Luis Rodriguez is trying to adjust.
As the newest CEO of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, he is beginning to experience the differences here from his native San Antonio, where as the second-in-command he helped lead the Hispanic chamber of commerce there to record membership (1,400) and national recognition.
Austin, he says, has a different business culture. The city’s challenges, he adds, will be unique.
On a recent afternoon at his office tucked inside a Wells Fargo building in North Austin, he explained his goals for his new role — the first being to fully understand the Capitol’s business scene.
“I like to digest first,” Rodriguez said. “Especially coming in here not knowing what I don’t know. What works in San Antonio is not necessarily going to work in Austin.”
Rodriguez began his job weeks ago, replacing Mark Madrid, the three-year former CEO who left Austin to work at a research nonprofit at Stanford University. Rodriguez came to Austin, he said, because the city’s business culture is “dynamic,” despite the chamber being less established than San Antonio’s.
The Alamo City’s Hispanic chamber was founded in 1929, making it the oldest one in the country. It’s ingrained into the city’s vast Hispanic population, who make up more than 59 percent of Bexar County’s total residents.
Austin’s chamber, by comparison, was founded 34 years ago. It has about 550 members in a city where Hispanics are more than 33 percent of Travis County’s population.
To grow membership, Rodriguez said a focus on small business is needed. He said he wants to establish stronger relationships with Hispanic owners of small business, who make up about 80 percent of the chamber’s membership, as well as expand the chamber’s international trade missions and Hispanics’ access to venture capital dollars.
“(Most) of the membership at minority chamber of commerces is from small businesses; they’re very important,” Rodriguez said. “We have great momentum here already, too,” he added, referencing Austin’s chamber in 2015 being named the country’s best Hispanic chamber of commerce by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Austin, a city known for its cultivation of startups, is also more supportive of small business than San Antonio is, Rodriguez said, and the chamber maintains a close relationship with the city’s other business organizations, including other minority chambers and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, a resource Rodriguez called “critical.”
Rodriguez, however, also faces obstacles as he tries to grow the chamber’s presence and brand.
The chamber, which only has a handful of staff members, is tasked with advising members who work in Austin’s ultra-competitive business market – one in which Hispanic business ownership appears below an ideal level.
The latest Census Bureau figures show that there are about half as many minority business owners in Travis County — with most being Hispanic — than there are white business owners, despite minorities combining to make up about half the county’s population.
While this issue is not unique to Austin, it’s a more challenging dynamic than San Antonio’s, where Census figures show minorities own a larger share of overall businesses.
How can Rodriguez help address the disparity in Austin?
“We need to educate the community on the quality of Hispanic business here,” he said. “It’s making sure we’re at the table (of discussions). It’s also having great mentorship programs and great resources to owners. We need to do a better job of educating Hispanic business owners on the same techniques that make others successful.”
Rodriguez has seen Hispanic small business owners who come from different backgrounds and cultures, for example, struggle to access capital money and not understand how to properly fill out important paperwork like a request for proposal, which enables businesses to receive services or equipment from other businesses and can be a critical tool for competitiveness.
Education is an important topic to Rodriguez – one which he seeks to explore in Austin.
He’s just beginning to learn about the city’s economic and racial demographic disparity that is geographically split by Interstate 35, with the city’s Hispanic population being mostly concentrated in east Austin, an area where some of the city’s lowest performing schools are located.
Establishing stronger partnership with those schools, Rodriguez said, might be the most important task his chamber undertakes.
“If many Hispanics are just going to low-performing schools, they’re not going to graduate with the mindset that, ‘man, I’m going to open up a shop or go into entrepreneurship,” he said. “They’re going to graduate and think, “I need a job. I need to pay rent; get by. And maybe that’s partly why we don’t have the reflection as far as why don’t we have enough Hispanic-owned businesses here.”
Rodriguez also said he believes job growth, particularly within Austin’s technology industry, begins with supporting school districts in their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. He said the chamber needs to help inform students that STEM jobs “are and will be the jobs of the future and will allow (students) to have the best opportunity to be successful entreprenurs should they select one day to start a business of their own.”
Rodriguez has faced similar pressure to grow.
In San Antonio, the Hispanic chamber’s membership was about half of what it is now before Rodriguez arrived in 2010. Under his leadership, it became the first Hispanic chamber to receive a five-star accreditation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Chambers are ranked from three to five stars based on certain criteria such as number of contributions to the commnity.
Rodriguez said he doesn’t see why a similar outcome can’t happen here.
“My plan,” he said, “is to work quickly.”