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Jennifer Rodríguez, Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 
Jennifer Rodríguez, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News

Jennifer Rodríguez has the key to Latino success in Philadelphia

Providing technical assistance, facilitating a broad network of business relationships, and empowering Latino entrepreneurs in Philadelphia are the three main…

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In the United States, only 3 percent of Hispanic companies generate profits above $1 million annually. This means that the vast majority of the economic and commercial activity of Latinos in the country is developed in small and medium enterprises, usually of family origin.

In Philadelphia, and its surroundings, there are over 18,000 businesses owned by Latinos. There are just 8,000 businesses in the city - among restaurants, warehouses and different micro enterprises - that mostly belong to Latino immigrants or the first generation of their descendants in the United States.

Among the types of Hispanic-owned businesses in the city are the bodegas and grocery stores, in which the Dominican and Puerto Rican communities play a dominant role; and the gastronomic sector that, with the leadership of the Mexican community, has reshaped the landscape in South Philly, especially the Italian Market, which some have long called "Puebladelfia".

In addition, more and more Latino entrepreneurs and professionals are interested in investing and creating business here. A trend that, according to the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GPHCC), the corporate, political and financial sectors must take into account if they want to stay behind a community whose demographic growth has been determinant for the city in recent years.

It is precisely in that area - that of relations and search of resources - where the GPHCC wants to play the organizer role between both economic worlds, a task that considers vital for the future a community of Hispanic entrepreneurs, traders, professionals, restaurant owners and investors.

Jennifer Rodríguez, CEO the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Photo: Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News

Jennifer Rodríguez, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Photo: Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News

Al Día News spoke to Jennifer Rodríguez - who has been at the forefront of the organization for a year and 10 months - about the goals and actions the Chamber is implementing to help Hispanic entrepreneurs achieve their goals.

There is a culture among Latino that is not going to the institutions to solicit lines of credits. But there is also a culture of the financial institutions that is not giving loans to Latinos. What is your advice to those reluctant Latinos entrepreneur and what is your message to the institutions for them to become more open to give those loans?

The good news is that finally financial institutions are getting the message.

One thing that we need to understand is that many Latino businesses are what we call “internally motivated”. Internally motivated businesses are those that, you become an entrepreneur or business owner because of the necessity to provide for your family.

Those businesses, many of them, may not have ambitious of aggressive growth, they want to provide for their families. So banks in the business of generating fees and interest for profit, they assume that every business wants to become super big and wants to scale.

Many of Latino owned businesses their purpose is really to alleviate poverty, to take their family to the middle class or to get their kids to education, [that makes them] very conservative in the way the approach business. A loan may not be the most attractive product for them, but there are other things that banks can do: some micro lenders, alternative lenders, the city programs for grants or things of that nature might be a better fit.

There are some banks that are restructuring their business sort of lines in order to really make loans that are much lower, to providing more comprehensive technical assistance to businesses.

My message to banks and financial institutions is they really need to understand the marketplace and they need to offer products that our business owners want.

What financial institutions are leading the way?

We have a number of financial institutions like Santander and Wells Fargo that are funding micro lenders like Finanta so I think to the extent of these organizations a lot of Hispanics might not be able to lend themselves because their business model can’t really manage these really small loans but they’re supporting institutions that provide those loans. I’ve learned recently that PNC Bank is looking to do smaller loans directly, I think that is fantastic.

We also have regional smaller banks that tend to keep the portfolio in house and make decisions in house. We have a Customers Bank that is really aggressively pursuing business in Philadelphia on the larger scale loans, but yet really trying to meet the needs of the customers here. So I think that they are moving in the right direction. I would like to see much more of the smaller loans and products that are more flexible.

Now, to the Latino owned businesses, they have homework to do too because many of them do not report all the revenue and they under report. Well, if you under report in the short term it is good because your taxes are lower. In the long term you are shooting yourself in the foot because when you have to apply for a loan for more equipment and replace that old refrigerator or you need to buy a new van then your low revenues make it harder for you to get the the loan that you want.

That is why it is so important that you really get the advice of accountants and book keepers that can help you plan and make the best decisions about what tax advantages are there so that you can really position your business so you can grow and meet your goals.

So there’s a lot of work that Latino owned businesses need to do as well. So it’s really a two way street.

Share with us how this year and 10 months have been for you as the CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

I have been in the Hispanic Chamber family for a long time. I was on the board for a number of years prior to joining former Mayor Nutter’s administration, I was one of the founders of the professional mentoring network which now we call the Young Professional Network, so now in some ways I am a graduate of the Hispanic Chamber.

Coming back and serving the Latino community is something that makes me really proud. Throughout my career I’ve really worked hard and I think my personal mission is to ensure that communities are empowered, have the resources and the networks to fulfill their aspirations.

I think it is very important that we don’t impose aspirations and goals on the communities, the businesses or to professionals, but that we facilitate the achieving of their goals.

So it’s not up to the Chamber to tell a business or professional “you must scale, you must be this or you must be that.” It is our goal to ask them “What do you want to be? Where do you want to be?” and to show them the resources and the opportunities that are available and help them make use of those.

Jennifer Rodríguez, CEO the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Photo: Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News
Jennifer Rodríguez, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Photo: Samantha Laub / AL DIA News
What are the goals that you had when you started at the Chamber that you have achieved and what are the other goals that still need to be met?

The first year of somebody coming into a leadership position of an organization is about finding your way and knowing where the copier is and what not. I think what I really wanted to do was get closer to our membership and get closer to the community. And I think one of the things we did was move our annual meeting that used to historically take place in center city, we moved it to north Philadelphia because that’s where the majority of Latino businesses are.

So if we’re really going to be an organization that meets the needs of Latino owned businesses and Latino entrepreneurs, we need to be where they are.

What would you say to those Latino entrepreneurs that are thinking in having their business in Philadelphia?

There is a lot of pride of ownership in the Latino community. We celebrate the sweat, the tears, the time, the money we lost, “so much invested in this business to grow… ” There is a lot of pride in that  and it’s very well placed.

But in the US you grow your business by acquisition, by investments, through merges, partnerships, which in many ways to Latinos that seems like you are giving control away. These are things that I think our community is not very comfortable with, but that is the way that in United States you scale business.

If you want to succeed there are certain fundamentals that you must have in place. What I would recommend is that use experts that  have been vetted. That hiring experts is really an investment and it will save you dollars in the long run.

What are those needs that, in your opinion, the Latino business community has right now?

In the Chamber we say there are about five or six elements that you must have in order to be business ready, in order to set yourself for success.

You need to have a sales page. You need to be able to talk about your business in a way that makes people curious about what you do and wanna engage with you.

You need to have a presence in the internet, and that is a challenge in the Latino community. I need to be able to search you and find out what you do, when you do it, and how to get to all of you.

You need to have a business plan, whether if it’s two page or a ten page, but in that business plan you need to be able to articulate what you do, what makes you special, what your goals are, you need to have an accountant or a bookkeeper for something other than taxes, for planning your growth.

You need to know an attorney that can help you solve a problem, a lot of issues happen when businesses exchange or undergo transactions informally, and they’re not recorded.  

And finally, do you have a line of credit or a business account, not on your personal name but on the name of the business.

Those are things that are critical, foundational. If you are missing anyone of those you can be successful today, you’re going to say ‘I’m doing fine’, but I guarantee you that at some point of your success you will encounter a situation in which you’re going to say that you need an accountant, an attorney or a line of credit.

The State of Hispanic Business is something that you are preparing. When it’s going to come out and what’s going to happen?

We see the chamber really about educating and closing the gap in understanding who Latinos are and the contributions to local and regional economy are. We are here to close the gap in outcomes for Latino owned businesses and Hispanic professionals. These are three things we really are focused on. So under the headline of closing the gap in understanding who Latinos are and understanding our contributions, is this idea of the State of Hispanic Business.

We need to really educate ourselves as a community and those outside of our community about what we look like. What are Latino small businesses? How many are there? What industries are we in and not in? How have we in the last 10–20 years changed the landscape of the region? What are the challenges are we having to scale? Why is it that only 3% of Latino owned businesses are generating more than a million dollars in sales? Let’s have a conversation about that.

The State of Hispanic Business is really about using data and understanding who we are as a group, so that then we can start influencing and decision makers can then use that information for policy programs that can solve problems.

There is a need for data and solutions based on real numbers. Our goal is to have an initial conversation and every year we’ll add a layer to the State of Hispanic Business. Maybe next year it might be technology, so we might take a focus on what is the technology sector and how are Latinos performing.

We really want this to be a place where we can have informed discussions about the influence and the impact of Latinos in the economy and how we can really improve outcomes in relation to economic development jobs and business development.

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