We are starting a new series featuring Latinas at the realm of strategic business organizations around the country. Many times, their hard work happens in the confines of their city, state or region without being known in other states and across the country. LIBizus will bring these business leaders and their organizations to the forefront in recognition of their influence and leadership.
Philadelphia, the charming city jam-packed with history of the nascent America, is the fifth largest urban concentration in the country but also the 24th largest Latino metropolitan area. In the last 9 years, the region has boomed from around 6000 Latino businesses to near 19,000, a significant growth.
The progress not only comes from the increasing internal migration of Latinos from around the country but also from a notable economic improvement of established Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians and other Hispanic residents in the city, who have seen their economic activity increase. In part, this progress is due through opportunities created by an organization that since 1990 has been leading Hispanic businesses to success, the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GPHCC).
The GPHCC has achieved record levels of membership, revenues and member-driven activities through the implementation of new strategies and programs. Varsovia Fernandez, President & CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GPHCC), has helped the organization achieve these goals because she knows what it takes to bring people to work together.
“I recognize the privilege it is to lead a Hispanic chamber of commerce. It takes hard work, day-to-day business and long term strategy to successfully serve our membership and stakeholders,” she told LIBizus. “Building relationships across markets is key in sustaining the organization and creating value. We do this by focusing on educational programming that enables our Latino businesses to understand systems relevant to growing their businesses, such as accounting, banking, best practices and the opportunities available to them in supplier diversity,” she added.
However, over 30 years ago when Varsovia came to Philadelphia as a student at Temple University, Latinos were not yet “happening” in Philadelphia. She remembers that Hispanics represented two percent of the city’s population at the time –merely 13% nationally–, and were concentrated in El Barrio, a neighborhood located in North Philly.
“In the 1940s, ‘50s, and’60s, Puerto Ricans searching for greater economic opportunity moved to North Philadelphia and established the barrio, an area with a traditionally large concentration of Puerto Ricans. Slowly Dominicans, Colombians, Mexicans and Guatemalans all of whom were also hoping to achieve the ‘American Dream’ made Philadelphia their home as well,” says Marisa Casellas in her research El Barrio: Latino Relationships in North Philadelphia and Impacts on Puerto Rican Businesses.
“When I moved to this city, I had to cook my own Latino food; ethnic groceries or Latino restaurants were scarce outside El Barrio. Today, Hispanic-owned businesses in our region are growing twice as fast as non-Hispanic businesses,” Varsovia states.
In the Greater Philadelphia metropolitan area, Latino business growth is expanding, and it is doing so beyond the retail grocery store and hair salon. Some of the business owners that supported the chamber when Varsovia came on board in 2006, now employ 10, 20, and 30 employees.
“Our Latino business owners are learning quickly. They are learning that a restaurant can also be a caterer; that a grocery store can be a mini-market; and that English and best practices are essential to their success so we see more of them taking classes,” she said.
According to the GPHCC President and CEO, the Latino average median household income has gone up to $63,010 in the 11-county region with one of the counties being as high as $82,580, which proves that many Latino families are now entering the middle class. A decade ago, Hispanics were mostly providers in the social services sector. Now they are inserted in other industries such as technology, automotive, real estate and financial services.
“We have moved to industry and the beginnings of wealth creation.” Varsovia affirms.
Under her leadership, the GPHCC has created a voice for Hispanic business in the region and developed a programmatic strategy focusing on market and leadership growth. Due to Varsovia’s actions, the GPHCC received the 2011 U. S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Medium Chamber of the Year national award.
“As the chamber that represents Hispanic businesses in the region, our major goal includes being an effective advocate for Latino business. We are their source of information and expertise on trends and issues in the Hispanic business community and to that effect, we conducted and published the first ever State of Latino Business in the Philadelphia Region,” Varsovia shared.
The study, conducted by the GPHCC and Temple University Fox School of Business, reports that in the Greater Philadelphia region, “The number of Hispanic-owned businesses has grown 28% to 18,787 in less than a decade. These businesses are located across the 11 counties served by the GPHCC.”
“Our businesses still face many challenges with access to capital being the most predominant across the region. Financial literacy, language barriers and business regulations were also serious concerns expressed in our survey. Pennsylvania businesses are highly taxed,” Varsovia said.
The GPHCC addresses these challenges by providing needs-based programs and initiatives to their members and stakeholders. In 2014 the chamber launched Latino Innovation and Growth (LIG), an 8-week bilingual program that addresses business planning needs. The program is designed to help business owners create a growth plan using the Business Canvas Model, which is appropriate for all levels of education.
“The first session created seven jobs and retained 49 among eight Latino employers. We work with local and state legislators, other chambers of commerce and corporate executives to help enhance the business tax structure, particularly in Philadelphia,” Varsovia said.
While the chamber’s programs empower Latino businesses and project the economic development of the region, there is still much room to grow, Varsovia believes.
“We needed this report, its finding and insights to help drive the change that the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic community deserves to become one of the strongest business communities and consumer markets in the nation,” she concluded.