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A photo of a panel discussion at the Latino Coalition conference

Oakland event highlights the vitality of Latino businesses

on October 16, 2013

If there was one clear message at the West Coast Economic Summit in downtown Oakland last week, it was this: Latino businesses are booming.

“We are the foundation and the future of America,” said Dr. David Hayes Bautista, a sociologist from the University of California Los Angeles who delivered the keynote speech at the Oct. 9 event. “Latinos are the secret ingredient for the United States to regain economic competitiveness in the world.”

Between 2005 and 2007, the number of Latino businesses grew at a rate roughly twice that of U.S. businesses in general, while overall revenue from Latino-owned businesses doubled – a jump that Forbes described as “astonishing.” And the trend is expected to continue. The Census Bureau has predicted that revenue from Latino businesses will grow at triple the national average through at least 2015.

That’s good news for California, which is home to roughly a quarter of the nation’s Latino-owned businesses, and that number is only expected to go up. Latinos currently account for roughly a third of the state’s population – and that number is expected to rise to half by 2060.

Bautista argues that such rapid demographic growth translates into economic vitality. “Latinos love to form businesses,” he said at last week’s conference, which attracted about 150 people. “We are the foundation and the future of America.”

The event was hosted by the national Latino Coalition, and was backed by a number of major corporate sponsors, including AT&T, PG&E, Google and Wal-Mart.

Alma Lopez, director of supplier diversity at Wal-Mart, said the company is forecasting a major jump in “multicultural” sales. With that in mind, the retail giant is looking for suppliers who can cater to Latino tastes, which Lopez says can range from certain cuts of meat to particular processed foods.

It was the kind of message that Diego Jurado, originally from Columbia, had come to hear. Jurado is one of six employees at his uncle’s company, Alaska Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating, which works around the East Bay and San Francisco. He had come to learn about contracting with government agencies and larger corporations.

“We’re already putting in bids,” he said, in between checking his messages on two smart phones.

Hector Barreto, chairman of the Latino Coalition, said that while the conference was designed to help small businesses expand, it also aimed to assist them in other areas, such as navigating the requirements of the Affordable Care Act and securing loans.

Barreto notes that Latinos lag behind other ethnicities in certain socioeconomic categories. When compared to other major ethnicities, they are less likely to have health insurance. They are also less likely to enroll in four-year colleges or earn bachelor’s degrees. Those gaps may help explain why Latinos are actually underrepresented among the nation’s entrepreneurs, despite the fact that their businesses are booming. In 2007, Latino-owned firms constituted just eight percent of businesses in the U.S., while Latinos made up almost 16 percent of the overall population.

“A lot of these businesses – because the growth has been so fast – aren’t schooled in these kinds of things,” Barreto said.

That problem was on Stephen Zamarripa’s mind as well. He’s an employee at Working Solution, a San Francisco-based micro-lender, and he thinks first-time Latino business owners can easily be overwhelmed when searching for loans. It’s a situation, he argued, that has only been exacerbated by tumult in the U.S. economy.

“I feel like funds and access to capital has kind of dried up,” he said. “Especially after the recession.”

But if last week’s event was a chance to solve shared problems, it was also a chance to forge community.

Natalia Carrasco attended the conference because she “wanted to get to know other Latin American small-businesspeople.” She moved to North Oakland this summer, and is about to launch her company, Wof Couture, which manufactures socially conscious, alpaca-fur sweaters for dogs.

“We all can benefit from networking with each other,” she said.


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