Jessica Cavazos, president and CEO of the Latino Chamber of Commerce

Things have changed at the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County since Jessica Cavazos took over as the first full-time executive director in September 2016.

The chamber moved from a cramped room in Centro Hispano to its own office in Fitchburg. Membership has jumped from 220 to 310 members, and thanks to fundraising, public money and corporate sponsors, the chamber's funding has increased by $120,000 a year.

It went from offering a few technical assistance programs to launching a six-month bilingual accelerator program. They’ve just signed an agreement to provide counseling and resources on behalf of the Small Business Administration. Cavazos attributes the growth to a growing Latino population, the chamber team and strengthening public and private partnerships. 

“We used to have the ribbon-cuttings, and we were just a typical chamber, basically, very social ... we’ve become more programming-specific,” Cavazos said.

Along the way, Cavazos got a title change, from executive director to president and CEO (“It showed me that the board really has my back.”) 

The chamber is an association of Latino and non-Latino businesses. Cavazos can quickly rattle off the organization’s efforts: advocating for Latino-owned businesses, helping grow their capacity and building bridges with non-Latino organizations. She adds: “I believe it, that’s why it’s easy to say.”

Working for the chamber is meaningful because she can see its real-world impact.

“Every Latino that comes in — like 99 percent of them — says, ‘I’m here and I want to start a business because I want to leave a legacy for my children,’” she said.

The Cap Times recently caught up with Cavazos, looking back over her tenure thus far and looking ahead to what’s next for the chamber.

Can you give an example of a business or entrepreneur you’ve seen flourish because of the chamber?

Just recently we had a young woman who came in, she worked as a housekeeper in a cleaning company, then said, “I can do this better and I can manage my own finances better,” so she left that company and decided to start her own. She joined the accelerator program, which is called the Emerging Business Development Center, went through the course, graduated in December and then all of a sudden comes and says, "Now I’m at the second level, I want to market myself."

Just since she graduated in December, she’s been able to get two huge commercial contracts and she’s just very grateful for what she learned from the chamber.

I think one of the biggest issues that we have with our wonderful Latino-owned businesses is that there’s a confidence level that’s not there sometimes. Maybe because of language, maybe it’s because they don't understand the system. We teach them how to ask questions, get over those cultural barriers and advocate for themselves, and she’s one of them that did that very well.

Tell me about the Junior Chamber (the chamber’s program for kids).

When I had just started, they said, ‘We have a relationship with Nuestro Mundo (Elementary School), we go every Friday and we read books to the kids.’ That’s not my style. I need something where kids are going to think and (will) want to do, something my kids would like.

We formulated a curriculum for those kids that would help them to understand economics and how they can become business owners and entrepreneurs. Business owners come in, or the kids take a field trip. So they go to go to La Rosita grocery store and see how a retail food vendor works, they go to go to Rosen Nissan and see how cars come in and how they sell them and the price points, even marketing.

There’s such a need for these kids to see role models who look like them, who are in their neighborhoods, creating businesses and being successful.

Over your time at the chamber, what have been some of the biggest challenges?

There's been a lot. (Laughs.) I’m very candid. I think sometimes people don't understand the essence of why we need a Latino chamber. Most chambers are geographic, you have Monona, you have Madison.

So that was a struggle in the sense that people force you to argue for your own existence?

Discover Madison news, via the Cap Times

Sign up for the Cap Times Daily Features email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

We are still grossly underfunded compared to a lot of organizations that do economic development and at this point I think we want a fair shot to say, hey, we have a great product, we’ve developed a trajectory that’s successful … so we want the opportunity to be like a WBIC (Women's Business Initiative Corporation), like a WARF (Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation).

Right now Latino (businesses) are grossly underfunded, even by financial institutions. … My hope is one day that we become an Latino economic development corporation of sorts, where we have the capital to give funding and we have the support of the community to become angel investors to some of our incubator participants and small business owners.

In a Madison365 interview on how to move the needle on racial disparities two years ago, you said there's a need for cohesion between African-Americans and Latinos. Do you feel like you’ve seen that happen?

When I say that, I think it takes myself to be part of that conversation and reach out. The Latino Chamber is helping mentor the Black Chamber in building their base and providing the same services, but culturally appropriate services within the black community.

Right now, with a lot of our Latino-owned businesses, they feel they are at a disadvantage when it comes to opening a restaurant and wanting to apply for a liquor license. It’s been one of the hardest things to advocate for because they say, “Well, these three non-Latino businesses opened and they have the capitol to actually hire an attorney.” … Why is there a difference between one community and the next? There should not be.

The Hmong community also feels disenfranchised and they came to the chamber — at this point I feel like we’re going to become a multicultural chamber —  because they feel some of the red tape and issues with licensing, so how do we talk to the licensing department or the economic development department at the city and develop those ties so that there is more of a synergy? The chamber has taken that role with a very broad community, so it’s not just Latinos.

What are you most excited about for the chamber coming up?

To become the Latino Chamber of South Central Wisconsin. We have this mobile chamber model where we want to pair up and partner with non-Latino chambers regionally throughout south central Wisconsin and then help them reach the Latino business community … who may not go to them because of lack of trust.

Just today there was someone from Marshfield who came up to me who is part of a chamber who said, “We have a huge Latino population there and they’re starting businesses and there’s a disconnect, can you come here?”

Anything you want to add?

There’s a lot of social programs: save the kids, help the kids — and I’m not saying those are bad. But in order for us to really create impact and take care of all these social issues we have to create sustainable communities, right? And how do we create sustainable communities? We give the tools to individuals who have those dreams to start those businesses.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.