Compared to many of its neighbors, the Puerto Rico Minority Business Development Agency Business Center caught a break. When Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the island, the El Vedado sector – home to Puerto Rico’s banking district and its MBDA-operated business center – was largely spared from structural damage left in the wake of the worst natural disaster to hit the region. But though many buildings stood tall, the infrastructure necessary to get back to business lagged.
“The offices were in good condition,” said Teresa Berrios, Director of the Puerto Rico MBDA Business Center. “The thing is, we didn’t have access to telecommunications because the poles were broken down. No power or energy. We needed those services to operate the center and get in contact with clients. That’s why we had to move.”
Leaving that “isolated” old location proved to be a blessing for the Puerto Rico MBDA Business Center, which relocated in January to office space in Plaza Las Americas – the largest mall in the Caribbean.
This heavily trafficked area has been a boon for a business center that is needed now more than ever. As Puerto Rico continues to rebuild, plenty of federal government contracts are there for the taking. Berrios and her staff are uniquely qualified to assist minority business enterprises pursuing those opportunities. Step one for the Puerto Rico MBDA Business Center was disaster readiness. With storms bearing down on the island, Berrios and her staff contacted all clients, preaching safety first but also assuring them that MBDA would be there to support them after the hurricanes hit, no matter what their needs might be.
After Maria passed, the PR Products Association, operator of the Center, relocated to the Sheraton Convention Center in San Juan, where operator and the Center were joined by trade organizations to support the business community. FEMA, the Red Cross, the Army Corps of Engineers, police, the national guard, federal representatives were also located in the same hotel. The makeshift office space spurred greater coordination and expedited response efforts. But it also came with high rental costs. “We were working in the Sheraton Convention Center until the end of October or November,” Berrios said. “Then we moved back to our office [in El Vedado], with a power generator. But we had to work limited hours because the power generator cannot be working more than six hours. We didn’t have air conditioners, no internet. But we were working with our own cell phones. Trying to do what we can do with our resources at that time.”
Those frustrations led to the Puerto Rico Products Association and the MBDA Business Center’s move to a third-floor space in Plaza Las Americas, where Berrios’ staff has been hard at work helping its clients in disaster recovery pursuits while also offering a creative new showcase for local products.
Gabriela Morales-Richards, a business development specialist based in MBDA’s Washington D.C. headquarters, was struck during a recent visit to San Juan by “how much pedestrian traffic” flows through the mall, and the prominence of signs touting the business center’s new tagline and overarching philosophy: “The entrance of [the business center] has these shelves, and three of our clients are displaying their products right there. Like the sign says, everything is ‘Made in Puerto Rico.’ Every single product, every single local business, it’s made in Puerto Rico,” Morales-Richards said. “You go in, you see everything from sangrias, Puerto Rican candy, local spices, cocoa, everything.”
In addition to offering a showcase for Puerto Rico-made products, the business center, through the Commerce Department, received special funding for disaster recovery assistance. The Puerto Rico MBDA Business Center has three specialists on staff to handle loan packaging, ensuring the MBEs that lost revenue because of the storms can recoup those losses and get back on track. Each of the three specialists is responsible for one quadrant of the island, guaranteeing that no minority-owned business is left behind.
Berrios has also devoted plenty of time and energy to assisting clients pursuing certifications. Many federal government contracting opportunities in Puerto Rico require a certification, whether it’s earning distinction as a HUBZone Business, an 8(a) Business Development Program or a number of others. One Puerto Rico firm in particular – AGMA Security Services – was aided by the Puerto MBDA Business Center in its pursuit of 8(a) certification. Once achieved, AGMA competed for and was ultimately awarded a $20 million FEMA contract.
AGMA’s success is just one example of Berrios’ office hard at work for minority-owned businesses, leveraging their expertise to help entrepreneurs land federal government contracts and help Puerto Rico rebuild and grow. “With this hurricane, we recognize that we have many challenges,” Berrios said. “In terms of the disaster, we have to learn a lesson and we are very acquainted with the needs of people in general and those businesses. … But Puerto Rico is open for business.”