By KARIN RIVES | New Observer
Q.—Has the Hispanic business community continued to grow, despite the slow economy?
A.—Absolutely, but it’s very tough to know how many businesses we have. ... Roughly we can talk about 10,000 to 15,000 new businesses in North Carolina every year, but it’s important to focus not on numbers, but on the trend. What’s important is that more Hispanics are willing to stay here and [that] they’re starting their own businesses.
I’ve got people here in the Triangle who came six years ago working in construction. Now they’re their running their own companies. ... A lot of them serve the Hispanic community, but many of them are also serving Americans. Hispanic people are real entrepreneurs and they are risk-takers.
Q.—How is the business climate changing for these businesses?
A.—A lot of businesses started out serving a new population. Their strength was the language barrier and their challenge today is to be competitive. Now you have American supermarkets trying to reach Latino customers. Just look at our newspaper [Que Pasa], all the large American supermarkets advertise with us. So Hispanic businesses really need to educate themselves.
A.—It’s happening, and for two reasons. ...
A.—It’s happening, and for two reasons. ... [Hispanic businesses] are competing against large supermarkets, and on the other hand, when you have people who have been here five or six years, language is no longer a problem. They can shop in large supermarkets and they are getting used to looking for good prices. So we, at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, are trying to work with the state and the Small Business and Technology Development Centers to help these smaller Hispanic businesses develop a good business plan.
Q.—Triangle businesses say they have difficulty finding educated bilingual Latino employees. But I’m also hearing Hispanic professionals complain about being underemployed. How can that be?
A.—The problem is their legal status. Professional people, many coming from countries other than Mexico, have a lot of frustration because they’re used to working in [professional] jobs. Once they come here, they can’t. And what’s tough today is to find companies that are willing to sponsor a work visa. When you have a slow economy and companies have to lay off people, they don’t want to run the risk of sponsoring visas for foreign workers.
Q.—Wouldn’t President Bush’s guest worker proposal help them out? It would make it easier for companies to hire without having to hassle with immigration visas.
A.—Definitely. But when we talk about companies not having access to Spanish-speaking workers, the real problem we have is with the second-generation immigrants. We have a 60 percent dropout rate with Hispanic kids. So when we talk about companies not having people with the skills to link them with the market—that is the resource we need to work with.
Q.—Will Hispanic consumers grow in importance to North Carolina businesses?
A.—Hispanic buying power in North Carolina is $9 billion a year now. It’s projected to be $23 billion by 2007. When they start having their roots here, you’ll see less money going home and more money spent and invested in our state.
... We need to make sure, from an economic development point of view, to show our state to Latin American investors. Today, 70 percent of that investment money sits down in Florida.
(Federico van Gelderen is the Triangle publisher of Que Pasa, which operates a weekly newspaper and a 50,000-watt radio station at 1030 AM in Raleigh. He is also the president of the N.C. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a Raleigh-based group with 167 members. Van Gelderen, 44, talked with staff writer Karin Rives about the growing influence of Latino consumers and businesses in North Carolina.)