Tampa Bay Business & Wealth held its Hispanic Business Summit at Five Labs, in Tampa, where two panels discussed business topics as they relate to the Hispanic community.
Hispanic business is a key driver of our economy’s revitalization. The TBBW Hispanic Business Summit welcomed the exploration of these countless innovative opportunities through public policy, procurement, advocacy and access to necessary technical assistance.
With more than a million Hispanic residents, the Tampa designated market area is ranked the nation’s 13th-largest Hispanic market and is the fastest-growing segment in Tampa.
The event was presented by Encore Bank and Florida Blue.
Diane Cortes — President, Tampa Hispanic Chamber
Jacqueline Darna — CEO and Founder, Intellidoc and NoMo Nausea
Liza Fleming — owner, Z*aa Dress Up Studio
The moderator was Veronica Cintron, vice president of communications at Tampa International Airport.
You each have unique journeys. Talk about where you started and where you are today.
Fleming: My journey, like many of us, it was a little bit stressful, painful and challenging at times. But I have to say, it has been so much fun. Everything I do, I do with intention and with purpose. I actually came here to work for CBS Radio almost 17 years ago. I worked for Verizon. I was the lead of acquisitions for five years. I was one of the people that started the expansion of fiber optics with Verizon, in this region. It’s challenging because, when you have an accent, people think, “Oh, she’s the Hispanic girl, she can only do multicultural marketing.” I can do marketing. It doesn’t matter whether is multicultural or mainstream marketing.
I started that journey, trying to prove myself. I ended up being the leader of acquisition marketing in this region. I always wanted to start my own business. And, four years ago, when we sold the business from Verizon to Frontier Communications, 60% of the marketing team was impacted. I lost my job and, yes, it was painful, but it, honestly, was what set me off in the right direction to open Z*aa dress up studio, which is a boutique in downtown St. Pete.
Darna: I’m, what our mayor would call, the daughter of Tampa. I’m a physician by trade, turned entrepreneur eight years ago. Tampa was honestly the best place to start, and grow, my company. I literally founded, and invented, these products called NoMo Nausea, NoMo Migraine and NoMo Sleepless Nights. I can stop, basically, 80% of people from vomiting or who have headaches or sleep problems, in 30 seconds. And now, we’re found in hospitals in 14 countries around the world and in 30,000 retailers. I took it from zero, to literally, eight figures in a very few short years.
When they say Tampa is a place to work, play and stay. It truly is, because in raising capital and really learning, kind of the nuts and bolts of owning a technology company, there’s no other place that I’d rather be.
There’s an entrepreneurial ecosystem [here] like no other. It’s highly spirited. It’s non-competitive. When one of us grows, we all grow together.
Cortez: I am the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay. I’m finishing my term this year. I’m celebrating already! My business is Acumen Strategist. We are a human resources digital marketing firm. I came here because a company that I used to work for, in telecommunications, brought me here to manage Hispanic markets. I was the only Hispanic in the office. Everything was beautiful and then, a year later, they said, “Sorry, we’re merging. We’re letting you go.” I didn’t know many people or where to get started, to start a business or to get a job and nobody would hire me.
I wondered if my accent was too pronounced. Like what’s wrong with me? I was in my late 40s, but I had vast experience. I had an amazing career and education. And I couldn’t get a job. I [finally] got a job at a mom-and-pop business in human resources, earning less than the six figures that I was previously making. And I said, “What am I going to do?”
I started with the chamber in 2015 as a volunteer and now have been the president for four years at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Thanks to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, I connect with so many people at different levels.
In what ways would you say the pandemic shifted your course?
Cortez: The pandemic, for me, was the best thing to happen. It pushed me to do more. That’s how my business was born. I wasn’t really focusing on human resources. But then I asked myself, “Hey, what’s your education?” I’m good at marketing. I’m great at designing. I’m good at understanding markets and market penetration. That’s why I started my business. Because in my career, as a professional, I worked my entire life in marketing and penetrating new markets.
I started understanding and working around what’s going on with the pandemic. What type of industries are going up, which ones are going down and which ones will excel and I didn’t give up.
If you’re considering being an entrepreneur and you haven’t started yet, this is the era of doing multiple things. It’s not like in the past when you just focus on one product.
In your business, it doesn’t matter your position, you’ve got to be scaling and changing constantly. The new era, I’m sorry to tell you, will not stay stuck. We’re moving, technology is allowing it and you need to continue to move. Don’t stay stuck in your mindset because it will be changing rapidly.
Darna: I quit my job in the hospital, working full time, when we got into all of these retailers, right? And then they all closed. We worked like crazy and everything that seemed like it was going my way stopped. I was like, either I can wait or I can make a change. I can leverage the people that I know.
So my friends who invented sunscreen, I was like, “No, you’re going to stop making sunscreen, you’re going to make sanitizer. I’ll introduce you to my friend who literally is the largest chemical company distributor in the world.” During that period, I ended up selling PPE.
It taught me that I can sell anything and I can do anything.
Fleming: When the pandemic hit, I was not even two years in business. I own a business where I sell clothes to people. I sell sentimental pieces and elevated essentials. I’m like, OK, people are not going out. And to be honest, the emotional part of myself kicked in. I was like, if we don’t know by the end of the year, this world is about to end and I’m super optimistic by nature.
I took the first month to breathe. And then I thought to just share the love—help people, I’m going to give away one hundred dollars every week, just so we can lift spirits out there. I opened by appointment Monday and Tuesday. On May 4, 2020, the city of St. Petersburg opens its doors again, and I opened them again. Other entrepreneurs were like, “Liza, why are you here? No one is out. It’s like the Walking Dead.” I said, “Listen, I have a better chance to sell a romper here than sitting on my couch.”
Since July 2020, I’ve been doing better year after year.
I’m going to ask you, as a small business owner, what are some of the challenges or barriers, that Hispanic business owners face in today’s economic climate?
Fleming: I think when you look at stuff like that, you have to look at it regionally and from a nationwide perspective. If you look from a broader perspective, I think one of the common things that you hear out there is financing and having the business acumen to really do a good job when it comes to developing your concept. Getting financial aid is proven to be very difficult. Why? Because you always have to show that you’re earning the money to be able to get the money.
So I would say that’s the No. 1 thing, the financial aid and the business acumen, but also the education, and, when I say education not like, academically speaking because we are one heck of a segment that’s truly well educated. But I’m saying education in terms of resources. And that’s actually the young Hispanics—not knowing things that are out there and just having to go find them and work for it. There’s opportunity there.
Darna: I will say that, of all the funding, women, just in general, get 2%. Me, as a Hispanic female, I get 0.25%. When it comes to the different chambers of commerce, I sit on the board of directors, I’m the Small Business of the Year for the [Small Business Administration] and then also for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce—the U.S. HCC—without those people telling me, “You need to apply for this,” I would not have.
Cortez: Talking about finances, I will talk about credibility. If you’ve been living here for a while, that’s great. But I came here to get started—I will be investigated. The only thing they will not send to my house is the FBI, but I will be investigated. Every single detail. I’m from Puerto Rico. All my IRS experience was in Puerto Rico. So there’s a lot of situations going on when you come here.
When you come here, you have the education, you have the experience, you have it all and then you’re questioned. Those were big situations for me that put me in a situation where I was challenged in terms of who am I, as a professional. I just need a credit line to continue pushing my business and yet they want to learn about every single detail and what I did in Puerto Rico plus what I’m doing here.
Hispanics have a nearly $2 trillion buying power impact. In your experience, what are the most effective ways to reach these consumers? How can people make those authentic connections to reach that consumer group?
Fleming: First, and foremost, going back to how highly educated we are, we’re also into social media and technology. If you’re going to target Hispanics, you need to make sure that everything is optimized for mobile devices so the experience is the same whether it’s the first time actually going to your store online or in person.
Make sure that you’re doing it with the right intention and that you’re truly connecting with the segment, or sub-segments. Your language is important. It’s important to be culturally relevant.
Gilbert Broco—President, CI Group
Raul Alfonso—Executive vice president, Port Tampa Bay
Moises Agami—CEO, Valor Capital Real Estate Development
The moderator was Lissette Campos, an eight-time Emmy Award-winning journalist and communication strategist, and a former TV host on WFTS (Channel 28).
Let’s start with the topic of Hispanic business as a key driver of the Tampa Bay region. I’d like to start with Gilbert. Can you talk about what you’re seeing in terms of the Hispanic consumer in your industry of interior design?
Broco: We’ve seen growth in the interior design industry by using finishes, furniture and textures that resemble our culture, and our life. Hispanics in the interior design industry are the biggest minority. Only 7.3% of interior designers in the United States are Hispanic or Latino. That is followed by Asians, who are only 4.3%, and then Black, 2.3%, if I remember correctly. Eighty-nine point something percent is white. There’s a huge opportunity for more Latinos to be involved in our industry.
We live in a globalized economy, which means that our flair and our culture is embraced, and it’s wanted. We need people from our culture to showcase that and showcase it in the right way, not just putting on some sombreros and making it a party. Real representation.
Moises, what inroads are Hispanic-owned businesses making in your industry of real estate development and in financing those really big transformative projects?
Agami: I’ve been doing this for 10 years, in the U.S., even though I hadn’t arrived and migrated here—we’ve been seeing a lot of businesses owned by women and we’re seeing a lot of businesses owned by Latinos. I came across data the other day that said the number of employees that Latino businesses are hiring is growing. We are hiring, 55% compared to 8% in the rest of the businesses, and so Latino businesses are not just opening more businesses, we’re also hiring, and growing, a lot more than the average business. I often get asked what my challenges are as a Latino doing business in the U.S., and I’m sure you’ve all come across some of these struggles because of our language, because of the way we look, the way we talk and our customs.
One day I was going through immigration and the immigration officer was very upset with me and he threw my stuff back at me. And he says, “You feel you’re entitled to be here in this country.” That’s when I realized I don’t feel entitled and I think that’s one of the big differences that connect us as Latinos. We share a struggle where we don’t feel entitled. We feel like we need to give that extra mile to our customers, to our suppliers and really make it work. Failure is not an option.
How can non-Hispanics do a better job of working with Hispanic businesses and consumers when it comes to language?
Broco: Don’t Google translate, that’s the first thing. I’ve seen many, especially in social media, just using Google Translator. They can translate from English to Spanish not thinking about the cultural influence and the other intricacies of being Latino. You’re going to fail. You have to take time to really learn about your target culture.
If you are thinking of marketing towards Latinos, in general, you should first get ingrained with the Latino culture, be part of the community be part of organizations like Hispanic organizations in a region. We’re lucky to live in a very diversified bubble. We are a melting pot here in Tampa Bay.
Alfonso: I have my colleague, and friend, Karl [Strauch], here and he reminded me to tell you that our directories are bilingual, and a lot of the work comes from internal people that create those and then I supervise them [and] say, no, you’re not saying that right. When you look at the culture for the American speaking, Latinos are for hugging, kissing, and expressing and I’ve experienced that, it’s normal. The Caribbean, same, the rhythm, the music, it’s all a little different. In my career, I have traveled a lot to the Far East, where it’s different. It’s more like you’re a guest of honor. Know the Latino, the culture, the differences, the nuances. I think it’s important the we all know because we recommend it, but I think we all like each other, if there is a common thread, we like our culture.
Tell us about those real challenges that language can bring. When you have a phrase in your business industry that you really must find out what is appropriate and what’s used in the culture of the audience that you’re addressing.
Agami: People are usually a little bit afraid of what they don’t know. It happens to me as well, I’ve been to the Far East many times and they have different cultures. We don’t understand some of these customs and traditions. One thing that’s awesome about this country is that it is a melting pot, we have a lot of different cultures and communities and a lot of diversity and it works pretty well. Sometimes, it’s hard for us to understand others. Learn how to communicate and work on your language skills. This is a very important tool. I would say one of the key things, to do business here, is really invest in yourself. If you want to do business here, learn the language, learn the customs, invest in yourself, study, read, find out what you can do to get more acquainted and get more friends. Get to know more people in that industry that can help you and orient you in that space.
Raul, can you talk about the cultural nuances that exist?
Alfonso: I am a very punctual person. I grew up like that. When I was working with a company and was based in Panama, I had to learn that I needed to relax a little bit. I had a director of marketing there who reported to me, and I would say, “OK, what are your plans for today or this week?” We reviewed the marketing and plans to visit with customers, and it all entailed meeting at 10 a.m. but will be finished after lunch around 2 p.m., and then I’ll see another person. And to me, that was hard. I said, wait a minute, the whole day with the customer or two? But it’s a culture. It’s more relaxed.
Gilbert, what would you say are some of the cultural idiosyncrasies that maybe Raul didn’t cover?
Broco: I was just talking to my friend and whenever we’re talking to clients, if you’re talking to a non-Hispanic client, you are going to get straight to the point. At work, I have some non-Hispanic coworkers that will come to my office and ask for something right away. For me, it was so offensive like, I am not a workhorse. You can say hi to me, you can ask me how my day was. So, you know, when we are with a client, we’re going to be 30 to 40 minutes talking about your kids, your neighbor, a new movie that just came out—anything that you can imagine. And we’re loud. We’re not screaming, we are just talking. We are passionate people and it’s a culture shock. We use our hands for everything—it’s just a part of communication. Being here in Tampa Bay, it’s been a lot more accepted. For new Hispanic people that are coming here. Just be yourself. If you’re good about being yourself, you’re going to be respected. Don’t accept any disrespect. Be respectful to other people but, use the opportunity to teach who you really are, who our culture is, and why we do things a certain way. For the most part, people are going to be fine and they’re going to respect you even more. Just be yourself.
Talk to us about the human factor of business connections and how important mentors are to the Hispanic business owner.
Broco: For Hispanics, it’s definitely ideal to find other Hispanics to be mentors because you don’t have to teach someone the idiosyncrasies of being a Latino. You can just talk about the business and what you are trying to achieve but it’s not completely necessary. Being part of organizations like this, like Leadership Tampa Bay or the Hispanic Chamber, where you can connect with different people from different cultures and different backgrounds, it’s extremely rewarding.
For those non-Hispanics trying to get mentors for doing business with the Hispanic community, connect with leaders in our community, Hispanic leaders, meet different people. Because, again, our culture is huge and as diverse as our food, but we have certain things that are common.
Moises, this question is for you. We talked earlier and you really wanted to give advice to the Hispanic professionals who are looking for mentors. We talked about whether or not they should limit their search for only fellow Hispanic mentors.
Agami: The most important thing, whatever you’re doing in life, is you need to strive to be the best at it. You need to strive to be an absolute professional. The way to do it is not to try to reinvent everything from zero. The way to do it is to find who is the best in your industry, that already exists all around the world, or in this country, or in your town. Just find the best example of somebody that is doing exactly what you want to do, or very similar, and learn from that person. Don’t be afraid to reach out and write a letter to the Rauls and Gilberts and say, “Are you willing to mentor me?” Or, “I have some questions for you, I’m starting this business.” You’d be surprised how many times you’re going to get invaluable information from them. I’ve done it. I’ve had people do it to me and I’m always happy to give the answers even though I know they may be competitors of mine, now or in the future. People asking for help from people is something that most of us appreciate and value. Go for the best mentor you can find and the best example of the ideal scene for your industry. Don’t just do it for Latino, don’t do it for the language or the culture, do it because they’re the best.
Alfonso: I’m 100 percent in agreement with that. Find the person that is going to see the value in you that you bring to the organization. That person is going to get his or her arm around you, teach you, be an ambassador and help you from there. It’s up to you what you do with it. ♦