Garifuna Entrepreneurs Make Their Mark 

Members of the Afro-Indigenous immigrant community turned hobbies and dreams into commercial enterprises. They’re among thousands of Bronx microbusinesses spawned during COVID.

By Dashiell Allen

Eudy Perez in her salon. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)
When the world shut down in March 2020, Digna Martinez lost her job at a catering company. Left to her own devices at home, she became creative: She began carving fruit.

Digna Martinez at a pop-up shop at Casa Yurumein. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

She’d already gotten a headstart on carving designs at her job, inspired by a chef and self-taught through YouTube tutorials. But she hadn’t considered making a business out of selling her signature Watermelon Strollers.

“Boom, the pandemic came,” Martinez recalled. “I was home … getting so stressed and one of my kids said ‘Mommy, but you know, you can do your fruit platter.’”

Since August 2020, she’s been selling fruit platters and carvings from her house. Offerings from Diggy’s Creations, as Martinez calls her business, range from fruit in the shape of birthday plates, to watermelons carved to look like a baby in a stroller, to frozen popsicles.

Almost three years later, Martinez has a job again at a restaurant in Manhattan, but the weekends are her fruit carving days. And someday, she hopes, Diggy’s Creations will become her full-time gig.

Martinez, a Honduran immigrant, is a member of the Afro-Indigenous Garifuna community — people originally from the Caribbean coasts of Honduras, Guatemala and Belize whose ranks in the Bronx number an estimated 100,000. In the post-pandemic South Bronx, some Garifuna entrepreneurs are ready to make their mark.

Ivan Moreira and Luce Hay, in their clothing store, JRC Garifuna.  (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

A Bronx Business Boom

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the Bronx hard, with the unemployment rate peaking at 24.8% in May 2021. In the pandemic’s wake, a new wave of entrepreneurs has emerged in the South Bronx and beyond. They’re starting their own online and in-person “microbusinesses,” defined by the federal Small Business Administration as an enterprise with fewer than 10 employees.

The borough saw more applications to form new businesses since the pandemic than any time in the past decade, with a 66% increase between 2019 and 2021, the most recent years for which data is available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Some entrepreneurs, like Martinez, decided to pursue their passion after being laid off in early 2020. For others,the post-pandemic world offered the perfect opportunity to build out a business they had already established online or from their home.

Bronxites “learned during the pandemic that we can do other things online, that we can become entrepreneurs,” said Robbin Finney-Granston, senior vice president of programs at the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp.

“My family was fearful. They told me how are you going to open a salon, when so many businesses closed during the pandemic? That could be a huge loss.” -- Eudy Perez, Eudy Perez Cosmetology.

Garifuna Entrepreneurs Rise

Eudy Perez, like Martinez, a Garifuna immigrant from Honduras, opened her beauty salon, Eudy Perez Cosmetology, on the third floor of an office building near The Hub in May 2022.

Beauty salons didn’t exist in her hometown of Río Esteban, on Honduras’s Caribbean coast, she recalled. She learned the fundamentals of fashion, style and beauty from family and friends, who would braid each other’s hair.

In 2015, a few years after she arrived in New York, Perez began treating women’s hair from her apartment. But she aspired to more. After earning her GED at Hostos Community College and learning the ins and outs of the profession at a beauty school in Westchester, she opened her business.

“My family was fearful. They told me: 'How are you going to open a salon, when so many businesses closed during the pandemic? That could be a huge loss,'” Perez said in Spanish. “And I told them I’ll take the risk, because this is my dream. And to this day I don’t regret a thing.”

Perez’s salon is located in what used to be a dentist office. Now, the space is divided into multiple smaller businesses. One door down on the same floor, Ivan Moreira sells clothing with custom logos at his shop, JRC Garifuna.

Moreira’s been making shirts with a “Garifuna” logo on them since 1996, initially in an empty bedroom in his mom’s apartment, and later in a studio space he rented. In 2018, he stopped working at his building maintenance job to design clothing full time.

Then the pandemic hit — and business boomed.

“The pandemic was really good for us. People had money and they didn't have [anywhere] to spend it,” Moreira said, referring to COVID-19 unemployment benefits, other stimulus funds and people who were employed but rarely left home.

The day he went to deliver Perez custom T-shirts for her salon, he saw an opportunity down the hall, and knew it was the right time to open for business.

Moreira’s designs, inspired by his culture, look almost as if they were a sports team’s logo. A huge Knicks, Giants and Yankees fan, he also played two years on the Honduran men’s national basketball team. His wife, Luce Hay, played on the women’s national basketball team. They weren’t friends at the time but Hay recognized him years later at a Garifuna reunion in 2019, and they’ve been a couple since.

" In the ‘90s and 2000s … in our head, it was only rich people that were able to [open] businesses, even small businesses. We thought, you know, only millionaires and billionaires … were able to establish a store here.” -- Belinda Lewis, Hablando Con Belili

A Meeting of the Minds and Talents

All three entrepreneurs — Digna Martinez, Eudy Perez and Ivan Moreira — crossed paths on May 7, when Perez celebrated the students graduating from her class in makeup, all wearing shirts custom-ordered from Moreira, while enjoying a fruit platter prepared by Martinez.

For Belinda Lewis, the new wave of entrepreneurs starting their own businesses since the pandemic, especially in the Garifuna community, is a social movement of its own.

“In the ‘90s and 2000s … in our head, it was only rich people that were able to [open] businesses, even small businesses,” said Lewis. “We thought, you know, only millionaires and billionaires … were able to establish a store here.”

Lewis, a teacher in New Jersey with a background in marketing, started her own talk show on social media, Hablando Con Belili, during the pandemic. She spends her free time helping budding entrepreneurs like Martinez take their businesses to the next level. At the end of April, she organized a pop-up shop featuring 20 Garifuna entrepreneurs at Casa Yurumein, a community center in Longwood.

“The pandemic … has opened people's eyes to discover who they are,” said Lewis. “And that’s something that we shouldn’t take lightly.”

At the same time, Lewis sees challenges ahead for many new entrepreneurs, including a lack of financial literacy and access to capital. When it comes to necessities like registering a business and developing a business plan, some don’t know where to start.  Even a $200 fee to register as an LLC can be a financial stretch for some first-time entrepreneurs.

Some new and aspiring entrepreneurs come to SoBRO to help develop plans, said Finney-Granston.

Prices — and Hopes — Rise

Plans, though, are tempered by factors that include inflation. Perez said she’s charging $5 more for a haircut now than just one year ago, as the price of beauty products goes up.

Martinez has also adjusted the prices of her fruit platters. “I used to sell it for $45, but seeing everything now I'm charging … $85-95 depending on the size,” she said. “Thank God people are not complaining.”

For now, at least, Martinez, Perez and Moreira are looking forward to the future.

Martinez plans to open a storefront someday. It might be in Houston, rather than the Bronx. New York’s too expensive, she said, and besides, her eldest daughter lives in Texas.

One year in, Perez isn’t making a profit yet. But she said she no longer needs to use her savings to pay the rent — and she’s hoping to expand to a larger location in the future.

She’s also training the next generation of cosmetologists. She’s inspired by Diana and Miki Guillen, two sisters also from Honduras who have been working for her for the past four months. They also hope to become entrepreneurs.

“I see hunger in them,” she said. “Hunger to conquer the United States through beauty.”

Moreira’s also optimistic.

“Hopefully by next year we get a bigger space,” he said. “And not on the third floor.”


(Photo by Dashiell Allen)

Coworking Sites Mushroom,  Providing Space and Support

From “floating desks” to camaraderie and  mentoring, more small business owners beyond the tech world are taking advantage of the offerings. The price is right — so far.

By Judith Marks

(Photo by Judith Marks)
After years of working for the U.S. Navy, the American Heart Association and multiple hospitals, Candice Perez-Milline returned home to the Bronx. Early in the pandemic, she worked at a COVID vaccine center. Then she realized she was ready to set up her own medical training business.

Rather than go through the risks and costs of opening a free-standing office, she moved into the BronxCoworking Space in The Hub. Her 6-by-14-foot office bursts with tables, file cabinets and walls covered by materials to teach students how to administer medical procedures. Prominent is a child-sized mannequin used by students to practice performing CPR, giving injections and reading pulses.

“It's a wonderful place for entrepreneurs to get started. I've made great friendships and networking opportunities I would not have had anywhere else,” she said.

Perez-Milline is one of dozens of new entrepreneurs discovering the value of coworking spaces in the South Bronx. Others include the Bronx Kreate Hub in Mott Haven and the BXL Business Incubator in Hunts Point.

Candice Perez-Milne in her busy office at the BronxCoworking Space. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

Some tenants of the coworking sites briefly toiled at home during the pandemic and others expanded enterprises as they considered how their businesses could thrive. Coworking sites are a boon not just because of cost and space, but thanks to the support and camaraderie available there.

The South Bronx sites focus on distinct populations: Bronx Coworking Space serves small businesses and a variety of entrepreneurs and professionals; the Bronx Kreate Hub addresses the business needs of diverse “creatives” in the arts community; and the BXL Business Incubator, with its educational and mentoring focus, targets startups and early-stage businesses in need of technical and financial knowledge.

When Perez-Milline is training more than two people, she can use a conference room. Eventually, she hopes to use the center’s large common room to hold classes after closing hours at a modest extra cost.

BronxCoworking Space is bustling with more than 30 enterprises. When the site opened its doors at 2825 Third Ave. in 2017 with only two tenants, it was heralded by DNAInfo as a way to “stop brain drain from the Bronx.”

Coworking sites in the United States jumped from 4,000 to 6,200 between 2017 and 2022, about a 55% rise. Tech entrepreneurs initially were the main tenants, but today’s occupants represent a greater variety in what they do — and in how they use the space.


(Photo by Judith Marks)

“It is always the artists and builders, those who have created the sought-after culture, that are the earliest people priced out of the community, and must abandon it.” -- Dan Herdoon, Bronx Kreate Hub

The Bronx Kreate Hub at 15 Canal St., off 138th Street, featuring work by the international artist Crash. (Photo by Judith Marks)

‘We’re a Small Family’

The overriding benefits for joining a coworking site are flexibility and affordability, and opportunities for collaboration. Coworking sites typically provide a variety of spaces, secure internet connectivity, shared printers, a business mailing address, refreshment areas and maintenance/cleaning services.

Cost is certainly a strong draw: BronxCoworking Space offers a “floating desk” in its community room for $325 a month; offices of different sizes start at $675 per month. Meeting rooms can be rented for $45 an hour, and membership is $35 a month. One lawyer, working on his computer amid piles of papers on a table in the community room, said he gave up his $50,000-a-year office on the Grand Concourse to move to BronxCoworking Space.

Bronx Kreate Hub studios go for $450-$1,400 monthly, and an ”open space” in one of the community rooms runs $175 a month. One woman specializing in affixing eyelashes values the 24/7 availability of her studio.

BXL Business Incubator offers daily passes for $10 and weekly rents for $100. As an enterprise devoted to business development in low-income neighborhoods, the operators have occasionally offered users free space for a short period of time.

But the biggest plus of coworking sites might be the possibility of consultation and collaboration with other businesses right out the door or across the hall. Entrepreneurs, both new and seasoned, often feel they are in it alone.

At the BronxCoworking Space, someone greets new arrivals, the central open space has movable tables, chairs and couches and an open refreshment area, and people working on laptops and phones. Others might be standing in small groups collaborating and laughing.

Most walls do not go up to the ceiling, adding to the openness and also to the noise level. The experience reflects some of the energy and connectedness of the Bronx Hub outside.

Perez-Milline thinks of herself as being an entrepreneur without overhead. She’s made connections that have broadened the possibilities for her business of training health professionals in a variety of medical skills, including CPR, EMT, advanced cardiac life supports.

For example, she helped train staff working for another tenant, the Third Avenue Business Improvement District, to administer Narcan and CPR to people in the plaza adjacent to the center who have overdosed. Interactions between her students and other businesses at the center have opened employment opportunities.

And then there are the shared birthdays and barbecues, both in the central space and on the roof in warm weather.

“We’re a small family or community,” she said.

(Photo by Judith Marks)

The Art of Collaboration

Dan Herdoon, Founder and CEO of Bronx Kreate Hub, standing in front of one studio at Canal and 138th Street. The outside of each studio is painted by the creative tenant renting the space. (Photo by Judith Marks)

While working at Deutsche Bank, Dan Herdoon “got tired of making money for rich people” and decided to try something that might merge his desire to help sustain art and artists in poorer communities while still earning a living.

A jump in rent ended his first coworking venture in Brooklyn's Bushwick. He saw firsthand how as communities became economically successful, properties were torn down and expensive ones replaced them.

“It is always the artists and builders, those who have created the sought-after culture, that are the earliest people priced out of the community, and must abandon it,” he said.

In November 2019, he opened the Bronx Kreate Hub on Canal Place just off 138th Street, in a neighborhood legendary for its culture, diversity, energy and then relatively low-priced real estate. The pandemic slowed the project, but today all 100 studios are rented. He has since opened two other Kreate Hub sites, in Philadelphia and Nashville.

As he walks through the building, he enthusiastically describes the murals painted on the stark white walls of the four-story building by well-known artist tenants. He is particularly proud of depictions of comic book characters touted in the South Bronx.

A mural by once-notorious and now world-famous graffiti artist John “Crash” Matos has its own alcove.

Every tenant has a key to their own studio and to the outside doors. Dogs are allowed. So are children. Every door is decorated by the artist working inside.

Mimi Hunter, the site’s artistic curator, serves as a combination office administrator, educational manager, business and marketing consultant, entrepreneurial coach and den mother,.

Herdoon and Hunter play an active role in encouraging each artist to succeed and outgrow The Hub. A few years back, two men began designing unique auto lights in their 300-square-foot space at the Kreate Hub. When their business went through the roof, they moved to a 3,000-square-foot space in an industrial neighborhood in the Bronx and the center threw them a party.

Other events throughout the year promote the work and encourage the success of the creatives and makers: art shows in an in-house gallery; block parties with tables, games and food vendors; local pop-up stores; parties and meetings in the downstairs conference room. A cafe in the building serves tenants and the community.

Administrative staff conferring on a project in the BXL Business Incubator common space in Hunts Point. From the left, Nancy Carlin, BOC executive director, Jorge Rolon, BOC loan officer and manager of BXL, and Tasha Balkaran, BOC communication and development manager (Photo by Judith Marks)

‘Multi-Generational Connections’

BXL, at 1231 Lafayette Ave. in Hunts Point, is one of several city incubators operated in partnership with the Business Outreach Centers network and the Community Development Financial Institution program.

The incubator aims to help each entrepreneur achieve their stated vision. For many, the first step is certification for Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises, which allows the business to apply for specific categories of grants, loan guarantees and local, state and federal tax benefits.

Clients include almost 100 businesses that occupy small or large offices, or are virtual members. They range from home health care to real estate firms to transportation businesses to non-profits and worker cooperatives.

Nancy Carin, executive director of the citywide Business Outreach Center, said each business has access to center personnel housed at BXL. Services include business counseling and training focused on software and technical acumen, mentorship, strategizing, newsletter creation, and networking in and outside the building.

“To be connected (as an outsider) in the Bronx is not an easy thing today,” Carin said. “It is the community most underserved in the city and has been left to go it alone for a long time. For someone to be of value, folks need to show their relevance, stick-to-itiveness, and commitment.”

Cristy Moya, director of the Bronx Women’s Business Center housed at BXL, said that the “holistic model” provided there offers ”a chance to create multi-generational connections” that might one day serve the South Bronx as the “old boy network” does in other communities.


‘Forever Nutrition’ brings healthy shakes to Mott Haven

By Dashiell Allen

(Photo by Dashiell Allen)

(Photo by Dashiell Allen)

Carlos Otero’s face lights up when he starts talking about his fitness journey.

“It opened up my eyes,” he said, standing in front of his counter inside Grit City Gym in Mott Haven. “I’ve gained relationships. I’ve learned so much. Fitness taught me how to be a better man, a better dad.”

Born and raised in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Otero opened his small business, Forever Nutrition, in May 2022. He sells homemade protein shakes, juices, and waffles inside a structure built in the style of a Puerto Rican casita.

He’s inspired to make his borough — which has an over-30 percent obesity rate —a healthier place.

Otero knows nearly all the gym’s patrons by name, and greets them in Spanish and English.

His journey began in 2017 when he started training at Planet Fitness. Working out, Otero said, helped him recover from severe depression, substance abuse and alcohol problems.

“It's not for the muscles, it's not for the pictures on Insta, it's for the mental health,” he said.

In 2019, he joined Grit City, starting out by cleaning the floors. Otero worked many years as a line chef in delis, Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. He noticed the gym’s vending machine didn’t have healthful food options, so he started informally selling his own protein bites and juices.

Soon after, Forever Nutrition was born.

“He's a huge part of the community,” said Sean Wright, the gym’s owner. “He's like the glue. Everyone feels welcome when he comes in the door.”

Like many other recent entrepreneurs who started their businesses after the COVID-19 pandemic, Otero wanted independence.

Seeing all the uncertainty in the world, with many businesses folding, “I didn't want to be put at the mercy of someone else's doors being closed,” he said. “I'd rather have the uncertainty of not knowing if I'm going to make money, but my way.”

"We're taught to work for other people our entire life. We're not taught entrepreneurship, we're not made to believe that we can do it.” -- Carlos Otero

An Early Lesson

Otero started out, in his own words, “winging it,” later honing his entrepreneurial skills through a course at the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp.  “You've got to know your customer, what your customer wants, when they want it,” he said.

His customers did not want protein shakes at 5:30 a.m., for example, he learned. After several months of grueling nearly 16-hour days, he decided to scale back and open later.

Otero won first place in a “Shark Tank”-style entrepreneur pitch competition this year, which earned him a prize of over $2,000.

Now, he’s excited to keep up the momentum. “I always knew my chance would come and I said if I ever get the opportunity, I'm going to go all in,” he said.