“600 Words by Esther J. Cepeda”
The same squeeze in credit, the same pricing pressures and stagnant volumes. And the same opportunities to diversify into new markets, the same access to a growing pool of talented workers, and the same necessity that so often is the mother of invention and innovation.
At least that’s how Roberto Cornelio, the 51-year-old Chief Operating Officer of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, sees it.
“This downturn is affecting Hispanic businesses with the exact same issues that affect others: access to markets, access to capital, access to resources, they’re no different from any other businesses in that sense,” said Cornelio.
And that’s how IHCC is very similar to other state-wide Chambers, with the Latino twist, of course. “We’re single-mindedly, obsessively focused on promoting and enabling Hispanic business growth and success,” the Mexican-born, lifelong Chicagoan, told me. “We advocate on issues that affect Hispanic business community and provide capacity-building assistance to Hispanic business to help them grow from startups to well-established, competitive companies.”
I translate that into empowering Latino businesses with the tools of good old American capitalism. “We give Hispanic businesses a solid foundation and position them for growth,” Cornelio seconded.
That’s no small feat, especially when Latino-owned businesses have yet to gain traction as powerbrokers and heavy-hitters in a town infamous for both.
And that’s the space where Cornelio – and the eleven-person IHCC – team work the hardest – to get Hispanic-owned businesses to be perceived as players on LaSalle Street and Michigan Avenue, rather than just as 26th Street bastions.
For his part, Cornelio helms the yeoman responsibilities of managing programs and staff, overseeing the Chamber’s finances, executing fundraising activities, and maintaining relationships with corporate partners and stakeholders.
The Chamber provides free, one-on-one expert consulting services, training, and assistance programs to entrepreneurs, small and mid-sized companies looking to scale up. “There’s a key transition between immigrants who were the pioneers of the community businesses and their children who are going to business school to get an MBA in order to manage and grow the business,” Cornelio said. “For the first time we will have expertise, training and that network we’ve lacked as a business community.”
IHCC instills that expertise in Latino-owned businesses with training on how to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of the Illinois state procurement process, an area of major opportunity.
“Just one of the many areas of opportunity for Latino businesses is the public sector,” Cornelio said. “If you look at the majority of the spend in federal, state, and local governments, there is significant volume in the public sector, but even though there are Minority enterprise partnership programs and other such programs we still have a very small percentage of the overall spend – well under 5%”
None of this speaks to any shadowy conspiracy to keep Latinos on the fringes – though I’d argue that keeping someone out and forgetting all about them are equally damaging – but rather, a testament to what a long way we’ve come in such a very short time.
“It’s more a reflection of how new and young this community is. Much of what’s happened has happened in the last 15-20 years because of the explosive population growth. We’re now starting to create stability, and that’s a unique opportunity.”
Cornelio estimates there are about 45,000 Hispanic-owned businesses in Illinois and anecdotal data approximates that 90% operate in the under one-million dollar revenue range and about 10% see revenues of larger than 1 million dollars.
“In the state of Illinois there are hundreds of Hispanic-owned businesses in the range between $5 million to $20 million range, including some producing revenues of $50 million,” Cornelio told me. “Those businesses will continue to drive the economic engine that will fuel the economic enhancement of everyone in the community – through job creation and through the cumulative effects of entrepreneurs employing providers of professional services like accounting and legal.”
“Growing Hispanic businesses provides a significant extended economic impact for all businesses in all parts of the city and state. More and more businesses are beginning to realize that opportunity,” Cornelio said. “The accompanying step is to tune this new generation of business leaders into the need to act publicly, to insert themselves in the civic and philanthropic tapestry of the city. We need to provide a leadership role in the life of the city’s overall business community not just our own.”
“When I’m done in 10-15 years, Hispanic businesses will be a visceral part of leadership in a daily, ongoing basis, in all aspects of life, in this city and elsewhere.”
“Chicago Latino List 2009” was generously sponsored by the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Chicago White Sox, and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Restaurants. All nominees were independently nominated for this recognition; their rejection and/or selection to “Chicago Latino List 2009” was not, in any way, influenced by any disclosed or undisclosed personal or professional proximity to Esther J. Cepeda or to any sponsor of “Chicago Latino List 2009”.
Esther J. Cepeda writes the "600 Words" & "Pregunta del Dia" columns, and is also the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. Her views and reporting do not necessarily reflect those of ISAC. "600 words" is a registered trademark of EeJayCee, Inc., Copyright 2008. May be reprinted with permission, contact [email protected]