Juan Francisco Medrano got his start as a Philly businessman in 2004 when he owned the Family Grocery at the corner of 35th Street and Allegheny Avenue. He began building relationships with local business owners while also developing a career in broadcast media here, just like he did in his native Valverde, a province in the northern region of the Dominican Republic.

After running the bodega for three years, Medrano in 2009 started Actualidad Informativa, a live daily radio show for La Unika 1680AM. In 2015, the show became a weekly venture and is televised locally through NBCUniversal’s Telemundo 62.

Medrano, who uses the first name Franklin, worked as the assistant program coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce between 2011 and 2016. He would help Hispanic business owners and entrepreneurs to obtain loans and other resources.

In 2014, Medrano had a conversation with Luis Mora, the founder and president of the nonprofit lending institution Finanta, about creating a chamber of commerce for Dominican business owners. In 2018, Medrano and his wife, Angie Millán, originally from Cali, Colombia, sought a 501(c)(3) exemption to develop a nonprofit to serve the community of small-business owners in the Latino community.

On March 20, the couple was notified that the Dominican-American Chamber of Commerce had been officially approved, in the midst of a pandemic that has created financial stress in all business sectors. Since then, five volunteers have helped Medrano, 50, and Millán, 42, with guidance and resources as well as technical and language assistance for the more than 22,500 Latino businesses in Philadelphia, the nearby Pennsylvania suburbs, northern Delaware, and South Jersey.

In a recent interview, Medrano spoke about how the chamber is focused on immediately helping business owners — more than 500 have signed up so far — while also working on establishing the formal structure and mission statement for the nonprofit.

Franklin Medrano (left) stands with his wife and the chamber's vice president, Angie Millán, behind their Northeast Philadelphia home on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Franklin Medrano (left) stands with his wife and the chamber's vice president, Angie Millán, behind their Northeast Philadelphia home on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.

How has it been to start operating a chamber of commerce when Latino business owners are experiencing such financial stress?

It’s been hands-on from the very beginning. We’ve focused on helping the business community with access to information on a personalized level, and with the support needed to apply for the relief programs, so we are working a regular operation, but we have no structure yet. I laugh at myself sometimes when I think we have submitted applications for 106 businesses [through April 30], and 33 of those have received approvals for the PPP loans, and we don’t have an approved mission statement by our board members. [laughs] Don’t get me wrong, we have met with our board members and worked out some of the basic structuring of the chamber, but we’ve focused on learning what the business owners need right now to be able to help. We don’t have a website yet. We haven’t officially launched the chamber. But, we work until 5 a.m. some days.

Why create a chamber for the Dominican business owners?

After years working as a liaison between the business owners and the resources, we have learned through the CPAs who work with our business community that there is a vast group of Dominicans running businesses in the Delaware Valley. Not too long ago, we had pretty solid entities like the Bodegueros and Grocery Store Owners Association and the Dominican Merchants Association, that had a strong reputation and influence in the city. That leadership has diminished, and so has our organizing as a community.

So, we saw the need to organize, again, and to present numbers of our presence. There are no exact numbers of how many Latino-owned business we have in our area, not with the city or with any chamber of commerce. We need to change that in order to have officials engage with our needs and recognize our efforts, develop resources and programs that are tailored to our specific business structures. Yes, it’s called the Dominican Chamber, but we don’t discriminate. It’s for all the Latino businesswomen and men who need support, representation, and an entity that can really advocates for their interests.

What is the chamber trying to accomplish and how will it do so?

One of the challenges is to create a register of the Latino-owned businesses in the Delaware Valley, especially the ones owned by Dominicans. We’ve started this with a no-cost membership base that owners can apply for by filling out a form we send via WhatsApp. This way we learn the owners’ nationality and background, the business’ address, size, and industry sector, among other details. The owners became part of this large database we use to connect with them on a personal basis via chat apps, phone, or email, to share information about opportunities and to send out videos we produce that explain how to access resources. So far, there are 516 members in our register.

On the other hand, we want the chamber to be the liaison, a communication vehicle, for the business owners, the Small Business Administration, and everything in between. The pandemic has made evident this huge disparity that Latino businesses have when having access to capital, the language proficiency, and the use of technologies. Angie, who is the brain of all our operations, is working with the volunteers to connect business owners with grant opportunities and lenders, benefits and resources that the city has been providing for years and most didn’t know about, webinars about business and marketing strategies and has been assisting with the filling of applications and the gathering of documentation. I’m just the bullhorn here!

There are many chambers to work with in the Delaware Valley, even one for the Hispanic communities. What will the Dominican-American chamber do differently?

You know, Philadelphia is a place that breathes a sense of community, and once one has established themselves here, you don’t want to leave the city. We want to provide that to the Latino business owner: a community that supports them while they establish and helps them stay that way. A business owner in Philadelphia, Camden, North Delaware, anywhere should have someone to call when that person needs assistance opening an email [message]. We are here to call that person, and speak in their native language. We are also here to serve as watchdogs for the businessperson’s best interest, keeping an eye on the next legislation being passed by City Council, ready to advocate for policies that don’t hurt or over-police Latino businesses.

What can you tell us about the chamber’s members and the organizations that are supporting the chamber’s work so far?

The majority of businesses on our newly created database are owned by Dominicans, followed by Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Brazilians in sectors like bodegas, multiservice businesses, beauty salons, taxi companies, barber shops, restaurants, and construction firms. We are working with other nonprofits dedicated to the Latino business sector, such as Finanta, Community First Fund, and Widener University’s Small Business Development Center. We also look forward to connecting with the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Nueva Esperanza.

Are you worried that others might consider this a rough start for a nonprofit?

Being entirely honest, I do. We are not structured, we aren’t, and this [Inquirer interview] is a huge exposure. But, work is what keeps us up at night. The joy of doing it, too. In the past days, Angie and I were speaking with a client on FaceTime, trying to guide him to configure his email account on his phone. To make the story short, the client opened the inbox message and it was the approval for a PPP loan. We were jumping with excitement. It all became a virtual party after that.

Once the storm caused by the pandemic calms down, what are the plans for the chamber?

We need to get back to the structure of the chamber and finish that. We plan to work with a grant-based budget, at least for the next two years, because the time isn’t right for [membership fees]. This will give us time to create a work history. How many business owners have we have helped and what are the benefits we have brought to the community [over the next two years]?

Representatives for the Dominican-American Chamber of Commerce can be contacted at dominicanchamber@gmail.com