Member Interview: Elena Rodriguez, BellaLife DM

Elena Rodriguez is co-owner of BellaLife DM, a health and fitness company focused on helping Latina women improve their health through dance aerobic programs, dietary supplements, and motivational classes. Elena launched her business in 2012 with the help of her sister Patricia. As one of the first members of the Solidarity program, we wanted to sit down with Elena to learn about her journey as an entrepreneur and the lessons she’s learned along the way.

Q. What motivated you to start your own business?

A. I want to progress and create a better life for me and my family. I am motivated by the desire to be independent. I do not want to depend on a job or an employer. I prefer to be my own boss and be self-employed.

Q. You teach dance aerobic classes and sell dietary supplements, why is it important for men and women to exercise and take care of their health?

A. Exercise is great for your health. If you do not take care of your health this will affect other areas of your life. For example, if you are not healthy you cannot do your job well or take care of your family.

Q. How do you motivate women to exercise and get healthy?

A. I do this by creating awareness about the importance of health. If you do not create the time to exercise or prepare healthy meals, you will never have the time. Why wait until you are sick to begin your path to better health? I also focus on the internal benefits of exercise more than focusing on physical appearance. I make sure to tell my clients that by exercising or eating healthy they will have to make difficult decisions but it will be worth it.

Q. Are women allowed to bring their kids to the classes?

A. They can bring their kids but we do not encourage it. We encourage women to dedicate this time to themselves, to remove themselves from the demands of daily life. Away from the kids and the issues at home. As women, we have so many responsibilities but we need to make sure to dedicate time to take care of ourselves otherwise we cannot serve our loved ones.

Q. As an entrepreneur, what lessons have you learned? How have you changed as a person?

A. I have learned a lot. First of all, I learned that it is not easy to run a business. Sometimes you don’t generate enough income to pay yourself a salary. Also, you have to spend a lot of hours away from your family.

But I am constantly learning new ways to improve my business and market my business. I am very happy to be self-employed. Many clients have thanked me for the classes I provide. Many have been able to lose weight and adopt healthier lifestyle habits.

On a personal level, my family has adopted healthier habits. They like to exercise now. As an individual, I have learned to work with people and treat each client in a way that makes them feel special and valued.

Q. What challenges have you faced as an entrepreneur?

A. Aside from those I already mentioned, a major challenge we face is keeping our clients. Some people sign up for classes and do not attend or some will participate for one month and then decide not to come back.

Q. Do you have any ideas on how to overcome this challenge?

A. I think we need to focus on customer loyalty. We invest a lot of time and energy into finding new clients but we really need to focus on those we already have and make sure we are providing them with the best experience possible.

Working with women is not easy. At times they will gossip or criticize each other but we have learned to deal with these issues. I think the key is to treat people well.

Q. Do you have plans to expand your business?

A. Yes. I keep files with the information of all of my past clients. I want to call them and remind them we are here to help them improve their health. I plan to ask existing clients to recruit friends and family to join the classes. Also, we will look into providing discounts and promotional offers for our services.

Q. How many clients do you have?

A. We have 15 clients.

Q. Congratulations! 

A. Thank you! It is not easy to find clients in the winter time but as I mentioned we will be focusing on developing our existing clients and finding clients through referrals.

Q. Has the Solidarity Microfinance program helped you?

A. Yes, Solidarity is a new program and I like it. The first loan helped me purchase equipment for my fitness studio so I can teach my dance aerobic classes. I like the weekly [group] meetings. The hour goes by very fast but we learn a lot from each other especially because some women have more experience in business than others. 

Original interview in Spanish. Interview conducted and translated by Ana Mancebo, Program Coordinator at Solidarity Microfinance.

Launching Solidarity

Post written by Solidarity committee member Vanessa Marcano-Kelly. To learn more about Vanessa visit her at her website

Solidarity Microfinance: Empowering communities, reducing poverty

Imagine biting into a sweet, rich brownie. Bursts of cocoa and hazelnut invade your taste buds, as you crumple away the cute disposable package it came in. You smile; your chocolate craving is sated thanks to the woman at the farmers’ market who had these delicious morsels for sale. You noticed how friendly she was, her two children helping hand out the brownies, her carefully handwritten business cards and her tiny stall decorated with flowers. People were lining up behind you, commenting, “Tonya’s brownies are fantastic!” and you agreed. You saw a small sign: This business participates in Solidarity Microfinance – Des Moines.

The story we just told you is a dream in the making. Some of us were inspired by a potential borrower, Tonya, during an outreach session around empowering communities out of poverty through microfinance. As the group brainstormed on business ideas they wanted to develop, Tonya said she wanted to begin her own brownie baking business, with 20% of the proceeds going to help other families. She wanted to provide for her family, as well as support her community.

These values are at the core of the Solidarity Microfinance program that just launched in Des Moines, Iowa.

 “We decided to call the program ‘Solidarity’ because this word exemplifies the spirit of collaborating to achieve mutual progress,” says Alex Orozco, Solidarity Microfinance advisory committee member and VP / Community Outreach Officer for Bankers’ Trust. “Solidarity does not mean ‘help’, ‘charity’, or ‘aid’. The word evokes mutual progress through neighbors and communities working together collectively,” Orozco explains. “This is the word that best describes this microfinance program.”

 “Microfinance programs like Solidarity are important everywhere in the world where there are people with small businesses who need capital to maintain or expand their operations and their income,” Orozco explained. Though these types of program have existed for over 40 years in other countries, it wasn’t until 2008 that Grameen America began running these types of programs in the United States, with very successful results.

What is Microfinance?

In the 1970s, in his native Bangladesh, Dr. Mohammed Yunus began giving small loans to poor women in his community, to start small businesses. Not only were the loans repaid, but a culture of collaboration began to flourish among the women. They became accountable for each other’s loans, and shared in each other’s experience running their small businesses.  Dr. Yunus is considered the “father” of microlending; he is the founder of Grameen Bank, which currently has over 5 million clients among low-income communities in Bangladesh and many more worldwide.

Solidarity Microfinance is a program to empower low-income communities. Though it is open to all who meet the basic criteria, there is a focus on encouraging the participation of women of color. “Trusting and investing in women –in their education, in their businesses—has a multiplier effect. It means directly investing in our communities,” said Vanessa Marcano-Kelly, Solidarity advisory committee member.

In this sense, Iowa has a lot of catching up to do. “Iowa is ranked last in the country in regards to businesses owned by women per capita,” explained Orozco. “This problem is bigger when you talk about businesses owned by Latinas, immigrant, African American, Asian and other minority women,” he said.

Bringing microfinance to Des Moines

The journey to bring Solidarity Microfinance to our community began in 2011, after Orozco was inspired by the documentary “To Catch A Dollar”, which details the challenges and successes that Grameen America went through when it opened in New York in 2008. 

Solidarity Microfinance is a reality in Des Moines thanks to the work and dedication of many people and institutions. In February 2014, a group of three women from the Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines held two community outreach sessions to generate interest among potential borrowers. By March 2014, we got our office, located at 607 Forest Avenue in Des Moines. We hired our program coordinator, Ana Mancebo, who has been working with several team members on setting up our space, marketing materials, and outreach.

On October 9 Solidarity Microfinance hosted its Grand Opening to officially launch the program and celebrated the beginning of many successes ahead.

We would like to thank our generous supporters. We are also blessed to count on the hard work and leadership of individuals such Dr. Mark Edelman, Angela Ten Clay (Happy Medium), Emmeline Quinde, Dr. Catherine Brooke, Quintin Smith (United Way), Craig Downs (Iowa MicroLoan), Adam Hammes (President of Urban Ambassadors), Mike Thibodeau, J.D., a beloved community leader, the late Warren Morrow, among many others who commit their time to move our program forward.