Yarce’s first “international business” was a modest one: He asked his mother, back in Mexico, to send him $250 worth of bracelets, necklaces and earrings from the family jewelry-making business so he could set up a stall at the Fremont Sunday Market.
Yarce returned to Mexico after his visa expired, but a budding romance soon drew him back to Seattle, where he spent several years undocumented before he received his green card. He would go on to open a successful jewelry store in Pike Place Market, briefly run volunteer business workshops for immigrants, and eventually take the role as executive director for Ventures, a microbusiness development organization that provides access to capital and a range of other business services for low-income entrepreneurs in Seattle.
For his work, Yarce will be honored with Crosscut's 2018 award for Courage in Business. Seats and tables for the Courage Awards breakfast can be purchased here.
Yarce came to the U.S. with a graduate-level education, English language skills, and support from his family back home. These advantages helped him maneuver through complicated immigration proceedings and propelled him to the professional success he enjoys today. But he knows that not all immigrants are as lucky.
Yarce saw other undocumented immigrants work hard to get ahead, only to be penalized by their poor language skills or inability to navigate the legal system. Many of his coworkers at the restaurant — immigrants from Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and elsewhere — had fled poverty or violence. They came to Yarce, a resourceful confidant, with questions about how to wade through bureaucracies that oversee such processes as parking ticket fines and immigration paperwork.
At one point, Yarce says, he learned that his co-workers were being scammed. Cons would offer to help submit their parking tickets — a challenge for those with low levels of English — for outrageous sums of money, which Yarce found manifestly unjust.
“Because of my education, I was able to research things and connect people,” he says. “I recognized my class privilege.”
The desire to help his fellow immigrants led Yarce to volunteer at Casa Latina, an immigrant worker rights organization that connects people to day work. Yarce held small-scale workshops there for other undocumented immigrants interested in starting their own businesses — something Yarce had done while he navigated his own naturalization process, thanks to an IRS mechanism allowing people to start businesses without a social security number. This began Yarce’s career as a business coach working to empower underserved communities.
“I remember that room of faces,” Yarce says. “I saw hope. They started to realize that they, too, could make it.”
His outreach efforts caught the attention of Washington CASH (now Ventures), a Seattle agency that offers microloans to low-income women, people with disabilities and recently-arrived immigrants. Yarce was hired in 2008 to run the Latino business program. He quickly moved up, taking on the roles of manager and director before becoming the executive director four years ago.
Ventures, a nonprofit, is first and foremost a microlender with a mission to move borrowers out of poverty. Seventy-three percent of Ventures’ clients are women, 30 percent are immigrants, and 100 percent are low-income (at least when they get started). Loans range in size from $1,000 to $35,000 and 100 percent are paid back, Yarce says — an impressive statistic, given the high-risk nature of the loans.
“When clients have a problem paying their loan, we reach out and ask how we can help,” Yarce says. “We don’t exist to make money from our lending. We’re here to empower people.”
Ventures’ success stories are many. Two of Yarce’s earliest clients, a husband and wife, came to Ventures for help because they were struggling to make ends meet. The couple attended workshops and received one-on-one business coaching and small loans. The wife eventually opened a Spanish-language-immersion preschool, while the husband launched his own construction and remodeling company. Between the two of them, they reached $500,000 in revenue last year, and are regular donors at Ventures’ annual fundraising event. They also serve as coaches for one of Ventures’ training programs.
Yarce has also helped launch a retail incubator at the Pike Place Market called Ventures Marketplace. The Marketplace currently has 80 clients, selling goods ranging from soaps and chocolates to jewelry and artwork. Additionally, Ventures provides rented access to a commercial kitchen in the Central District for restaurateurs to prepare their food at a highly subsidized rate. And, finally, an online directory of Venture clients gives small business owners a presence on the web and exposure to potential customers.
The statistics are impressive. In 2017, Ventures helped launch 225 businesses, with a 93 percent survival rate. Within 18 months of completing Ventures’ basic business course, 66 percent of clients move out of poverty. Yarce credits this success not solely to the basic training, but to the whole ecosystem of services — loans, one-on-one coaching, a monthly legal clinic, etc. — that clients can access after they’ve completed the course.
And Yarce isn’t stopping there. Later this year, Ventures will begin working with incarcerated women at Mission Creek Corrections Center in Belfair, Wash. The pilot program will include about 15 women who are within two years of release. They will work on developing business plans and securing housing so they can find success when they eventually leave the prison.
“A lot of people talk about giving people a second chance,” says Yarce. “Many of [my clients] never even had a first chance. I want to change that.”
Courage Award winners are nominated by the community and selected by an independent panel of community leaders. To learn about all of the 2018 winners, click here.