Isabel Lopez-Slattery started her photography business during college when she was having a difficult time finding work due to her then-undocumented status.
Now a U.S. citizen, Lopez-Slattery has kept Grand Rapids-based Dreams by Bella Photography growing for almost a decade and is still passionate about her work as an entrepreneur and a creative.
Dreams by Bella is a photography studio specializing in commercial photography and related services for websites, marketing materials and more for a wide range of corporate and organizational clients.
Lopez-Slattery and her one employee serve clients ranging from magazine companies and trade associations to colleges and corporations. Local clients have included Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Eastern Floral, Steelcase and more.
She was working on expanding into commercial and residential real estate photography when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down most nonessential businesses in response to the spread of the coronavirus, her clients canceled events and photo shoots en masse.
“On a scale of one to 10, I was affected almost a nine, I would say,” Lopez-Slattery said. “But it has also given me an opportunity to sit down and see how (I) can also reinvent (myself) in a time like this.”
Lopez-Slattery is brainstorming ways to swing temporarily toward the product photography side of her business. She said she believes businesses that are currently depending on online traffic to shore up sales during the pandemic need to take branding and product photography seriously to provide accurate and appealing visuals for customers.
Thankfully, Lopez-Slattery landed a racial equity loan from Rende Progress Capital (RPC) the last week of March, and she said the funds will be immensely helpful in getting her through this time.
RPC — co-founded by Eric Foster and Cuong Huynh to issue loans to excluded entrepreneurs facing barriers to conventional lending due to racial bias and other market factors — approved a loan for an undisclosed sum to Dreams by Bella, which the lending firm said at the time would allow Lopez-Slattery to acquire new photography equipment, boost its marketing services, support staffing and operations, and potentially fund renovations for an expanded studio/office.
Lopez-Slattery said she was hoping to put some of the loan toward hiring another employee, but plans have changed now.
“For me, (receiving the news) was a not only very happy but a very blessed moment because of how my business has been affected right now. This is going to help me not only to innovate, because my business plan when I applied for a loan was very different, but modify and make adjustments to take it to the end of the year and continue being in business,” she said.
“That’s a conversation that a lot of local businesses and entrepreneurs are having. … We’re trying to find ways of saying, ‘OK, how are we going to make the right decisions and go to the right resources to survive?’”
Foster, who also is chair and managing director of RPC in addition to co-founder, said RPC’s loan to Dreams by Bella was based on “positive social impact factors of the business, bias the customer faced from traditional lenders during loan consideration processes and RPC racial equity criteria.”
“On behalf of the RPC loan committee, my colleague and co-founder Cuong Huynh and our staff, we are pleased to have Dreams by Bella as a new customer,” he said. “We considered this business based on fundamentals, client base, market expansion planning and a commitment to diverse staff. We also note that Ms. Lopez-Slattery’s business has management and financial qualities that should have put her in consideration of a bank loan in the first place.
“Ms. Lopez-Slattery did not stop in spite of competition, bias and social barriers. She faced many. … RPC does not just value this journey; we made it a part of our loan decision.”
Lopez-Slattery said she started trying to receive conventional funding in 2016 for better photography equipment as well as for a mortgage loan, and she was denied for both by several banks, which told her she had not been in business long enough to show proof of a consistent income.
“They would tell me, ‘OK, come back next year’ and ‘Come back next year,’ which I did for two years in a row, and so I kind of got sick of it,” she said.
She said the process for applying for a loan from RPC was much easier than with a traditional bank because the loan committee worked with her every step of the way on what paperwork and documentation she needed and was there to answer all of her questions.
“They were so helpful. … There was a personal aspect to it, and I was very happy about that,” she said. “To have somebody who can walk you through a process that is so complex like this and really care for you to submit the right things and constantly keep in communication with you through the process, it’s amazing. It’s amazing because it makes you feel that you’re listened to, you’re valuable, you do have a contribution … (and) it allows you not only to keep growing as a business but also to encourage other entrepreneurs to give them these resources and have that experience as well.”
Lopez-Slattery said she also is looking into small business loans that are available through the state and federal government to help get her business through the year.
A “second passion” of hers is to encourage other young entrepreneurs to follow their dreams of becoming a photographer, despite what is happening in the industry right now.
She said most people don’t realize the many avenues for photography and how important good images are from a marketing standpoint.
“You need a photographer to take photos for your flyers, for portraits, for your website, for (the media). There’s so many areas of photography that are not (traditional). Every time I tell somebody I’m a photographer, they’re like, ‘Oh really? And how many weddings do you shoot?’”
She said looking back on her childhood, she realizes now that she always loved photography — taking pictures with a disposable camera and waiting three days to get the film developed — but she never considered it could be a career.
“Nobody told me, ‘Hey, you could be a photographer.’ They never looked at it as a profession. My peers always said, ‘Be a doctor, a police officer,’ all these traditional careers. … So, for me, encouraging the next generation (is important).”