Aldimarys Gonzalez and her daughter Leah moved from Puerto Rico to Iowa when she was offered a job at Winnebago Industries. (3:16)
Small Business
October 24, 2019

Helping hurricane victims from Puerto Rico find jobs in the Midwest

Integrated Staffing Solutions is bringing together people in need of work after Hurricane Maria with Midwestern companies seeking employees, thanks to a Wells Fargo program for diverse small businesses.

Nota del editor:  También está disponible una versión en español de esta historia.

Rolando Borja had an idea to grow his small employment firm: Match people from Puerto Rico struggling to find work after Hurricane Maria with Midwestern companies struggling to find workers.

Beginning with motor home manufacturer Winnebago Industries in 2017, Borja’s company — Integrated Staffing Solutions of Minneapolis — has helped nearly 400 people like Aldimarys Gonzalez relocate to the U.S. mainland and build new careers and lives.

Since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, leaving 2,975 dead, homes and businesses destroyed, and other catastrophic damage, Gonzalez had been relying on her parents to care for her and her daughter.

Photo of Uri Camarena, director of Business Consulting for Meda.
“Capital — both short-term and long-term — is the primary need the Diverse Community Capital program helps solve here in Minneapolis and other Midwestern communities.” — Uri Camarena

“My life in Puerto Rico was simple,” Gonzalez said. “I was a single mom making $5 an hour and could only get 15 hours a week at a small grocery store. It was not enough for me to be able to support me and my daughter.

“I had a friend who had applied for a job at Winnebago through Integrated Staffing and who said it was a good opportunity you can try,” she said. “In December 2017, I had my first interview with Rolando and Integrated Staffing in Puerto Rico. He showed a video of the company and what they do at Winnebago.

“It gave me hope of things getting better with me and my daughter, and I said, ‘Yes, I want to do it.’”

Gonzalez is one of more than 103,000 people employed nationally as the result of the Wells Fargo Works for Small Business®: Diverse Community Capital program. Created in 2015, the program helps Integrated Staffing Solutions and other diverse-owned businesses create career opportunities by providing resources to Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFIs.

One such CDFI is the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, or Meda. Since its creation in 1971, the Minneapolis-based company has helped more than 20,000 entrepreneurs of color and aided the start up of more than 550 businesses to address rapidly rising poverty, crime, and unemployment in the community. Meda has received $3.25 million from the program, using it to help Integrated Staffing Solutions and 16 other businesses.

Through Winnebago’s relationship with Borja and Integrated Staffing Solutions, Gary McCarthy, Winnebago’s human resources director, said the company has added 98 assemblers. He said they bring a strong work ethic and much lower turnover rates than normally seen in manufacturing.

“Working with Rolando has really helped our business,” McCarthy said. “I knew someone in the Twin Cities who put him in contact with me. We have found it difficult to recruit people to the North Iowa location due to low unemployment hovering around 2% in the counties in the north part of the state.

“Without the help of these new employees, we would have had a difficult time maintaining our schedule.”

Building the capacity of CDFIs

To date, Wells Fargo has provided $115 million in grants and capital to 92 CDFIs, which, in turn, have made loans to 16,000 diverse-owned small businesses across the U.S. The money has also funded business coaching, legal advice, and other support these small businesses need to thrive and grow.

“We know from our 2015 Gallup Survey that there are many challenges facing diverse small business owners who try to start or grow a business,” said Connie Smith, manager of the Diverse Community Capital program for Wells Fargo. “CDFIs can help these business owners build their business acumen, credit, and ultimately access that credit at responsible rates. Through our philanthropy, we’re building the capacity of CDFIs to increase their lending and support to these entrepreneurs.”   

Uri Camarena, director of Business Consulting for Meda, said Wells Fargo’s support goes straight to the heart of the biggest problem Borja and other entrepreneurs face for growing their small businesses: not enough cash.

Photo of Rolando Borja, founder and CEO of Integrated Staffing Solutions.
“I went through all these hoops once myself and know that it wasn’t easy to find an apartment or to find a job or know much about potential employers. It’s very rewarding to see we’ve helped change lives for good." — Rolando Borja

“Capital — both short-term and long-term — is the primary need the Diverse Community Capital program helps solve here in Minneapolis and other Midwestern communities,” Camarena said. “Seventy six percent of our clients say this is their primary need and, in a market study we did of diverse entrepreneurs across Minnesota, 43% said they needed capital to continue to grow their businesses.”

Embracing new residents

Gonzalez, who started at Winnebago on Jan. 23, 2018, said the job and pay have made a world of difference for her and daughter, Leah, 8. Although gut-wrenching to leave her beloved Puerto Rico and family behind, she said she has felt loved and accepted in Forest City, Iowa, and now has her own apartment, car, food, and money.

Borja smoothed her transition by providing travel, housing, and other assistance until she could get established, and local churches even donated clothes as she adjusted to Iowa’s winters.

“It was a good change,” she said, “I feel better because I’m doing the best for me and for Leah, and I can give her a better life.”

The city and schools have embraced the new residents, offering English as a second language classes and creating registration forms in Spanish that workers can use to register their children even before they leave Puerto Rico. The North Iowa Area Community College holds evening classes for parents in the local library.

“Integrated Staffing has brought many, many new Winnebago employees to our community,” said Beth Bilyeu, Forest City’s director of economic development. “This has meant new families to our area, new students in our schools, and a welcome diversity to our population.”

Bilyeu said the new students from the relocations brought the Forest City Community School District more than $200,000 of increased annual State of Iowa funding. She estimated the combined economic impact represented by payroll and spending on housing, retail, and other services to exceed $4.2 million.

Borja, who came to the U.S. from Mexico 28 years ago, is cheered by those results.

“I went through all these hoops once myself and know that it wasn’t easy to find an apartment or to find a job or know much about potential employers,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to see we’ve helped change lives for good.

“We simply could not have done it without Meda and Wells Fargo and others believing in me and our company.”