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Chamber music Featured

11:45am EDT June 8, 2005
When Sara Gonzalez came to the United States in the 1960s from Cuba, there was no infrastructure in place to teach Hispanic immigrants the intricacies of the American way of life.

Today, as president of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, she works to make sure that the thousands of Latino immigrants arriving in Georgia each year have advantages that were unavailable to her 40 years ago.

"It's very important to educate," she says. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do. We all come from very different backgrounds, very different countries (with) many different rules and regulations, and we need to abide for (those) here.

"That doesn't mean we need to lose our culture, but that is in our home. Here, you have to join the mainstream."

During Gonzalez's nine-year tenure, she has grown the chamber from 175 members to more than 1,000 by adding professionalism to a disjointed entity.

"I started running this organization as a business organization, she says. "I wanted to develop a business, something where we can help the Latino community and help corporate America. It was a win-win situation. We are a tremendous source of information for both communities.

"I hired staff, I put in an infrastructure computerwise," she says. "I have an accountant that looks after our books. We were very limited in the beginning because we didn't have money. We began to (get) people to trust us so that we could, in turn, provide all the services that I wanted to provide."

Within the chamber, she created the Hispanic American Center for Economic Development, an incubation center for budding entrepreneurs.

"We needed to have a center, a place where people could come and start their own businesses," Gonzalez says. "They don't have to look for space or pay tremendous rent. It's one organization; it's under our umbrella.

"HACED has incubation facilities, and by that I mean they have cubicles with computers and phone lines and files. And they have access to a receptionist, photocopy machine and faxes. In other words, they can house in there the birth of their business."

Gonzalez arrived at the chamber by way of the Atlanta committee for the Olympic Games, where she served as the liaison between the committee and the Latino community for the 1996 games. And although she planned to take it easy following the Olympics, when the chamber board offered her the role of president of the chamber, Gonzalez put her R&R on hold.

Then Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed her to the board of directors of Hemisphere Inc., a nonprofit organization directing the state's efforts to attract to Atlanta the headquarters of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Perdue also appointed her in 2003 to his Latino Commission for a New Georgia, a council of Latino leaders advising the governor on Latino issues.

Smart Business spoke with Gonzalez about how she turned the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce into a professional organization focused on helping Atlanta's quickly growing Hispanic community.

How has the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce changed since its creation in 1984, and what have you done to move the organization forward?

Everything has changed.

It has changed because of the demand, the growth of the Latino community, the business community, not only in the Hispanic world, but also in the corporate world. Both parties are becoming much more aware of the need for interacting, doing business together and getting to know each other and how we can all work together.

We implemented a lot of programs that did not exist before. There was a lot of newness in the fact that there was so much opportunity to do things that had never been done before. We started having workshops on how to open your business, the law and rights, banking, learning how to do taxes. My purpose, when I saw the needs of the community, was to start educating them so that they would not be so vulnerable. It's a big project; it's an ongoing project, educating our community to become the entrepreneurs that they so desire to be.

They know that the way to be successful in this country with their experience is to become entrepreneurs.

How much has the area's Hispanic community grown?

Tremendously. I can honestly say that is one of the legacies of the Olympic Games. That's when the Latinos started coming here -- to work for the Olympics. I saw venues being built by the Latinos and landscaping and the hotel service.

It became a haven for the Hispanics that were coming, not only from other countries, but also they were coming from other states. They were bringing family, and they discovered what a jewel, what a place of opportunity and economic development Georgia is.

It still is, and they are still coming.

How do you encourage that influx?

Get on a soapbox like I have for the last nine years and tell everybody Georgia is the place to come. I go to Latin America. I had a very nice opportunity in December to go to Buenos Aires and meet with the vice president of Argentina and took some senators.

As a result, there is an Argentina Chamber of Commerce here, which is represented by us. I would like to see more of that. This is just the beginning. It's not an overnight thing, but it will happen. Miami, at this point, and I love Miami, is saturated.

There's less competition here; there's more opportunity. A lot of the Fortune 500 companies are here, and we are well known because of CNN and Coca-Cola and UPS and Home Depot. So this is a very exciting time for Georgia.

What drew you to the chamber?

It was such a beautiful challenge, and I was given so much autonomy. I took ownership. They told me, 'You take this ball and you run with it.' And I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I loved the challenges and the hurdles that were in the way.

I'm a very resourceful person; I'm very creative. I'm very passionate about what I do. That's the way I feel about this organization. I'm very, very passionate about it. I feel very strong about what we represent to Georgia and the Southeast, for that matter.

What is your most important role at the GHCC?

I think what I represent -- I am a bicultural person. I think to be in the position that I'm in and to achieve and reach out to the powers that be, whether it's in Latin America or here, you have to be a bicultural person. You have to understand how both mentalities, how both forces work. I have a lot of experience with that.

What is the most difficult challenge you must help your clients overcome?

The language is a tremendous barrier. There is no question about it, from both parties; from the established community of businesses and services and the Latino community. There is a lack of communication there, but it is getting better.

In Georgia, the immigrant community has grown very quickly (not) like in California or Texas, (where) it grew slowly. Here it came like, pow, very quickly. Latinos started coming because of the Olympics and they discovered a new world -- virgin territory for them.

What role does the chamber play in the legislative process?

We have had, for three years, a lobbyist that looks after all the new bills. And we have a legislative committee within the chamber. They discuss what is proposed in the legislature and see whether that affects the Latino community.

Sometimes we try to influence or make aware the legislators of the needs of the Latinos. About three years ago ... I discovered that Latinos were not considered a minority in the state of Georgia. They had African-American and Pacific-Asian -- they had all these designations except Hispanic, and it blew me away.

Here we are building this state, building this city, and we are not considered a minority, where we can go and bid for contracts and be given the same opportunities as everybody else. I fought very hard for that. We were able to, against a lot of opposition -- with the governor's help -- to do that.

Now we are formally classified as a minority.

Where do plan to take the GHCC in the future?

I hope that we can continue to ed ucate both corporate America here and the Latino community so that we can all work together. We all want the same thing.

We need to kill the belief that we are taking positions away, all of that nonsense. I look back, and we all know those kinds of feelings have existed forever -- especially around here because they haven't seen it before.

I'm moving to implement what I have done here in Atlanta (and) do it an Savannah, do it in Valdosta, do it in Augusta, in Dalton. I want the existing chambers ... in those counties and those cities -- I want to go to them and help them put together some education programs, just inform (them about) what it's all about and what it takes.

HOW TO REACH: Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, (404) 929-9998 or www.ghcc.org