a woman behind the scenes at a bakery
Danaris Mazara and daughters Grace, left, and Rebecca
a woman behind the scenes at a bakery
Danaris Mazara and daughters Grace, left, and Rebecca

Excerpted and edited from The New Builders, written by Times of E founder Elizabeth MacBride and venture capitalist Seth Levine, the authors look at the landscape of entrepreneurship across America. The New Builders was published May 4, 2021 by Wiley.

Danaris Mazara and her husband, Andres, arrived in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 2002, from Puerto Rico. Born in the Dominican Republic, her mother had moved the family to Puerto Rico, where Danaris was reared and met Andres. The couple started their life in the States in her brother’s attic. There was no air-conditioning, which meant it was sweltering in the summer, and little insulation leaving them to huddle together shivering in the winter. But there were jobs in factories for Denaris and her husband, and the potential for opportunity and a better life. 

At work, Danaris tried, tentatively, to speak a few words of English. “I didn’t know when people eat American chicken they start speaking English,” mocked the assistant manager on the production line.

The next day she was so humiliated she didn’t go to work. Instead, she found a language school. The lessons paid off so that when she got another job, in a cafeteria, they promoted her to be assistant manager. These were hard years for Danaris, full of long hours and constant money fars. And harder still because she was trying to have a baby, and miscarrying each time.

She had just about given up hope when, in 2007, she found herself pregnant again. But right before Grace was born, the recession of 2008 hit. Her husband was laid off from his job at Haverhill Paperboard, a local manufacturer that had been operating for over 100 years. The lay-off cost 174 people their jobs and livelihood. 

“I was very depressed because I had a newborn baby, something I was waiting to have for many, many years. But I couldn’t stay home to take care of her. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” she said.  

In 2008, she found herself lying on her couch, staring at the ceiling, with $37 worth of food stamps in her pocket.  “What are you going to do with $37 in food stamps?” Danaris asked herself. “In a couple of days, you won’t have anything to feed your family, because that is not enough money to buy groceries.”

Danaris is a believer. At that moment, she heard a voice: “Make flan.”

She bought the ingredients, made the flan and sold it on the break table at Samsung. Over the next dozen years, she learned to make cakes, do the books, get a loan and become a boss. Sweet Grace Heavenly Cakes now operates from a storefront in downtown Lawrence — and has become a case study in, among other things, navigating the pandemic.

What is an Entrepreneur?

Danaris Mazara doesn’t look anything like the person we think of as the classic American entrepreneur — she’s not white, she’s not a man, she’s not rich or Ivy League educated (she hadn’t attended any college, in fact). But in reality she is the prototype of the new American entrepreneur: she is a woman of color, an immigrant, and older. She works in a service business, one that is enabled by technology but not driven by it. She’s an employer and, in her own way, an innovator: One of her projects is to find a way to make the Dominican cakes less caloric but no less delicious.

She is a New Builder.

Entrepreneurs like Danaris are one of the great strengths of America and the American economy. They are responsible for nearly all the job growth, much of the innovation, and for the dynamism and resilience that has made the U.S. economy almost unique among nations for generations. Along the way, entrepreneurs, especially the unexpected successes like Denaris, have also given the United States much of our identity as a nation of builders and doers; of risk takers and innovators; of economic prosperity and deep community identity. The story that we tell ourselves about America, deeply rooted although a mix of myth and reality, is inexorably linked with our entrepreneurial spirit. 

But there are fewer New Builders now than arguably at any point in American history, and that is a big problem. After decades of government policy and economic changes favoring large businesses, it has become harder to open and grow small businesses in every sector of the economy. Even in technology entrepreneurship — which we perceive as thriving — there are fewer people launching their own companies. In addition to government policies that favor big business, our society has become obsessed with the ability to order any item at any time on demand and the convenience of everything under the sun being delivered to our front door. We also like the comfort of knowing that we can get the same coffee, burger, taco in just about any large city in our country.

We like the big business economy. But the question is whether we’ve begun to lose the entrepreneurial spirit that has made the U.S. economy uniquely dynamic. As the big business landscape has made it hard harder to grow real businesses — not gig economy jobs — we’ve also failed to keep up with the support and financing structures needed to help New Builders like Danaris survive and thrive.

Co-opted Language

The decline in the small business economy has been masked by a trick of language. To understand how we got to this place, where we’ve nearly abandoned the people who are our best hope for building a better future, we need to start with a short trip into the past, on the shoulders of that too-long, too-complicated and often co-opted word: entrepreneur. We need to understand how, in the late 20th century, Silicon Valley and the tech world became, first, the gold standard, and then the only standard that mattered for entrepreneurship.

We think entrepreneurship is thriving in America because of a collective illusion that tech businesses are the only ones that matter. In fact, only about 1% of all startups belong to that shiny venture-backed tech world. A handful of the 1% grow into giants — but even the giants of today employ many few people than the big companies of yesterday.

The real strength of the economy is where it has always been, in the millions of people like Danaris whose ventures line Main Streets, or live in suburban office parks, or start around kitchen tables. A small business is its own small economic engine. It turns someone from a worker into an owner. It can offer prosperity. It provides agency. And it can be and often is an agent of social and economic change. Thomas Edison ran a small business. So did Milton Hershey. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, ran a small business – a small nonprofit. The black people who built their own Wall Street in Tulsa, OK in the early 20th century were using small business to take power from the white elites of their time — leading to the “attack on black wall street,” that we write about in Chapter 15. 

What’s the difference between Danaris and a white, Ivy League educated tech founder? We argue in The New Builders that’s it’s much less than you think. In fact, a lot of the difference boils down to one word: Capital.

Buy The New Builders here.

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.

A business journalist for 20 years, am the founder of Times of Entrepreneurship and the co-author of The New Builders.