Nonprofit CIELO helps minority-run businesses reach for the sky – Whittier Daily News
When Iosefa Joey Alofaituli walks through the Oak View neighborhood of Huntington Beach, he doesn’t see the so-called “Slater Slums,” as some still call the area. Many associate the high-density apartment complex community, which has housed generations of Latino families, with crime and plague. But Alofaituli instead sees a thriving, tight-knit community with opportunity — a community that reminds him of the large, extended family he grew up in.
Alofaituli is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of CIELO, a non-profit organization that seeks to help Orange County’s most neglected residents become self-sufficient through entrepreneurship. His own life experiences, including a childhood spent being shuffled between several different households, led him to the role.
“The core is always understanding your customer, and in our case, it’s about understanding our underserved and underfunded communities of color,” says Alofaituli. “Entrepreneurship is the American dream. It is a proven route to economic mobility. Yet no one is focusing on this population.
Oak View’s relative affordability in an area facing ever-increasing rental prices means multiple families can share a two-bedroom apartment. The square-mile stretch of squat stucco buildings, just three miles from the beach, is also known for its smell — thanks to its proximity to a huge landfill.
But everywhere you look, signs of reinvestment and interest in the region are clear. At Oak View Elementary School, across from the landfill, swarms of seagulls left countless white deposits on the playground as they circled for their stinking feast. Thanks to community activists, conditions in the neighborhood have come under scrutiny. The dump was closed following a public outcry and its owners have helped improve the school’s playground, which is also home to a hugely popular and egalitarian youth football league.
Alofaituli — whose work in Oak View dates back to before CIELO — wants to address the region’s specific issues in a way that is meaningful to its residents. During his visits to Oak View, he might stop to chat with kids in cleats or a blanket saleswoman outside his apartment. Alofaituli, who has an infectious smile and an even more infectious enthusiasm for community development, sees Oak View as a microcosm of other similar communities across the county.
CIELO began by helping Oak View residents polish their resumes and find jobs. “It was great because it was empowering, but at the end of the day there was a ceiling, because these weren’t pathways to jobs that paid well or offered a living wage,” says Alofaituli, who was struck by Oak View’s entrepreneurial spirit during one of its neighborhood walks.
“People are scrambling to get by,” he says. “They sell tamales in front of the school; they sell Avon at home; they do garage sales.
The most visible form of entrepreneurship in Oak View is its assortment of food vendors – one of the small business models that CIELO focuses on most. Under a brightly colored rainbow umbrella, a street vendor on the outskirts of the neighborhood can offer fruta picada like spears of watermelon and jícama, or cups of frozen mangonada. Food trucks like Tacos El Rey do lengua tacos and chicharrón. Residents without cars or aware of high gas prices shop in truckloads of produce and tortillas strewn along sunny sidewalks.
From chic loft to wooden cabin
Alofaituli identifies as a Southern California native. Born in Hawaii to a Filipina mother and a Samoan father, he moved to the area when he was 3 years old. After her parents divorced, her family lived with several different relatives. Alofaituli attended several schools and learned to adapt quickly to change.
Alofaituli says his constant moving from house to house and his experiences with his large extended family, which includes 50 first cousins, have given him a front row seat to different kinds of family dynamics, both positive and negative. . “I could see the instability within different houses and how that translated into different outcomes. … It all led to this awareness of, I would say, different cultures and environments,” he says.
He particularly admired an uncle and aunt who instilled their values in their children as well as their extended family.
“They created an environment where they had stability and where their children were nurtured,” says Alofaituli. “My aunt and uncle kind of drove home the importance of hard work and education. I could see the difference in this path… It is part of my education, my philosophy, my soul, my culture.
When Alofaituli’s family finally settled in the South Bay, he threw himself into high school pursuits. He excelled as a varsity athlete and was offered a spot by the University of Pennsylvania, where he served as the defensive captain of its football team and won the Ivy League championship. He attributes much of his leadership ability to experience.
After college, Alofaituli held corporate jobs in California and New York.
“But after five years, I realized money wasn’t fulfilling, even though it allowed me to have experiences and contribute to my family,” he says. “I just felt a great void. So I went from living in this fancy loft in Union Square one month, then the next month I was living in a log cabin as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Caribbean.
Alofaituli’s two-year stay in a crumbling fishing and mining community in the Dominican Republic was one of his most formative.
“It was through this experience of working with poor people in a small village that I learned what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. He decided to put his talents and skills at the service of others. But he had to learn an important concept.
“The first year, I failed in many projects because I thought I had the answers,” says Alofaituli. All of his ideas fell flat because he was trying to tell people what they wanted or needed. “That was my first lesson in community organizing, but also in business… For people to buy into any initiative or vision you have, they need to be part of the process. Solutions and answers should not come from the top down.
Where others might have given up, Alofaituli pivoted. The key to his success, he learned, was empathy.
“After being humble for the first few months, I learned that I had to sit down and have coffee with all the different residents and different generations,” he says. He listened to their strengths, challenges and opportunities, then helped them generate income by creating jewelry with local stone.
‘A trusted partner’
Upon returning to the United States, Alofaituli realized he wanted to do the same type of work back home. He and his new mentor, Jack Shaw, the founder of the Oak View Renewal Partnership, looked at aspects of the neighborhood such as public safety, education, housing and employment. This effort, similar to the Alofaituli Peace Corps experience, evolved into CIELO.
For more than five years, they have worked with partners to develop and outsource programs and opportunities for the neighborhood, including a mobile health clinic, an after-school youth sports program, and a community policing program. All have been tailored to the needs and desires of the community.
“It really shook up the whole nonprofit model in my mind,” says Alofaituli.
Typically, nonprofits introduce programs as is, he says, whether or not they are best suited to a community’s needs. But the concept of Alofaituli was the opposite. “You start with customers and build these products or services for them,” he says.
CIELO trains and supports would-be entrepreneurs and pilots programs focused on starting childcare and food businesses, including innovative partnerships with local leaders. A program is in the works to help entrepreneurs obtain grants and loans and a web platform to match entrepreneurs with volunteer mentors.
In nearly six years, CIELO has expanded to the rest of the county and served thousands of people.
Alofaituli can cite countless success stories, including that of Omar and Teresa Ruiz. Omar worked for a wood finishing company and his wife Teresa cleaned houses. As they made ends meet, they found they could never move on. Omar wanted to start a small business. The couple was referred to CIELO, who helped them learn the ropes of entrepreneurship, including marketing, licensing and permits. Both were eventually able to quit their jobs to focus on their new wood finishing business.
“They didn’t know how to start a business at all, even if they wanted to,” says Alofaituli. “They felt we were a trusted partner they could ask these questions and get help from, and that’s really the epitome of what we do. We are that trusted business partner for people who have been forgotten for a long time. We have a lot of incubators and accelerators in our county, but they mostly focus on high-tech or high-growth technology companies. No one really focuses on what we call service businesses, from babysitting to landscaping.
Alofaituli briefly left CIELO to pursue other opportunities but returned last year.
“Since then, it’s been a different climate, nationally and regionally, around this work,” he says. “Minority-owned businesses were important, but they weren’t at the forefront of everyone’s mind. In the wake of the pandemic, many people are looking specifically at small businesses owned by people of color, because we’ve had this convergence of financial emergency and racial injustice that has really come to the fore.
The renewal of Oak View continues to bear fruit. Several people who worked with Alofaituli in the neighborhood went on to make a difference in the wider community, including Virginia Clara, who became the community liaison officer for the Huntington Beach Police Department, and Oscar Rodriguez, a neighborhood activist who first became known for his work with the Oak View Youth Football League, founded by his father.
“There is this whole generation that is promising,” says Alofaituli. “And they are the future. Orange County’s future is brown.