By Heidi Simmons
“Grow your dreams” is the slogan for the newly formed Desert Lightning, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, that helps valley residence start or rehabilitate a business.
“What Desert Lightning has done is combine elements of an incubator, a mix-use campus, financial programs, inspiration, mentorship, training and lots of different things to start, grow and repair business,” said Steven Slomkowski Chief Business Development Officer of Desert Lightning. “Not a single government program has done as well at getting people on the right path to business. If we can change a few lives, maybe 100 or 1000 over the next six months, then we change our communities in a positive way.”
With an office in Desert Hot Springs located at Palm Drive and Two Bunch Palms Trail (sharing the wall with the giant ocean mural of swimming Orcas), Desert Lightning has created a business center where anyone is welcome to come in, talk about their entrepreneurial dreams and maybe even set up shop.
After just three months in operation, Desert Lightning has partnered with local, state and federal organizations to bring support and resources that will help impact and improve the communities with the greatest needs.
Last week, Desert Lightning signed the US Small Business Administration’s Strategic Alliance Memorandum, which solidified a commitment to help start, maintain and expand small businesses in the CV. The memorandum grants a wider partnership allowing for broader opportunities.
Present for the signing of the memorandum were: Adalberto Quijada District Director of the US Small Business Administration; Kyle Wagner, Director of the Coachella Valley Small Business Development Center; Joe Wallace, IHub executive and Interim President of Coachella Valley Economic Partnership; Michelle Skiljan, Coachella Valley Women’s Business Center; and Heather Coladonato, President and CEO of Desert Lightning.
Others on board with Desert Lightning include: Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia, Senator Jeff Stone and Congressman Raul Ruiz.
“This is a big, positive moment for the City of Desert Hot Springs,” said Coladonato, who is also CEO of the Desert Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce. “We have a distinct strategy behind DHS as our first location and main office. We want to change the conversation. This brings positive representation and focuses on the business community at large. From DHS, we are serving the entire desert region that includes both San Bernardino and Riverside counties.”
According to Coladonato, there are currently 24 companies actively involved with Desert Lightning. She said that one company is looking to make a $1.8 million investment in DHS. Under a temporary nondisclosure agreement, Coladonato could not say who the business is while it moves through the process and considers feasibility, but was optimistic about the possibilities.
“Of the 24 businesses in the Desert Lightning database, they are either in the process of developing, growing or repairing,” said Slomkowski. “The poorest communities need the most attention and we plan to measure our success by increasing the odds.”
Statistics show that nine out of 10 businesses fail the first year. Desert Lightning plans on monitoring their results and hopes to reduce that figure to six. “And with those six, we want to help them rethink their business and go with the next best thing,” said Slomkowski. “Beyond increasing the chances for businesses, our goal is to measure our success by positively changing the lives, homes and families in the community.”
Part of Desert Lightning’s focus is on minorities and women. “If we can change the central female figure in homes with something as minor as a little money, a machine and some guidance, then we are lifting that family out of poverty,” said Slomkowski.
Desert Lightning programs include working with Middle and High school kids by inspiring and training young entrepreneurs and emerging leaders. Involvement with Desert Lightning also requires a commitment to give back to the community.
The organization is currently working out details to put together a program that would include assisting 12 DHS women, who, along with their dream of being in business, will each develop a business plan and raise between $800 and $1,000. Desert Lightning and their partners will contribute $4,000 or more to kick-start their businesses with hands-on help and support.
Desert Lightning was a dream of Coladonato’s for over five years as the CEO of the DHS Chamber of Commerce. After pitching to the Chamber’s board the idea of a foundation that could make it easier for small businesses to start and flourish throughout the desert region, they allowed her to nurture the vision to fruition.
“They saw the idea right away,” said Coladonato. “The Chamber’s designation is very member centric, which focuses on areas of business support services and advocacy. I knew we had to broaden that and open it up to everybody.”
Kent Helser serves on the board of the DHS Chamber and is Chairman of the Desert Lightning Foundation. “Heather had this vision for years. We saw that this organization could impact the city as well as all the businesses in the community,” said Helser. “We wanted to get past all the negative impressions people have about the city and build something positive. This is what we need to do to grow the community. It’s going to be phenomenal. It’s all about working together to accomplish our goals.”
Helser and his partner Floyd Barten lease their building to Desert Lightning and the DHS Chamber of Commerce offices. They own and operate the adjacent UPS Store. Of the 54 UPS Stores in the Inland Empire, they are number one in monthly volume printing. Helser and Barten have been in DHS for over two and a half years and what started with only the two of them running the store has grown to five employees — along with their popular rescue dog, “Buddha.”
When Luis Fausto found a Desert Lightning brochure at the DHS Starbucks, it immediately got his attention. As a branding consultant and web designer, he noticed right away the polished graphics and bullet-point programs about starting, growing and repairing business. His communications business, Creativo, is now a client of Desert Lighting.
“I live in DHS but work across the valley. Knowing that I and so many others will now have quality resources for business closer to home, really highlights the modern and personal take Desert Lightning is bringing,” said Fausto. “As my company grows, there are business related areas where I lack experience and need help navigating the intricacies of business management. So having the hands-on consulting and resources of Desert Lightning is invaluable. I have expert support and guidance to further build and expand my business as I need it. It feels good to know that I can drop in, use the space for work and get feedback as well.”
In Spanish or English, Coladonato and Slomkowski welcome and encourage anyone looking to improve or begin a business to come to Desert Lightning and have a conversation. Coladonato and Slomkowski are friendly, cheerful, enthusiastic and eager to help.
Desert Lightning offers an “Application Station” where an application to participate in programs can be filled out in the office. One can also visit the website at www.desertlightning.org to apply. Business analysis, support and mentoring services are all free.
“Desert Lightning is about creating positive energy for business and community,” said Coladonato. “We share a passion to teach and empower. There is great reward in trying to build a business that includes self-reliance, self-worth and wealth. We are here to help grow your dreams.”