Nonprofits  December 2, 2022

Chambers work to boost Latino businesses

Chambers of commerce traditionally have worked to boost economic development and provide educational, marketing and advocacy for their members and their communities. But an established chamber in Boulder County and a newer one in Northern Colorado are tackling a more specialized role: aiding Latino-owned businesses.

For the Longmont-based Latino Chamber of Commerce of Boulder County and the fledgling, Fort Collins-based NoCo Latino Chamber of Commerce, the challenge is helping largely Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs navigate a largely English-speaking economic infrastructure.

“A lot of people are looking for an ‘identity’ chamber like us,” said Carla Colin, office manager for the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Boulder County, where membership had grown to 249 by late November. “We have a rule that we serve every business that needs support, so they don’t even have to be from Boulder County. They don’t have to be a business owner. They don’t even have to be Latino.”

One entity her group is supporting is the year-old NoCo Latino chamber, said Jose Luis Ramos, who has channeled his experience as an economic-development specialist for the city of Fort Collins and a bilingual business sustainability coordinator for the city of Longmont into offering support to Latino-owned businesses in Larimer and Weld counties. He reached out to Berenice Garcia Tellez, then board chairman of the Boulder County Latino chamber.

“We asked for their help so we could learn from their experience,” Ramos said. “We are working together, and they’re helping us a lot. I’ve been kind of an interface between the two chambers.”

Ramos had been a software engineer and for 11 years co-owned Las Salcidas restaurant in Fort Collins. In his economic-development role in Fort Collins, he helped small businesses apply for Payroll Protection Program loans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I realized a lot of the Latino-owned businesses were not ready to apply,” Ramos said. “They didn’t have the infrastructure. They didn’t have the knowledge. They didn’t understand the language. Minority-owned businesses were struggling, trying to survive and get access to resources.

“I realized there was something missing. We started to talk about organizing a group so we could work together and level the playing field.”

A group of about nine business owners met in early 2021, Ramos said, “and we came out with the decision that a Northern Colorado Latino chamber was needed, a clear voice to ask for resources if we needed to.”

Once the group formed an all-volunteer board of directors and put the word out, businesses started to join, Ramos said. 

“About 150 businesses have registered with us from all over Northern Colorado,” he said. “We’re not charging any fees. It’s all free at the moment because we just finished going through applying to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The paperwork is almost done. Once we get that, we will have leadership elections” – similar to the ones the Boulder County Latino Chamber slated for Saturday, Dec. 3, to replace Garcia Tellez, whose term expired, and name some new board members.

Like its Boulder County counterpart, Ramos said, “we are a voice for underserved and underrepresented communities. We strive to connect all businesses regardless of municipalities. We are a multicultural, multilingual organization. We have international exposure and experience. We support and specialize in immigrant population needs.

“Our organization was created after we observed the big system inequalities among our Latino business community and the lack of information and resources available during the COVID-19 crisis,” he said. “There were such inequalities and lack of resources during the pandemic. A lot of our businesses don’t have an accountant. They have no attorney — they can’t afford one —  but they still need advice. We have a couple accountants in our membership, but we don’t have attorneys yet.”

So the NoCo chamber held a networking event to recruit web developers and bilingual people who could help with marketing, and Ramos contacted University of Colorado Boulder law professor Violeta Chapin, who helped the chamber write its bylaws.

“Most of our members are bilingual, but once it comes to signing documents or filling out a form for a grant or loan, they don’t feel comfortable doing that in English,” Ramos said. “We needed to help them feel comfortable with the fine print.”

His organization also developed partnerships with entities including FirstBank and Elevations Credit Union to hold bilingual workshops.

“We have big goals,” Ramos said. “I helped establish 92 or 93 new businesses during the pandemic, so we knew we could easily grow our membership to 500 within two years. We’re hoping that once we get our structure in place, focusing more on education and some of the outreach to new businesses, we can show them the value of working together so they have an easy path to learn their business. We just need to show them the return on investment.”

Still, he’s careful not to grow the NoCo chamber beyond its purpose.

“Denver’s Latino chamber wanted us to be a satellite chapter,” Ramos said, “but our leadership said no; we wanted to do it by ourselves. Some things would have been a lot easier, but we thought to serve our local businesses better, we needed to be a grassroots organization.”

He’s also not sure whether the NoCo chamber will venture into political advocacy. 

“We’re working with the Fort Collins chamber and keeping an eye on the minimum-wage increase the city is trying to push,” he said. “If some of our members want to express an opinion on that, they can go to the City Council themselves, but we haven’t made a statement yet.”

However, advocacy is an established part of the 15-year-old Boulder County Latino chamber’s mission, Colin said.

“We are part of the Northwest Chamber Alliance, which is all the chambers within Boulder County and surrounding areas,” she said. “We work with all of them to make sure we are advocating for our members and the Latino community in local and state government. One of our part-time staffers takes care of policy review to make sure we’re collaborating with local governments and the work they do for Latinos. We meet monthly and do visits to the state Capitol to check in with the governor and our state representatives to share our concerns and issues.”

The challenges of forming a new organization Ramos’ group is facing are in the past for his Boulder County counterpart, including having an office of its own again after going three years without one since it closed its location in downtown Longmont’s Old Town Marketplace.

“COVID happened,” Colin explained. “We were closed so much, and maintaining the lease with no new members but still trying to support the community made it very complicated.”

The new office on Pike Road in Longmont opened in October and held a ribbon cutting on Nov. 4, Colin said. She’s its only full-time employee, along with two part-timers. The Dec. 3 election raised its number of board members from eight to 13, she said.

The Boulder County chamber has an established schedule of workshops, webinars and in-person classes, including a series of four during Hispanic Heritage Month that focused on marketing and social media, finding the right insurance, building a sustainable business and locating access to capital.

Its partnerships include the Colorado Enterprise Fund to help Latino-owned entrepreneurs find loans and grants and Longmont-based Intercambio to help with translation or interpreting “when they navigate systems that don’t have their information in Spanish,” Colin said.

“They’re great partners,” she said. “They come to our events, and we come to theirs.”

What differentiates the Boulder County organization from other Latino chambers, Colin said, is that “we do so much one-on-one with businesses to make sure they can overcome barriers.”

It helps to have the office of nonprofit Entrepreneurship for All nearby, with its free, one-year business accelerator program and pitch contests — all offered in English and Spanish.

“We partner with EforAll and refer clients to it,” Colin said. “Business owners who want to grow their businesses are referred to EforAll’s Spanish and English cohorts every year. We refer most of our members to the Spanish one.”

For 2023, she said, “we want to increase capacity to serve our members better and have more access to funding ourselves so we can work on our programming,” Colin said. “We could be serving more businesses and serving them better if we had a bigger budget to hire more staff or turn part-timers into full-timers.”

Things are changing, she said, “but a lot slower than we wish. Some organizations don’t understand that the demographics are changing and that we’re not a minority any more.”