In mid-2020 Mag Rodriguez was planning a community event centered around wellness and mental health with a focus on the beneficial role of plants. When the event was cancelled due to the pandemic, Rodriguez found himself on the hook for 200 plants that he had bought for the event.
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. With 200 plants in stock, and with the help of friend (and now business partner) Michelle Alfaro, Maranta Plant Shop was born. It started in October 2020 as a pop-up selling plants online and distributing them from a warehouse. For six months Maranta ran as a pop-up before it became clear that it warranted a more permanent home.
From pop-up to permanent home
Alfaro and Rodriguez opened the store on April 14, 2021 in a Bronzeville storefront as Milwaukee’s first black and brown-owned plant store and it quickly became an important part of the community. But getting to that point wasn’t without obstacles.
Rodriguez said that funding was the biggest hurdle they faced. “As a new small business, banks wouldn’t give us credit cards or loans and because we didn’t start the company until 2020, we weren’t eligible for PPP loans to support businesses impacted by the pandemic.”
The second hurdle was managing employees in a time of high turnover. Hiring good employees and creating a safe space for them is something the pair spends a lot of time focusing on.
WEDC programs help with growing pains
Maranta’s introduction to WEDC was through the Kiva loan program. KIVA is a microlending organization which helps entrepreneurs who lack access to capital. WEDC and minority chambers of commerce in Wisconsin have partnered to provide matching funds for Kiva loans for Wisconsin entrepreneurs who have been approved though the chambers. That capital helped Mag and Michelle at a time when they were having trouble getting funding.
They then learned of the Main Street Bounceback Grants and applied to help build the Maranta brand with signage and turn the store environment into the safe, comfortable welcoming space for the community that they always envisioned.
A business and a community bloom
It’s been a year since Alfaro and Rodriguez opened Maranta in Bronzeville and its impact goes far beyond delighting shoppers with hard-to-find plants.
“Everyday entrepreneurs of color reach out to us on our Instagram to say that we’ve inspired them to start their own businesses,” said Rodriguez. “Students from a nearby school stop in and can’t believe that somebody who looks like them owns a business like Maranta.”
Rodriguez and Alfaro both came to the venture with a deep sense of community and a mission to help other entrepreneurs especially those who often have more challenges getting funding – women, indigenous people and people of color.
Being a black and brown-owned business is not something they take lightly. Rodriguez says, “For us, it’s a badge of honor. We’re from this community and we’re building in this community.”
And they have big plans for the community
They have already worked with a third friend to start a food truck, Tostada by Maranta. Recognizing that food is such a big part of community, they wanted to bring that component to the community they built with Maranta. It is also a smart business move as it helps drive traffic to the plant store.
Other plans include turning the adjacent lot (owned by another business) into a community space with a vision for the food trailer, picnic tables, community markets and maybe a mural. They were recently approved for liquor license and are exploring turning the back of the plant shop into a small venue for workshops and community events.
Maranta lives at the intersection of commerce and community and Alfaro and Rodriguez are passionate about both. That passion will help Maranta continue to flourish and foster other entrepreneurial success stories in Bronzeville.