Astrid Chirinos helped to form in 1995 what is now the Latin America Chamber of Commerce of Charlotte, back before the region’s Latino population exploded. Charlotte, for instance, is about 13 percent nonwhite Hispanic, with about 15 percent foreign born — twice the rate of the state in general.
A native of Caracas, Venezuela, Chirinos, 52, applies her background as a Merrill Lynch financial adviser and a public-relations and marketing executive to her role as LACCC president. During her tenure, the number of members has grown to 500.
This interview, conducted by Next America Editor Jody Brannon, has been edited for length and clarity.
We’ve expanded the chamber, but now we have to make sure we’re taking care of the 500 members we have. We have to go deeper and wider and really serve. Our focus is to foster growth within the Latino community but also the community at large.
It was here at the foundation that we were working with the Foundation of the Carolinas, doing a study on the demographic change of this whole region, needing to tell the story of growth, the change in disparities, issues, opportunities, and the fact that the community, even though it’s so willing, [a lot of merchants, businesses and residents] don’t really know how to take this shift in demographics.
So we’re working personally with the Latin American chamber to shift that paradigm from the needy community of Latinos to the giving community and to the economic development that is the anchor of growth.
That’s one reason I’ve created a platform that creates opportunities, acculturation, and leadership development. It’s not just Latinos. It’s the shift in ages, gender, and not even majority-minority [demographics], but it’s most of those variables and the diversity of thought that comes into the Latino community because we have millennials like any other group, we have gender [challenges], and it’s critical to take a look at this as a whole.
The well-being of Latinos is the well-being of everybody. The idea is that we’ll all do well if we take a look at our immigration issues; our workforce can benefit all of our industries. We can’t turn our head any more. Our collaboration is so important to build understanding, to have buy-in and to make this information — this reality — accessible in a nonthreatening way.
We have the LACC Business Builder, which provides contacts, opportunities, contracts, access to help for Latino business owners and entrepreneurs wanting to move to the next level if they have a business plan. If they don’t have one, we help them create one. One thing lacking — tremendously — is that road map. There’s no one there to help in that effort because we have a lot of social organizations, but we don’t have economic organizations. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to combine those skills, their energies, talent and opportunity to move to the next level.
For instance, we had a bakery that has been in business for three years, and now with the business plan they have tripled their sales. They understand how to do it. They now have to manage their growth — isn’t’ that exciting? — they were doing it intuitively and now they’re doing it strategically.
Or another one is a roofing company where the husband left and the Latina was left with two children. [With her involvement with the Business Builder program], she’s gained self confidence — she’s from Peru — and she’s now signing contracts and making presentations, thanks to the different skills that she builds on in the class and being around other entrepreneurs and building a board of advisers. Of course, that’s a very unusual business for a woman but she’s doing well.
And then there are the cleaning companies. Mario, who’s from Ecuador, has just grown his business and had access to lines of credit, and is networking through the chamber. The platform we have has the networking opportunities, and it’s not just programs to retool you. You put them in practice with our lunches, breakfasts, and after-hour mixers and expos — that’s the whole idea. You learn it in the class and you put it to work. And they learn to look at their financials. They understand it’s not about revenue, it’s about how much you retain. You create efficiencies. It teaches you how to do business in the U.S., as an American, not a Latino looking for opportunities and working themselves to death. It’s about strategy. Working smart. Working hard but smart. It’s a three-month process.
In the summer, we have the youth entrepreneur program, where in a week [the teens] can create a baby-business plan out of their passion and learn how it could be implemented. Do they really want to be a entrepreneur or is it a dream? Are they made out to be an entrepreneur? It’s very practical. It’s kind of a guided start for them.
Then we have the leadership development institute for professionals and entrepreneurs to move vertically. Latinos tend to stay in survival and safety mode and don’t tend to get to be integrated. So we make sure we go through that in community engagement, personal and professional development, and we give them the tools [to try to ascend]. We show them how to work in the United States and how to use their differences to make a difference and make it better for yourself. The whole idea is to move them vertically.
And then [this year] we have the train-the-trainer program. We’re getting ready to start it. We don’t have enough bilingual bicultural leaders — maybe three if at all. We need to train more so we can deploy this program.
We have to start somewhere. We’ve been fortunate. We have support from corporate sponsors and foundations, and we’re very excited about what’s coming up.
We’re an economic development organization created to capture funds from government and foundations to strengthen the program for more people, for international trade, for community revitalization, incubators, accelerators — so that we’ll all work together.
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