Changing the Conversation

The United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) is living up to its name by advancing the interests of small business owners who happen to be Hispanic.

“Our objective has always been to move from being focused on civil rights and other challenges to becoming an organization that really sees itself as a business organization,” said Javier Palomarez, President and CEO. “So whether we’re speaking to the President, as we were a few weeks ago, or whether in front of the media, or foreign dignitaries, we are very clear about the fact that we are not a civil rights organization but a business organization.”

Since joining the organization, Palomarez and USHCC Chairman Marc Rodriguez have guided the USHCC through a period of astronomical growth in a time when many other Latino nonprofits are seeing funding cuts and losing members. But this renaissance brought growing pains. In their first year, Palomarez and Rodriguez revamped the organization’s board and bylaws. Over half the sitting board members were replaced and for the first time ever, corporate executives were allowed to sit on the USHCC board.

“We needed to get the right players at the table so that we have the right philosophy and mission and therefore the right activity to get us where we need to go,” Palomarez said. “Today, 25 percent of our board is from corporate America and 75 percent is from small business.”

Through a combination of leadership, training and development programs, legislative advocacy efforts, and innovative solutions, the USHCC is fulfilling its objective to give Hispanic-owned firms a level playing field in an ever challenging economy.

“We concern ourselves with commerce, free trade, less government regulation and job creation, and really focus on the need for a voice from the Hispanic community to talk about the issues that are more of a commercial interest and more of an economic interest,” Palomarez said. “In doing so, we believe that we will create the wealth that is necessary in our community for all of us to move forward.”

Recently, the USHCC took that conversation to the White House where Palomarez, alongside other Hispanic leaders, met with President Obama, Vice President Biden and senior administration officials to discuss strategic goals for the Hispanic business community.[see Journal, p. 14]

“Over the course of his presidency, President Obama has worked to shift the dialogue of U.S.-Mexico relations from border enforcement and security to an agenda of economic development and building mutual prosperity,” Palomarez said.

When it comes to politics, the USHCC prides itself on being able to work on both sides of the aisle, which Rodriguez says presents an opportunity rather than a challenge. During a 24-hour period at the group’s last legislative summit, Republicans Rand Paul and Eric Cantor as well as Democrats Javier Becerra and Nancy Pelosi addressed members.

In that vein, working with a broad range of partners, not just the local Hispanic chamber of commerce or business owner, has been crucial to the success and growth of the organization, according to Rodriguez. The USHCC now counts the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy as members. “They get the economics of the new demographic,” Rodriguez says.

Palomarez and Rodriguez, both Texas natives, say they try to spend as much time as they can out of their suits and in a deer blind or a boat. Recently they sat down with LATINO Magazine in Austin to discuss what lies ahead for the USHCC.

What are some of the USHCC programs making the greatest impact in the Latino business community?

Javier Palomarez For the longest time, we’ve thought that minority communities are most drastically impacted by bad environmental policies. And yet we are the last ones to know and we’re usually not equipped to do anything about it. From this challenge came a program called Green Builds Business. We go to local chambers and train small business owners about the things that they can do to lessen their carbon footprint and become more energy efficient. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “Hey listen, if you’re running a delivery company did you know that of you bought hybrid vehicles that the manufacturer would give you a rebate? So you’re actually saving money while you’re doing something to go green and lessen your carbon footprint.”

I’ll give you a real-life example of one small Hispanic business owner out of Salt Lake City. He started out in East LA and knew how to fix cars but the market was saturated so he went to Salt Lake City. It’s a tourist town so there are a large number of people who don’t know the roads and wrecks happen. When we did the Green Builds Business training program training there, he came to the training course and got a certificate of completion. And because he was a certified business, the local fire department made him a vendor of choice. And when the police department heard that, they also made him a vendor of choice [and so did Avis and Budget.] So his business has blossomed and he is a top tier vendor now. All because he showed some responsibility and came to Green Builds Business and got certified as a green enterprise. This is not a Hispanic issue. Our environment is everybody’s responsibility. But we were the first small business organization to put together a program, and so we’re leading the way demonstrating that American small business has a big role to play in leaving this environment better than the way we found it.

Marc Rodriguez Bizfest is a fantastic youth leadership program specifically designed to teach the acumen of entrepreneurship. Business owners volunteer their time to actually spend time with young Latinos to produce and teach business skills. They are already a part of this growing American economy.

Where did the inspiration for these programs come from?

JP It’s born out of the realization of our own circumstances. We both came from not the best communities. If there had been a train in our little town we would have been on the wrong side of the tracks but there wasn’t even a train. But we recognize the challenges that a lot of Latino youth are going through. I myself am a high school dropout and then went back to night school and then went on to college. Marc in his life also had to struggle. Again, you can complain about it or you can do something about it. That’s what Bizfest does. We have really doubled down on our investment in it through partnerships with great organizations like the Ford Motor Company.

What are your doing to advocate for Hispanic-owned businesses at the legislative level?

MR Advocacy is a specific initiative of our organization. One of our events every year is our legislative summit. The board sets policy in key industrial sectors such as manufacturing, energy, financial markets and infrastructure. All those industrial sectors are the true breeding grounds for the entrepreneur and therefore the Hispanic entrepreneur. So we go to Washington D.C. to advocate on behalf of small business. The last day of the summit we’re actually on the Hill as an organization and advocating with our members. We’ll have meetings with leadership from the House and the Senate. I love getting in trouble when Senators and Representatives when they say they haven’t had enough time with the USHCC. That’s a great problem to have and we’ve had that recently.

JP We advocate on behalf of 3.1 million Hispanic-owned firms that together contribute more than $468 billion to the economy every year. And we’re growing at a rate of 2 to 1 when compared to the general market. We also advocate on behalf of 192 major American corporations. And we do our work through a network of 200 local chambers and business associations throughout out the U.S. and Puerto Rico. America has finally woken up to the reality that two-thirds of all jobs in this nation are created by small businesses. As a nation we’ve always valued the entrepreneur but never treasured the entrepreneur. We spend a lot of time talking about the need for America to recognize the value of the Latino entrepreneur to our economy.

MR Seven years ago Henry Cisneros was here in Austin and he gave a speech to the Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He said if you’re a corporation in America just now paying attention to the new demographic, it’s not a matter of if but when you will perish. Less than seven years later, that same phrase is just as much about business survival in America. And if you believe in business survival as a business owner and as a corporate executive, you have to believe in the power of the Hispanic entrepreneur or you’re not going to make it.

What role does corporate America play in your efforts?

JP We get all of our funding from small businesses and corporate America. Marc and I made the decision about three years ago that we would not be funded by the Federal government because we didn’t want to be beholden to anybody. We wanted to be able to call things as we saw them, and today we enjoy the ability to give an unfettered opinion on what we think is right for our constituency.

Apart from corporate America, who is on your board of directors?

JP We have a gentleman who is a disabled, decorated war veteran and runs a technology company that employs over 400 people and last year made over $310 million. So when we walk into a meeting with the Department of Commerce, we bring him and 5 or 6 other people like him. That’s the conversation that the White House and frankly everyone in America pays attention to because these are the people who are creating the jobs, leading the innovation, paying down the tax bill. and growing the economy. It’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s a different thing when Marc and I walk in and we’ve got them right behind us saying, “Now what do you want to talk about?”

Where are your plans and goals for your upcoming annual convention?

JP The national convention rotates from city to city, and we try to select areas that are illustrative of who we are as a community. This year we chose Chicago because of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. He has been very public about the fact that he intends to make Chicago the most immigrant friendly city in America. We believe if you believe in American small business by default you have to believe in the immigrant community. You can’t be pro-business and be anti-immigrant. If you look at brands like Google, EBay, Intel, AT&T, and Bank of America—they were all started by immigrants.

MR I thought we couldn’t outdo Miami. But LA outdid Miami. In September we’re going to Chicago and we’re already on pace to outdo LA. The convention really celebrates the contributions of Hispanic businesses to this country. But we’re also celebrating the American economy., I liken our workshops and our training sessions it to a gym…it’s as good a workout as you get. But we are also a Latino organization and there is definitely some fun to be had, we know how to celebrate.

JP It is the largest gathering of Hispanic business leaders in America. It’s attended by about 7,000 people. We have the Million Dollar Club where we recognize those corporations that are doing tens of millions, hundreds of millions, 500 million and even a billion dollars of businesses with American small businesses that happen to be Latino owned. We also have an ERG summit, where we have the employee resource groups of all of the major corporations that are our partners of ours participate in a friendly competition. Every year we recognize one of them as the leading ERG. We have a women’s empowerment afternoon where we talk about the critical role that Latinas play. We believe, as Marc said, that we will set a 34-year record in Chicago.

What are some of the challenges the USHCC is facing and how are you confronting these?

MR The challenge that I want to discuss is an opportunity to change the conversation. We have the opportunity of being an apolitical organization working both sides of the aisle to advocate for American small business. At the same time we have the opportunity to balance that effort with programming, leadership training, and webinars that relate to economic development.

JP From my perspective, the challenge is how to value the contributions of American Hispanic-owned companies. This is the consummate American story. While we are Hispanics, we are first and foremost American businesses. It’s a great time for the USHCC.

MR One of my favorite phrases is a lot of people love the USHCC. We want people to love the USHCC every day. That keeps us focused. We are the organization that represents the Latino entrepreneur.

Evelyn Castillo