall in love with Spanish and their families, and to grow their values.”
Hipólito said Wells Fargo has been a key ally for Pequeños Empresarios, providing its first corporate support in 2014 and encouraging others to follow suit, which ended a reliance on hot chocolate and tamale sales to fund operations.
To date, Wells Fargo has awarded Pequeños Empresarios with more than $75,000 in grants and provided volunteers and other guidance, including how to incorporate as a nonprofit.
“What impresses me most about Leonor is the spirit she injects into all of the organization’s programs and the bond she establishes with each of the kids,” said Tim Rios, Wells Fargo Community Relations senior manager for Central California. “She’s a born leader, but also a gifted and creative artist who consistently finds new ways to connect with children and their parents. When she teaches, children forget they’re learning.
“The financial education and coaching her organization provides is essential given the large unbanked and underbanked populations in Fresno and Madera counties, and through the lifelong skills taught, Leonor is helping children discover their voice.”
Delfina Arenas marvels at what Pequeños Empresarios has done for her and her 12-year-old daughter, Luna Montero.
She said Luna has gained the confidence to speak up in school and ask more questions (which further improved her grades), and is now financially savvy and entrepreneurial.
As a result, Arenas said Luna became banked and mastered saving and distinguishing needs from wants long before she did. Luna is already dreaming of launching Luna Cosmetics one day and started a YouTube channel to begin building her brand and making connections.
“When we became part of Pequeños Empresarios in 2014, Luna was very shy, and I was looking for a program that would bring her out of her shell,” Arenas said. “It has definitely delivered.”
When an injury left her unable to work, Arenas tapped what she’d learned from Luna to start her own sales business — one of many examples of Pequeños Empresarios’ students becoming their families’ teachers.
“Thanks to Pequeños Empresarios, I have that steady income to support my family as a single mother and reach our goals,” Arenas said. “My first was to purchase a truck, and I accomplished that. My next is to buy a house. I am so blessed.
“Pequeños Empresarios has shown us all how to be leaders and care and that we should all support each other. Working together, we’re so much stronger than we would ever be on our own.”