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Two Milwaukee businesses awarded grant through LISC's Small Business Relief Fund

Emma Brauer

The LISC Small Business Relief Fund awarded $10,000 to small businesses — especially minority- and female-owned — facing economic stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic across the nation. Aloekui Soaps and Taste of Love Catering were two Milwaukee-based businesses who benefited from these national grant funds.

Aloekui Soaps, located at 2450 W. North Avenue in Milwaukee, was opened by Rita Estremera in 2008. Estremera said the grant will be a vital source of funds for her to adjust to the current emphasis on online commerce. She said she found out about the grant through Brew City Match, a small business development collaborative led by LISC Program Officer Beth Haskovec.

The interior of Aloekui Soaps, owned by Rita Estremera
The interior of Aloekui Soaps, owned by Rita Estremera

“Rita’s business started out of the care she provided her family by developing natural remedies to skin care issues they were having. That care is extended to her customers and her community as she grows her business. Through these grants, LISC is filling a gap in capital that exists, and is able to retain and grow businesses in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. We are nurturing these businesses similarly to the way Rita nurtures the community with her products,” Haskovec said.

"Through these grants, LISC is filling a gap in capital that exists, and is able to retain and grow businesses in Black and Latinx neighborhoods."
— Beth Haskovec, LISC Milwaukee Program Officer

Renee Lindner of the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) spoke about how Estremera has navigated resources to get where she is today.

“Rita of Aloekui started her journey with WWBIC back in 2009 when she took WWBIC’s Start, Run Grow series and wrote her business plan. And then in 2018, she took the all-Spanish version of our Business Planning Series - El Plan de Negocio Esencial to have it completed in her native tongue. Throughout the years, she’s taken numerous classes in both Spanish and English to fine tune her business skills - including Quickbooks, marketing and lease negotiations."

Lindner also said Estremera has taken advantage of other resources WWBIC has to offer, like assistance in the MKE Pop-Up Experience in 2018, help with a loan application for expenses while she transitioned to having more of a retail presence, and bilingual business consulting.

“It’s been a blessing,” Estremera said regarding the small business grant. “Right now, people are stuck on the internet. … I am using my Verizon/LISC grant to improve my website and social media. I just hired a company name BMT Systems to do all the search engine optimization and social media.”

Estremera said she will also be using the money to rearrange her store in order to accommodate for social distancing, which includes getting new shelves and making sure customers will be able to stay six feet apart.

“I really would love to do more, but I am happy that I have this grant to do these things for the business,” she said. “I will stretch the money as much as I can possibly do.”

Learn more about Aloekui at aloekui.com.

Taste of Love Catering, owned by Shelita Furlow, is in its fourth year as an official business — however, Furlow has been unofficially catering since 2014 for the girls basketball team she coached.

“I still had not fathomed that I would actually have a business outside of basketball,” Furlow said.

Furlow has been building her business by seeking out resources, training, and finances from the small business development ecosystem in Milwaukee. She is a recent graduate of the RISE program, a culturally contextualized entrepreneurship training program, led by the African American Chamber of Commerce. She also recently received a KIVA loan through WWBIC to assist in establishing her business within Upstart Kitchen. Upstart Kitchen is a commercial kitchen and business incubator that opened in the Sherman Park neighborhood just before the pandemic.

Shelita Furlow, owner of Taste of Love Catering
Shelita Furlow, owner of Taste of Love Catering

“It means the world to me!” she said about receiving the grant. “Up until this point I would have never sought to even fill out for grants, mainly because I didn't think I would be rewarded, and here we are, I stepped out on faith and ... wow ... I cried for almost an hour straight. I’m so thankful.”

Furlow said she will be using the funds to buy new equipment, to catch up on bills on which she had fallen behind due to the pandemic’s financial strain on her business and to do more marketing.

Learn more about Taste of Love by visiting tasteoflovecatering.com.

These business received support from Verizon’s early commitment of $7.5 million to LISC for the relief fund. This contribution will bolster small business owners across the country as they navigate the economic hardship brought on by COVID-19. In addition to Verizon, these grants are made possible by the generosity of Sam’s Club, Truist, Lowe’s, Proctor & Gamble, and Synchrony. The fund currently stands at over $28.5 million to continue supporting small businesses nationwide.

The next round of applications for the Small Business Relief Fund opens July 27. Donate to the Rapid Relief & Resiliency Fund that supports the small business initiative here.

Learn more about LISC Milwaukee’s small business support work through Brew City Match by visiting its website or by contacting Beth Haskovec at bhaskevoc@lisc.org.