With a keynote address given entirely in Spanish, a crowd that included the general counsels of Mexico and Colombia, food from restaurants representing more than a dozen countries and, of course, Jersey’s own Senor Sangria, the 13th annual Hispanic Business Expo last week certainly lived up to its expected Latin theme.
The sold-out vendor tables (157 were squeezed into the Pines Manor in Edison) and more than 1,500 in attendance proved the interest in networking with Hispanic business owners, by far the largest group of new entrepreneurs and small business owners in the state and country, is strong.
But don’t be mistaken: The event was about far more than a party — and far more than the Latin culture.
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One of the secrets of success for the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey has been its willingness — and ability — to connect its core community with the greater audience of the state. That, too, was on full display.
When CEO Carlos Medina, Chairman Luis De La Hoz and the rest of the executive board talk about “Familia” — and they do it a lot — they are talking about a big tent for business.
“We are the most inclusive chamber in the state,” Medina said. “And we want to be. We want to do business with everyone.”
“Smart people realize that this is a market that is growing at an incredible rate.”
Indeed. There are more than 120,000 Hispanic-owned businesses in the state. And Latina entrepreneurs start businesses at a rate that is six times faster than any other group.
Want more? The Latino GDP in New Jersey is now over $100 billion — or larger than some states individually. And it is growing faster than New Jersey’s overall GDP.
The Hispanic Chamber is growing, too, behind its “Familia” philosophy. Medina estimates one-third of the group’s approximately 5,000 members are non-Hispanic.
“We are open to anyone who wants to do business,” Medina said.
The chamber — showing it is about business, not politics — invited two potential gubernatorial candidates to speak at the expo.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) said the chamber represents the state.
“I think we ought to be proud of the fact that we welcome people from throughout the world here to New Jersey — I think that is what gives us strength,” he told the crowd. “It’s something that we’re proud of. It’s something that we celebrate.”
Former Assemblyman and all-but-certain-to-be Republican contender Jack Ciattarelli said the event reminds him of his family’s personal story.
“This chamber is very important because it represents New Jersey,” he said. “This state was built by small business owners. I know that firsthand. My grandparents, my parents, me, my brother and my sister are all small business owners. So, I know what it’s all about.
“I come here not just to advocate for small business owners, but to celebrate them.”
The revelations and realizations about the Hispanic market go both ways.
New Jersey Institute of Technology President Teik Lim surprised many in the crowd when he announced that the school not only is among the Top 20 in the nation when it comes to graduating Hispanic (and Black) engineers, but that NJIT will earn the title of Hispanic-serving institution, now that it meets the required 25% student population threshold.
Lim was there in an effort to build greater partnerships with the Hispanic business community, he said.
“One of the things that make NJIT very special is that we offer a unique type of higher education that embraces external collaboration,” he said. “The education of students today is very holistic. Not only do they learn in the classroom, but they learn by engaging with the community and with industry.
“We need to make that opportunity possible.”
Creating opportunities is what the Hispanic Business Expo is all about.
The brainchild of De La Hoz, the expo’s growth has been remarkable. Not only has it grown from just 50 exhibitors and 250 attendees, having it held in Middlesex County shows the growth of the Hispanic business community has not been limited to cities with large Hispanic populations.
Other metrics are just as telling.
De La Hoz told the crowd that 30% of the vendors at the event were there at no charge. Or, rather, their fee was picked up by a dozen pioneers — small business owners that were willing to pay an increased fee to support businesses that never had the opportunity to exhibit before.
“The idea is to provide them an opportunity to learn how they can offer the products and services to the general market, to the corporations and to the government agencies that are here today,” he said.
The impact can be life-changing, De La Hoz said.
“We believe that entrepreneurship is the best way that we have to overcome poverty,” he told the crowd. “Latinos have a greater chance to save money if we start a business versus if we find a job.”
The chamber, he said, is focused on four issues: access to capital, access to new markets, access to networks and closing the digital gap.
And it’s all done, Medina said, through a lens of being supportive.
“It’s really a testament to the term we use, Familia,” he told the crowd. “I know I use it a lot, but we really believe it. In a Familia, everyone helps each other, they lean into each other — they are there in times of need.
“During the pandemic, we were Familia — our members really stepped up and helped one another. We still want to help each other. So, please pay it forward.”
Reach Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey at: shccnj.org or call 201-935-0035.