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 August 27, 2010

Lessons learned from a Latino business owner

Rich Lopez is no ordinary Juan. He’s a business owner, a man of ethics who gets things done and is highly respected in his Northern Colorado community and beyond. Outside the door of his Greeley Printers Inc. building a few extra shingles could just as easily hang: “Business Mentor,” “Community Connector” or “Inclusivity Wrangler.”

His humility, and sense of humor are likely to put the toughest of skeptics of his commitment to changing biases from both Latinos and Anglos at ease. And in a business environment where prejudice and inside-the-box thinking are still forces to be dealt with, Lopez offers pragmatic insights and an open door. He’s a fervent advocate of in-person interactions – and results.

Lopez readily acknowledges breaking in and becoming successful is a lot harder for Latino business owners than Anglos.

“The key is to network, which means face-to-face connections,” he said. “And you have to be accepted in a mainstream sort of way. You can’t project any kind of threat to anyone. If you’re not accepted, you’re going to have an extremely difficult time becoming a successful entrepreneur. That’s where the face-to-face is so critical. You need to ask for the opportunity to bid and show that you can do the work.”

Power of networking

Lopez is on to something when it comes to the power of networking. In 2006 the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, in partnership with Prudential Financial and researchers at the University of Colorado, conducted the first statewide survey of minority and women-owned businesses.

The survey was distributed to more than 7,000 minority and women-owned businesses across the state, and more than 630 responded. Three of the top five issues they identified as being useful in maintaining and growing a business relate to personal networking: interacting with other minority- and women-owned businesses, networking with complementary businesses and mentoring. (The other two areas included improved information about targeted audiences for outreach and marketing and data on how contracts are awarded by companies and governments.)

There’s another important consideration Lopez shares with entrepreneurial Latinos who call and visit him seeking advice.

“One of the first things I say to them is I’m so happy that you want do go into business for yourself. But keep in mind that when you start a business, you must leave the Hispanic culture at home. Do business like everyone else does business,” he says. “Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t weave it into your enterprise somehow, but you have to speak English, you have to do it in the American way. Once you grab a foothold and establish your credibility, you can do a lot of things with that cultural background. But you have to earn that first.

“It’s too bad that I have to tell them that,” he adds. “But I recognize what’s here. And their chances of being successful are greater using that kind of approach because you have to be extremely inclusive.”

Lopez takes a contemplative breath and clarifies why inclusivity is important. He believes that Greeley remains highly conservative, where a lot of community members pre-judge. Callers have told the Greeley Tribune they won’t trade with any business that posts a “Se Habla Espanol” (Spanish Spoken Here) sign.

Instead of focusing on such incidents, Lopez turns his attention to breaking biases through his participation in the community, putting himself out there and networking. The list of his activites is extensive: He donates printing to community groups in need. He was asked by Greeley’s Chief of Police to serve on two committees: a business person’s committee and a Latino advisory committee. He sits on the board of the United Way of Weld County and another organization that connects District 6 schools with scholarship opportunities for high schoolers. He’s involved in the Mercado project that would bring affordable housing and a mix of residences and small businesses – bakeries, restaurants, shops, tortillerias, business services – just north of downtown Greeley.

The highly popular Guns and Hoses was also Lopez’s idea. What started as a softball game between the Greeley police and fire departments has grown into a successful four-team affair, complete with an Elvis impersonator MC. The Weld County’s Sheriff’s Office and the Evans Fire Department also want to participate this year, and small food vendor merchants are approaching him about including them in the event.

Lopez has even proposed to the Greeley city manager’s office launching a show on the city channel to highlight achievements, accomplishments, culture and inclusivity by the Latino community.

Latino, Anglo business challenges

According to Lopez, the biggest hurdle the Latino business community needs to overcome is within its own ranks.

“The community as a whole here needs to know that we Latinos have a hard time getting along together,” he explained.

Some groups take offense to the word “unity” even though they talk about it; there’s a tendency by each Latino sub-group to be primarily united within itself. But Lopez feels confident that this can be overcome.

“I’d like to bring the different Latino groups to the table, create a dialogue,” he said. “And I think that everyone will find out that we have the same goals, even though different groups want to accomplish them via different paths.

“But what we have to realize and understand is that we are great in numbers now,” he added. “And the only way we’re going to affect change is if we show those numbers by bringing together our votes, our kids, our buying power.”

Lopez thinks there are relatively few Anglo business owners who understand what’s going on within the Latino business community, how to effectively create bridges and make Latino customers feel welcome. Even though that’s changing, many Latinos remember when they were not wanted. There are many fences that need mending, and it still takes two to tango.

Lopez also hears a lot of Anglos criticizing Latinos for the speed at which they open businesses after being in the United States for only a couple of years. What critics don’t understand, he said, is that many were already running a business in their home country. He also acknowledges that those startup businesses need more mentoring and education on licensing and codes associated with being in business here.

So while it’s clear that both populations need more education and integration with each other, there’s one simple but golden rule that Lopez recommends Latinos and Anglos learn: “Listen. If you listen, you find out what the other person wants, what they need. Only then can you be successful.”

Ana Arias is principal of Arias Global Consulting, based in Fort Collins. She welcomes suggestions on topics you’d like to see covered in “Latino Voices” and can be reached at ana@ariasglobal.com.

Rich Lopez is no ordinary Juan. He’s a business owner, a man of ethics who gets things done and is highly respected in his Northern Colorado community and beyond. Outside the door of his Greeley Printers Inc. building a few extra shingles could just as easily hang: “Business Mentor,” “Community Connector” or “Inclusivity Wrangler.”

His humility, and sense of humor are likely to put the toughest of skeptics of his commitment to changing biases from both Latinos and Anglos at ease. And in a business environment where prejudice and inside-the-box thinking are still forces to be dealt with, Lopez offers…

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