When Michael Barrera was growing up in Kansas City, he watched his father, Richard, advance his career at The Westin Kansas City at Crown Center from banquet manager to catering director.
His father also opened a restaurant that served Mexican food and helped to start the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City.
“He was used to working with people from all over the country — sometimes, the world — and he realized, you don’t have to be intimidated,” Barrera recalled.
That confidence and desire to support business owners in the Hispanic community inspired Barrera to follow a similar path. The son became president of the local and national Hispanic Chambers.
He recently returned to Kansas City from Florida to serve as district director for the U.S. Small Business Administration. In that role, he works to connect local business owners with the federal agency’s services at a critical moment, as people try to recover from the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have to reach out to all of the entrepreneurs to let them know [about] all of the resources that are out there to help them, whether it [is] capital access, government contracting or entrepreneurial development resources,” said Barrera, whose office covers western Missouri and eastern Kansas.
Barrera grew up in the Westside, a predominantly Hispanic part of Kansas City. He describes his family as “special” because his relatives were able to overcome several challenges: His older brother was developmentally disabled, and his young sister had cerebral palsy. And a decade after Barrera was born, his parents had another son. For Barrera, that age gap and his other siblings’ challenges meant “you learn about responsibility” quickly, he said.
His father also always told him, “Education is the most important thing you can have because they can never take it away from you,” he added.
Barrera earned a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University and then attended law school at the University of Texas. A year after graduating, he returned to Kansas City, and like his father, sought out civic engagement. In addition to starting a law practice and serving the local and national Hispanic chambers of commerce, he was one of the founders of the Hispanic Bar Association of Greater Kansas City.
That drive to network also stemmed from his father, who prioritized learning but often told his son: “Don’t let the books ruin your education.”
“And what he meant by that was, you have to learn from people and not only that, but let them learn about you,” Barrera said. “And you find that you’re not that much different.”
In spite of his deep roots in Kansas City, Barrera also has lived in cities across Texas and in Denver, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. Before returning to Kansas City, he lived in Jacksonville, Fla., while working for the SBA.
In February, he returned to his hometown because of his family and “love for the community,” as well as his “love for the sports teams,” he said.
Barrera is the right person to lead the SBA’s local office and help struggling businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry, said Carlos Gomez, president and CEO of the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
In April, Gomez said he anticipated that the next six months would be especially challenging for people who managed to keep their restaurants open but were now exhausted.
Gomez is excited about Barrera’s appointment because of his philosophy, “which is to help the little mom-and-pop business, and if the [little] businesses get help, then everyone above them will get help,” he said.
On May 3, the SBA began accepting applications for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which offers $28.6 billion in federal funding to eateries across the country.
Enrique Gutierrez, co-owner of Teocali Mexican Restaurant and Cantina in Kansas City, planned to apply for a share of those funds. His restaurant, which serves his family’s native cuisine from Jalisco, Mexico, managed to stay open during the pandemic with the help of a Paycheck Protection Program loan obtained through the SBA and by focusing on curbside pickup.
The revitalization funding helped him to expand the patio of his restaurant, purchase heat lamps and incentivize his employees, who have stayed home with the help of government assistance, to come back to work, he said.
Under Barrera, the SBA produced a seminar about its resources at its newly opened New Growth Women’s Business Center in Springfield, and it planned to spread word about the revitalization fund by working with the Kansas City Hispanic News and other minority media groups, he said.
“We are really focused on the traditionally underserved markets,” such as women, Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, the LGBTQ community and people in rural areas, Barrera said.
Daniel Silva, president and CEO of the Kansas City Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said Barrera already has helped local businesses by being accessible.
“It took a simple call to Michael, saying that our small businesses are still having challenges and not really understanding the PPP process or have not tapped into the PPP because they are assuming it’s very cumbersome,” Silva said. “I asked him, ‘Would you be willing to present to our members?’ And he put his staff on it right away.”
Gomez, of the local Hispanic chamber — which provides an annual award in honor of Barrera’s father — said he also sees how the elder Barrera’s example appears to have made a big impact on his son.
“Everything I heard about Richard Barrera, the same qualities are there with Michael,” said Gomez. “Michael is a class act. He is always there to help somebody. He is always there to listen . . . In the small-business world, people just need to go to someone to bounce ideas off of and vent to or just to clear their mind, so they can make good decisions about their business, and Michael is that person that people trust.”
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