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Alice Rodriguez and Ramiro Cavazos fight for Latino entrepreneurs

By Patricia Guadalupe

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Earlier this year, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) held its first in-person national conference since the pandemic hit. It was an unequivocal success, and the Latino business leaders who came to Las Vegas unanimously praised the leadership of USHCC board chair Alice Rodriguez of JPMorgan Chase, and Ramiro Cavazos, the organization’s president and CEO.


“I was very impressed about the way they did it,” said Danny Vargas, an entrepreneur based in northern Virginia who counts the business group Latino Coalition as a client. “It was very well organized and bigger and better than I could have ever imagined. Our community, like many others, are ‘people people,’ so it was good to see each other in 3-D. I’m very proud to be a part of the USHCC.” 


Vargas credits this dynamic duo for the successful gathering and for the positive outlook of the USHCC and its 260 Hispanic chambers of commerce across the country. “Ramiro is the right person for the right job at the right time. He’s done an incredible job steering the ship in the right direction,” he says, adding that as one of the top Latinas in the financial industry, Rodriguez has provided strong leadership to the group, which represents the 4.65 million Latino-owned businesses in the U.S. 


Born in Brownsville, Rodríguez was the first in her family to graduate from college, earning a BBA in Management from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. During her career of over thirty years with JPMorgan Chase and its predecessors, the corporate trailblazer held executive positions in Business Banking, Consumer Banking and Wealth Management. In addition to her work with the USHCC, she’s served on boards of organizations such as Avance North Texas and the New America Alliance, receiving awards such as the ALPFA Most Powerful Latinas Hall of Fame List (2021) and the Girl Scouts of North Texas Women of Distinction Awards (2020). 


“My career has always been about people. I’ve always felt that rolling up my sleeves and doing all these jobs helps me to understand if we are going in the right direction or not,” says Rodríguez. 

 

But her greatest challenge was still to come.


Rodriguez recalls, “I was literally three weeks away from retirement, and the bank came to me and asked me to delay my retirement and help us execute and govern this $30 billion program. I was very moved by the commitment that the firm made.”

Her new assignment was helping the firm deliver on its racial equity commitment to bridge the wealth gap for Black and Latino people, which has become one of the bank’s signature efforts. It’s a $30 billion initiative over five years to advocate for greater economic inclusion by helping to provide more opportunities for homeownership, greater access to banking services, and increased support to help business owners grow. The initiative also includes specific commitments to increasing the firm’s spend with diverse suppliers, and investments into minority-owned financial institutions (MDIs), and investments in preserving and increasing access to affordable housing.


“The firm has always focused on doing business in all communities and being the bank for all, but last summer really showed the sharp wealth divide in this country between white households, Latino households, and Black households. The horrific murder of George Floyd put an even bigger spotlight on it, and we just said we need to do more. We need to understand the key drivers of wealth creation in this country: homeownership, entrepreneurship, and long-term savings,” she says.


As Head of Community Impact, the group set up to help the firm manage the far-reaching initiative, Rodríguez leads a team that works solely on this issue, helping increase collaboration and delivering support to the firm’s businesses that have made specific commitments. “The idea is basically to lend more so that people can obtain homeownership, lend more so that people can continue to grow their small business, lend more to developers who commit to preserving and creating affordable rental units,” she says.


In October and just a year after announcing its commitment, JPMorgan Chase released an update on the progress made so far. According to the report, the bank “has deployed or committed more than $13 billion of its $30 billion goal to help close the racial wealth gap.” 


In order to support small business, the bank also built the infrastructure and foundation to help small businesses grow through new programs, products and hiring. For example, it hired more than 20 diverse senior business consultants to provide free one-on-one coaching for business owners in 13 U.S. cities. 


Rodriguez says that to date, the firm has “mentored more than 900 small business owners and reached 19,000 entrepreneurs through more than 300 educational events, community workshops and business training sessions.” While PPP loans are not part of the firm’s Racial Equity Commitment, JPMorgan Chase deployed approximately $40 billion in relief through more than 400,000 PPP loans, which supported over three million jobs. More than 30% of them went to small businesses in majority-minority census tracts.


Also, the firm has spent an additional $85 million with more than 100 Black and Latino suppliers—part of a $750 million commitment to spend with more diverse suppliers over the course of the five years.


Rodríguez views support for Latino-owned businesses, financial health, and increased home ownership as essential to meeting the goals of the Racial Equity Commitment. In this regard, her role as chair of the USHCC as an extension of the bank’s long-standing relationship with the organization. “I think about what JPMorgan Chase is doing as an opportunity to really help Latino entrepreneurs. The USHCC plays an important role. If you look at the last ten years, Latino owned businesses grew 34 percent [non-Latino businesses grew one percent], so when you think about getting the economy back on track you need Latino participation, not just in small business but in the labor force.” 


Next year, Rodriguez wraps up her two-year term as chair, but she is “very pleased” with the direction the USHCC is taking and the work of Cavazos, saying, “It’s an honor to serve and Ramiro brings a wealth of knowledge.” 


This is echoed by Rachel Kutz, Vice President of Consumer Supply Chain and Global Logistics at AT&T, who joined the USHCC board earlier this year: “I love it. This is my second board and I have to tell you that the level of professionalism on the USHCC board is unparalleled. Alice and Ramiro are devoted to making sure that we are working on the right things. I want to focus on helping the diverse community understand how to work with corporations. But I don’t think corporations have all the answers, and they can learn a lot from interfacing with diverse businesses.” 


According to Cavazos, he never really aspired to take the helm of the USHCC. Like Rodriguez, he’s a native of the Rio Grande Valley. The 7th generation Texan earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s from St. Mary’s in San Antonio. He’s a corporate veteran of Levi Strauss and held several positions in public service before becoming president and CEO of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where he fought for passage of NAFTA and led numerous trade missions. 


But when the top job was offered in 2018, Cavazos took up the challenge, and never looked back.
At the USHCC, he has focused on what he calls the “three Cs” – more opportunities for capacity building, more opportunities for connections, and more opportunities for capital. But he’s also had to pivot the organization to help members during the pandemic, such as offering assistance in filling out Payback Protection Program (PPP) loan applications and other financial help. Cavazos said the pandemic also taught him and the USHCC staff that a hybrid gathering actually brings in more participants than the traditional all in-person event. While 1,000 persons attended the USHCC conference in Las Vegas in person, some 5,000 logged on virtually, Cavazos notes. 


“The pandemic made us stronger---we found our voice. We put together some good programs. We met in-person and had several safety measures including requiring everyone be vaccinated, with zero cases of COVID. We’re looking at having a hybrid model next year, similar to what we did this year. I think it’s here to stay,” says Cavazos.


The USHCC is also part of Proyecto 20%, a coalition of Latino groups advocating for a greater number of Latinos in senior-level positions in the Biden administration. While Cabinet positions are more high profile (the current Cabinet has four Hispanic members) there are nearly 5,000 presidential appointments that include some of the key deputy directors and assistant secretary posts which involve overseeing day-to-day operations and policy development at the agency and departmental levels.


Hispanics have filled several of those positions, but many remain vacant. “We have had meetings with members of the administration. The 10 percent (Latinos comprise 10 percent of Latinos in the White House) is not acceptable. We need not just Cabinet-level people, we want to get to 20 percent, and we feel we’re going to come close to that, including a Latino or Latino reporting directly to the president,” says Cavazos, adding that he feels optimistic. “President Biden said he wants to improve on that. We believe this administration is listening to us.”


Jackie Puente, Executive Director, External Affairs at Comcast, has been a USHCC board member since 2018 and says she is pleased to see its direction. “For a company like Comcast, so much of the work we do with Hispanic community partners---governance, procurement, workforce, philanthropy, programming---USHCC touches all of these things and lines up with us beautifully.

 

Hispanic businesses are what’s going to drive this country forward. The U.S. economy depends on Hispanics being successful in corporate America and working with corporate America. When people talk about how we create a more equitable economy going forward, I think the USHCC is the perfect member-driven organization to talk about how Hispanic business leaders can help shape an equitable recovery from the pandemic.” 

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