“Follow your passion,” says Sandra Barrera, associate extension educator with Nebraska Extension. She tells this to every new business owner she helps. And she means it, because every day she follows hers.
Barrera works with Rural Prosperity Nebraska, a division of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and National Resources, helping Nebraska immigrants establish new businesses. Her career is an empathic one, as she immigrated from Bogota, Colombia, 21 years ago. To get away from violence by insurgents and rebels, Barrera and her husband relocated their family to Miami to stay with Barrera’s uncle, and from there to Nebraska.
“We had political asylum,” she said, “so we started the process of citizenship.”
Although she spoke no English, Barrera found work in a nursing home.
“I chose the night shift because I didn’t have to speak English,” she said, “but that’s where I started to learn.”
Over the next six years, she learned English, became a nursing assistant, earned a master’s degree in family and financial planning, and became an associate extension educator at the West Central Research and Extension Center in Grand Island. That was when her passion for helping others began to shine.
Knowing the difficulty of starting a business in a new country, Barrera, a former certified public accountant, focuses on making that process easier for immigrants — all in their native Spanish.
Nancy Segura, who owns Y and N Liquor in Grand Island with her husband, said Barrera was invaluable.
“Sandra gave me the whole rundown on how to get started,” she said. “She helped us fill out the application and liquor license. She even went to the city council meeting with us. We were the first liquor store with bilingual service. We really owe it to her.”
But Barrera doesn’t see her efforts as simply helping Latino entrepreneurs check boxes.
“Part of my job as a Latina is to empower people to imagine success,” she said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Latino-run businesses struggled to keep their doors open. But Barrera’s passion rubbed off, and they found ways to keep working.
“I had a lady who was a massage therapist in Hastings, and no one was coming to her,” Barrera said. “So she set up a massage therapy salon in her RV. She started doing classes about yoga, mental health and meditation in Lincoln, Omaha and Sioux Falls.”
Such a business revision wasn’t a one-off.
“We have another lady from Omaha who has a trailer for weddings,” Barrera said. “Makeup, nails, the whole salon. She brings the trailer to the wedding, and all the girls and the grooms go to the trailer to get ready.”
Such success stories are what feed Barrera’s passion. To date, she has helped immigrants establish 268 businesses in 23 communities across the state. Forty-four of those have started in 2021 alone. But this isn’t a numbers game for her.
“Sandra shares everything we do,” Segura said. “Promotions we have, pictures of our location. She always asks if there’s anything we need.”
This is where Barrera’s passion lies.
“I visit these businesses one by one because I want to maintain the relationship,” she said.
“When people first come to me, I tell them, ‘I want you to be my first millionaire. If you like to cook, open a restaurant. If you like to fix cars, be a mechanic. If you make good cookies, people will pay for good cookies. Follow your passion.’”