Creating Paths to Latino-owned Business

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Rank-and-file workers’ wages have barely gone up since the 2008-09 recession, despite a U.S. job market firing on all cylinders for several years.

Latinos struggle more than most. Take restaurant workers. They are overrepresented in an industry that expanded rapidly post-recession, putting hundreds of thousands of cooks, waiters, and busboys to work. But “those are some of the worst jobs” says Carmen Rojas, who heads The Workers Lab in Oakland, which supports small entrepreneurs.

Food-service and other low-paying jobs not only lack benefits and security but typically don’t invest heavily in training and don’t provide upward mobility, “proving what it means to debase the promise of work away from opportunity and toward survival,” said Marie Mora of the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley.

She and Rojas were panelists at a recent Aspen Institute event to discuss Latino economic challenges and solutions. The focus was on new avenues to increasing their presence among small businesses, which are a good fit for their particular interests, needs, and culture.

There are, of course, extraordinary models of success in the Latino community. Maria Rios emigrated from El Salvador as a teenager and has the gumption of a character in a 19th century Horatio Alger novel. In the early years of her multi-million-dollar recycling and waste company in Houston, she drummed up commercial clients by showing up and pointing out their overflowing dumpsters.  “When I see trash, I see opportunity!” she says on Nation Waste Inc.’s website.

“I feel that if I did it, anybody can do it,” she told the other panelists and audience.

While that may be true, the fact is that few Americans of any stripe accomplish what Rios did. Statistics back this dramatically with respect to Latinos.

They occupy one in five jobs, and one in three U.S. residents will be Latino in 2060. Roughly half of this fast-growing Latino population works in low-wage industries like restaurants, hotels and personal services. They are overrepresented among the poor and less likely to be college educated – 16 percent of Latinos in Oakland, for example, have degrees. Although U.S.-born Latinos are better educated than immigrants, they too lag behind non-Hispanic white Americans.

In thinking about paths to better jobs and opportunities, the solutions will have to get past the traditional education route.  “Not everybody’s going to be an entrepreneur or engineer with a college degree” said panelist Jose Corona, a staff person in the Oakland mayor’s office.

Opportunity has come in the form of substantial growth in companies owned by Latinos, but they remain in the minority. Just 8 percent of Oakland small businesses are Latino-owned, for example, a share that is disproportionate to their city presence, Corona said. To encourage inner-city start-ups, one of Oakland’s policies uses its commercial zoning authority to guide the development of smaller work spaces to accommodate them.

An enormous challenge for aspiring Latino and Latina entrepreneurs is access to essential capital and venture funding, which is much more difficult for them to obtain. One way to make headway is to educate aspiring business owners about small-scale financing options, Corona said.

The panelists advocated for more societal changes and government programs to support Latinos’ search for their version of the American dream. “Society needs to reimagine an economy and set of systems that allow people to meet their fundamental needs and more,” Rojas said.

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