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Jennifer Rodriguez, President & CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (far left) moderates a panel discussion during the 2021 Closing the Gap Conference on Oct. 20. Photo: Jensen Toussaint/AL DÍA News. 
Jennifer Rodriguez, President & CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (far left) moderates a panel discussion during the 2021 Closing the Gap Conference on Oct. 20. Photo: Jensen Toussaint/AL DÍA News. 

Construction, an industry where Latinos are seeing a lot of growth across the United States

During GPHCC’s 2021 Closing the Gap Conference, a panel discussion provided an overview of the industry in Philadelphia. 

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On a national level, the construction industry is seeing a lot of growth in Latino entrepreneurship.

Between 2011 and 2019, Hispanic construction workers in the U.S. increased by 55% and according to the Brookings Institution, make up about 27% of construction workers in the country. 

This has opened the door to Latino entrepreneurship in the industry. However, in Philadelphia the number of Hispanics in the construction industry pales in comparison. 

The Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is doing its part in helping the few Latino entrepreneurs in the industry scale their businesses.

Jennifer Rodriguez, President and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GPHCC) underscored that in the next 10 to 20 years, the construction industry will see a boost, lending itself to many opportunities.

She credited the imminent boost to a decaying infrastructure, the current affordable housing crisis and the demand for new units. 

With help, Latinos can play a significant role in that development.

“While Latinos are the backbone of the construction industry on the labor side,” said Rodriguez. “We are not necessarily taking ownership, we’re not creating businesses and we’re not growing businesses in the construction industry at a rate that we would like.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 20, the GPHCC hosted its annual Closing the Gap Conference, an annual event to discuss and provide tips on how to accelerate opportunities for Latinos within the region’s fastest growing sectors and industries. 

During the event, Rodriguez moderated a panel discussion which provided an overview of the construction industry, featuring Lou Rodriguez, Dayanna Cardenas and Mike Diaz.

Very Different Paths

For Diaz, his decision to go into entrepreneurship was prompted by a realization that was years in the making.

“The main reason I did it was because I didn’t feel there were enough Black and Brown people in the industry,” he said. 

He worked several years as a transmission manager at PECO, project manager at a construction company and more recently as the vice president at a utilities company.  

When he felt that the workforce wasn’t accurately reflecting the communities being served, Diaz wanted to do something about it.

Two weeks after sending his letter of resignation, he started his own company, Semper Utilities, LLC.

“I went a year-and-a-half without taking a penny, but here we are in year three,” said Diaz. “We’re 40 million in and growing.”

Lou Rodriguez is a civil engineer by training who did not receive any business training.

While working at the Philadelphia Water Department, he often came in contact with many consultants whose jobs were similar to his, but did the work for themselves.

“I always had the desire,” said Rodriguez about becoming a consultant. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I absolutely knew I would do it; I just didn’t know when or where.

He ended up leaving the city and working in the private sector while trying his hand in different business ventures, initially to little success, “because I wasn’t really that focused,” he said. 

Eventually, in 2007 he started his own engineering consulting firm, Rodriguez Consulting.

Not a Do-It-Yourself Endeavor

Entrepreneurship can be a long journey, but perhaps the most poignant piece of advice Jennifer Rodriguez would give is: “Entrepreneurship is not a do-it-yourself venture; In fact, it is a community activity,” she said.

“It’s about identifying what you need and figuring out who can do it for you… it’s about risk, it’s about efficiency, investing and getting a return,” she continued. 

When Lou Rodriguez was beginning his entrepreneurial journey, Jennifer and the GPHCC were critical as he tried to succeed with the Hispanic business label. 

“That was really a process of learning who the business leaders were in the city and getting comfortable… Jennifer and a few others played a huge role in really helping guide me through that path,” he said.

Diaz credits the success of his company largely to his ability to seek and obtain outside resources, while he would often “stay in his lane.”

He knew what areas he was skilled in and found external workers who were skilled in other areas and put the skills together in order to give clients what they needed, and in some cases bringing those workers in-house.

“It’s starting to scale up,” he said of his businesses.

Scaling and Capital Challenges

Success is attainable; however, challenges along the way are inevitable. 

Dayanna Cardenas has more than four years of experience in the construction industry, as she is currently an assistant project manager at IMC Construction. 

If there is one challenge she has seen in the industry it’s handling the legal documents and payroll.

“That’s an area where I see that sometimes there are some hiccups or opportunities to improve,” said Cardenas.

She noted that competitive pricing was another area that can be improved, particularly with subcontractors. Oftentimes, subcontractors may account for the price of the work, but not necessarily the other components of the job, including help, insurance and other fees. 

Jennifer Rodriguez noted that there are over 12,000 Latino-owned businesses in Philadelphia, but only 4% have employees. 

This means that more than 11,000 of those Latino business owners don’t have the opportunity to get away and allow the business to still operate.

This is what makes scaling such an important practice. Along with building capital, scaling is the key component to closing the gap for Latino-owned businesses and why the GPHCC takes the opportunity to address those challenges. 

“We want to see you grow and create jobs because we know the talent is there, that the resources are really there if you are willing to ask, take advantage and invest in yourself as an entrepreneur,” said Jennifer Rodriguez.

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