Michel Zajur started the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2000 to serve the business needs of the growing immigrant population.
It is still growing, but just like everyone else, the Hispanic-community is dealing with mounting job losses and a slow business environment. BizSense has heard from construction companies that some laborers are leaving the country because they cannot find work.
BizSense spoke with Zajur recently about what his organization is doing to help the community prosper in a tough economy, and how the downturn is affecting Hispanic businesses.
Richmond BizSense: Over the last few years we’ve been hearing about the growth not only of the Hispanic population, but of businesses, is the current economy slowing down that boom?
Michel Zajur: The Hispanic community is going to boom no matter what just because of the demographics. The statistics on newborns –a high percentage comes from the Hispanic population. The Hispanic community will continue to grow despite the economic downturn.
Hispanics in this country spend more than a trillion dollars a year, so companies see that new area to tap into here in the U.S. and abroad. Companies that previously had no bilingual material or a strategy for reaching the Hispanic community are realizing the opportunity for business growth.
RBS: The economy is hurting everybody, how is the Hispanic-community responding to the downturn?
MZ: I think they are definitely feeling the struggles like everyone else, specifically in the construction field. We are getting a lot of people that are coming to look at government contracts or doing business with the state of Virginia that they hadn’t done in the past, and now they are looking at this new avenue for business opportunities.
RBS: We’ve heard that many immigrants are leaving the area and moving back south of the border, is this happening? How much of the population has left?
MZ: It is hard to measure that, but I know there are a lot of people getting laid off from their jobs. I think immigrants come to wherever they can find work. If there is not work here in Richmond, they’ll go to North Carolina, or New Jersey, or back home –wherever there is work.
RBS: What impact is the down economy having on retailers, restaurants and other services that have cropped up to support the Hispanic population?
MZ: They are struggling just because it is a trickle affect. When major corporations catch a cold, then small and minority business catch pneumonia a lot of times. They are feeling a tight recession, but they are very resourceful. They are very family-oriented and I think they will come out of it. As soon as all the other businesses pick up, we’ll hopefully get out of this soon.
I think the Hispanic community here has been here, and they are an economic catalyst for parts of Richmond by buying homes and starting business. They turned areas of the city that were boarded up and added taxes to our economy here. I think providing a valuable workforce over the years; businesses couldn’t grow with out this population. Now there is a slowdown. When it all comes back the Hispanic community will lead again to help build the economics in central Virginia again.
RBS: What is the Chamber doing now to help the Hispanic business community?
MZ: We’re starting a program to help Hispanic businesses, or any business for that matter. We are putting together a program designed for specific industries to help them with how to get through hard financial times. It’s a wonderful seminar, divided into different categories. It is not just the steps you take to start a business; it’s more insightful on how to take advantage of online marketing, resources that are available, and how to get their business working better.
We broke them down in different industries: restaurants and hospitality, construction, service and IT companies, and retail.
RBS: What are you doing for workers?
MZ: We are going to be doing a large job fair on July 18, in English titled “Fair of Opportunity.” We get a lot of people coming to the Chamber looking for employment, we assistant them in finding jobs. At the fair we are inviting corporations and business who want to hire a bilingual and diverse workforce.
RBS: What about Virginia trade with Mexico and other Latin American countries, how has the economy affected it?
MZ: I think there is a lot of opportunity in Latin America, of course this recession is affecting business world wide. What I tell businesses is this is a time to do your due diligence. The Chamber can help them explore new markets; it’s a wonderful thing to do when you are in a down economy like this. When it comes back up those that do their due diligence will have more opportunities.
Al Harris is a BizSense reporter. Please send story ideas to [email protected]