Reaching for the sky

Imelda Bernal faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. She spoke little English, had limited education and young children to care for. For 14 years, her working hours were spent in a large company’s shipping and receiving department.

“I never thought I could have my own business,” said Bernal, 45.

It was her children who inspired Bernal to return to school, work for her GED, take English classes and learn how to use a computer. The last time she was in school, students were using typewriters. She trained to be a secretary in her native Mexico.

Now Bernal teaches computer literacy to other adults in the Oak View area of Huntington Beach. Her students are mainly parents who need to check report cards and class attendance but never learned how to use a mouse or keyboard. She’s also taking classes in entrepreneurship so she can start her own tutoring service.

“I can’t believe it,” Bernal said. “I feel like inside me there was that desire. Now, I’m like, ‘I’m here.’”

Her guide is Cielo, the word for “sky” or “heaven” in Spanish, and an acronym for Community for Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Leadership and Opportunities. Cielo is on the campus of Golden West College, where classes in self-wellness and entrepreneurship are being held over the summer in something of a soft launch for the center.

In fall, Cielo is expected to launch as an incubator for lifestyle and skills-based microbusinesses, providing their owners access to capital, mentorship and classes – and possibly office space.

In its first three years, the center is expected to create a combined $4.3 million in tax revenue increases and unemployment payment reductions. The nonprofit Oak View Renewal Partnership has raised $375,000 of its $500,000 goal to fund Cielo for two years.


While incubators and accelerators abound in California, their focus is often on tech startups and those that innovate medical software and devices. Some are linked to college campuses, and many lack diversity, their offices instead filled with young, white, men who attended college. The number of incubators in the U.S. grew to 1,250 in 2012 from 12 in 1980, the National Business Incubation Association reports.

“There are a ton of resources if you are an entrepreneur aspiring to be in the high-tech world or a high-growth firm, but for what we’re calling lifestyle/skills-based businesses, there’s nothing out there – at least in this county,” said Iosefa Alofaituli, the executive director of the Oak View Renewal Partnership, which is launching the incubator.

At The Vine and, both in Irvine, startup founders are finding therapies to complement chemotherapy treatment, transforms garbage to fuel and detect sepsis in patients receiving medical treatment.

Cielo, in contrast, targets Latinos in Oak View and students in the certificate programs at Golden West College who are studying anything from automotive repair to floral design or cosmetology – areas where graduates are often thrust into self-employment, said Betsy Densmore, the founder of Academies for Social Entrepreneurship and a consultant with Cielo.

Oak View is 1 square mile of dense, multifamily homes – an impoverished pocket of Huntington Beach surrounded by affluence. The per capita annual income is $17,159. About 90 percent of adults in Oak View speak limited English, and almost 40 percent of residents in the area live in households of seven or more, according to a feasibility study performed for Cielo. In contrast, the per capita income in Huntington Beach as a whole is $41,552, and median income is nearly double that, according to the U.S. Census.

The incubator is also eying participants from the Golden West swap meet, where for decades, many small-business owners have sold their wares from a stall but have never scaled their operations upward.

“The impetus was ‘how can we create a support structure for lifestyle businesses, people just trying to make a living wage for themselves and their family,’” Densmore said.

In its first three years, Cielo is expected to create more than 130 successful new small businesses, employ some 1,400 people and generate $55 million in new economic activity in Orange County, according to a report on the center performed by Wallace Walrod, the chief economic adviser for the Orange County Business Council.

So-called inner-city incubators, some of which are in the Bay Area, are typically industry-specific, and many are also focused on technology, said Claudia Viek, chief executive of the California Association for Micro Enterprise Opportunity. Culinary incubators targeting low-income, low-education entrepreneurs are scattered across California, as are so-called maker spaces for those interested in learning to use tools, Viek said.

“I would say what they’re doing is fantastic, and we need more of them,” Viek said. “What we find is having a supportive system is so essential to business success.”


Among those using Cielo to launch her business in earnest is Leticia Benitez, 37, a wife and mother of an elementary school-age child.

In addition to holding down a part-time job at Cheesecake Factory, Benitez manages a small side business making cakes covered in ribbons of frosting and a layer of fondant, a creative outlet outside of her normal work. She also takes classes on entrepreneurship and wellness at Cielo, where she hopes to learn organizational skills, proper licensing protocol and administrative duties.

“I felt insecure about not knowing administrative duties, how to manage my business,” Benitez said. “Now, I feel more at ease.”

On a recent Friday at the Cielo office, Benitez sat among other women, many of whom were dressed in yoga pants and colorful tennis shoes. Most had gathered earlier to walk around the empty school before diving into the day’s lessons.

Despite the cacophony of children playing nearby, the women intently focused on the lesson from class instructor Patrice Mariscal, who taught in Spanish.

Rosita Adelita, the Mexican version of Rosie the Riveter, watched over the class from a small poster in the corner of the office.

Bernal, who takes evening classes at Cielo, said because of the classes she no longer trembles while giving formal presentations. Her children have taken notice of her newfound skills.

“Little by little, I’m defeating my fears,” Bernal said. “I feel proud and I feel like they’re proud.”

Contact the writer:, 714-796-2286

Share it on

Leave a Comment

California Offering Business Grants!