Para leer en español, presión aquí: Empoderar: La misión de Lindsey Navarro
By Axel "Lola" Rosa
Lindsey Navarro is the founder and Executive Director of El Centro Inc., a 501(c)(3)nonprofit organization providing financial literacy and entrepreneurial training in Spanish to the Latino/Hispanic community in south Louisiana. Many know her for her bright smile, vibrant personality, work ethic, ambition, and, most importantly, because she’s probably the only person who honestly and wholeheartedly helped a favorite Latino/Hispanic business, such as a coffee shop or taco spot file the necessary paperwork to be able to operate. So what drives this Mardi Gras-loving, Panamanian descent, Houma, LA-born and raised, entrepreneurial-driven woman to do her work?
Her mother, Gloria Navarro, was a commercial banker for nearly four decades and the first female Market President at b1Bank. Her late father, Juan Navarro, was a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur designing and implementing sugar mill factory equipment and specializing in providing consulting services for the sugar cane and beet industry. As a child, she had the opportunity to spend all her summers with her grandparents in Panama, where they owned a distribution center. “I would wake up in the morning and help my grandmother check in all her customers. They would drop off all the merchandise in the mornings, and we would return to the office and count money from 8 o’clock (PM) to midnight.” Navarro cherished these moments and recognized her family’s entrepreneurial spirit. “My grandfather’s brothers all had businesses as well, and some were bankers, so I grew up in an environment where being an entrepreneur was a thing.”
Navarro holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from St. Peter’s University. Initially, her goal after earning her bachelor’s was to attend law school. She lost interest in that path, even with accomplished opportunities such as working at a law firm and the District Attorney’s office and interviewing for an internship with the Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation. “I knew I wanted to continue my education, so I had to do some sort of a Master’s (Degree) in something.” She had a boyfriend in college who was studying international business, and she used to review all his papers. She jokes, “He used to say, ‘You know you should study marketing. You’re really good at this.’ I was like, ‘Ahhhhh, no thanks!’ I was stubborn about getting my degree and didn’t want to be one of those kids who switched majors.”
Little did she know she would later get an MBA from Loyola University New Orleans and start her own business almost a decade later.
After earning her MBA, Navarro began working for LiftFund, a non-profit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and Community Development Corporation (CDC) that supports small business owners through small business loans and technical support. During her seven years with LiftFund, Navarro was instrumental in deploying more than $1.2 million in microloans to Latino/Hispanic entrepreneurs across Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, and Tennessee.
“I had traveled a lot of the U.S. and saw in 2015 that the organizations providing financial literacy didn’t have language accessible services even in metropolitan areas where the Latino/Hispanic population was larger.” She began her work at home and opened El Centro in March 2018. The first program launched in August through a microgrant from the Mexican Consulate of New Orleans, where El Centro provided services through their financial literacy window (Ventanilla de Educación Financiera) with monthly workshops and one-on-one coaching to customers coming through the Mexican Consulate.
Since launching, El Centro has served more than 6,000 Spanish-speaking individuals via seminars and consultations and has reached more than 190,000 virtually. In 2021, El Centro, operating with just one volunteer, facilitated the deployment of $174,000 in microgrants to ITIN (Income Taxpayer Identification Number) holders and helped customers gain access to more than $250,000 in PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) and EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster) loans.
Ana Gonzalez, owner of La Vaquerita (The Cowgirl), a Mexican clothing store in Gretna, remembers the difficulties of starting her business and how people tried to take advantage due to her language barrier. “I lost a lot of money and business because no one spoke Spanish or wanted to help with documentation and processes,” said Gonzalez. She remembers thanking God the first time she heard about El Centro at the Algiers Flea Market. “A young lady passed out flyers and said, ‘We help you with your business. If you’re opening your business, we can help you and we speak Spanish.” Gonzalez made an appointment with Navarro. Thanks to Navarro and her organization’s efforts, Gonzalez secured a retail space for her clothing store soon after. “Lindsey personally took care of me. She took me by the hand, went with me, and spoke to the landlord about securing this location for me.” Beyond that, Navarro recommended that Gonzalez take computer courses offered at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “I learned more about my business and using a computer. Now I’m not afraid of the computer,” chuckled Gonzalez.
Aside from contributing to the economic development of Louisiana and providing free programming to the Latino community, Navarro loves to “Let the Good Times Roll!”. She is one of the co-founders and holds a legacy position at the Krewe of Themis, an all-women’s krewe that believes in social justice and community service. “I love it; we are a mixed crew. Very, very diverse. We have a great time parading!” Navarro wanted to be a part of a krewe for a good time and to relay a message to young Latinas. Themis’s signature throw is a hand-decorated umbrella. “Last year, all my umbrellas were themed ‘Poderosas (Powerful Women)’ like an homage to our Latinidad (Latina Identity).” Holding back tears, she adds, “Who doesn’t dream of being at a parade, Uptown? I imagine myself as a little girl reaching for a special throw and catching an umbrella from a woman who looks like me and hands a powerful message around Latinidad. That was a great opportunity to say, ‘Share your heritage and be proud of who you are because WE ARE PODEROSAS’”.
Navarro’s work won’t slow down anytime soon. As the Latino/Hispanic Spanish-speaking community grows, so does El Centro. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 62.1 million Hispanics in the U.S. in 2020; in 2060, the population will reach 111 million. By then, roughly 1 in 4 Americans will be Hispanic. Navarro highlighted this paragraph from the book Uncolonized Latina by Valeria Aloe, MBA: “We (Latinas) open businesses at the highest rate across all population groups. We are the engine of the American economy, contributing a massive $2.6 trillion to the US GDP. This figure is so significant that if we were our own country, we would be the eighth largest economy in the world.”
Navarro is working to serve these entrepreneurs. Last month, El Centro received a three-year grant of $450,000 to provide language-accessible wealth-building programs for 400 Latino residents of New Orleans as part of the Economic Mobility in Motion project. They continue to receive significant grants from organizations that believe in the impact of the various programs provided by El Centro.
Navarro’s upbringing, education, and personal experiences throughout her life have contributed to her strong business mindset and success. Her ambition to identify and find solutions to problems and create change is unmatched! Like most like-minded entrepreneurs who find their calling or knack, Navarro’s calling is to change how Latinos gain financial access.
When she’s not decorating umbrellas or sailing on her boat, you can find her fighting for change within her community with a big smile while encouraging a network of Latino business owners to take the next step in their careers or businesses. One thing is sure: Navarro is a proud Latina living in the U.S. “I love our heritage, I love our culture.” With a hand in the air, she says, “I am a Latina. Loud and Proud!”