Alice Rodriguez, the incoming chair of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Volume 3, 2020 By Tonya McMurray
As a banker, Alice Rodriguez has long admired the determination and innovation of entrepreneurs. As a native of the Texas border city of Brownsville, she has a keen understanding of the importance small businesses play in the economy at both a local and a national level.
“I don’t think the American public can really appreciate just how much entrepreneurs drive this economy,” said Rodriguez, the incoming chair of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“When you listen to CNBC or the other business shows, they talk about the Fortune 500 companies. That’s not necessarily wrong, but what’s missing is the role small businesses play,” she said. “Small businesses employ 50% of people in the private sector. They are a key driver [of the economy].”
Rodriguez, consumer bank senior advisor and managing director for JPMorgan Chase & Co., cited the example of a construction subcontractor who employs 10 teams of seven workers on a variety of projects.
“When this subcontractor doesn’t have work, now 70 people don’t have work,” she said. “I have always appreciated the amount of economic force that small businesses provide as job creators adding to the overall [gross domestic product]. I love that the entrepreneur takes his or her dream and makes it a reality. They also carry the burden of whether they’re going to make payroll Friday. That’s a lot of burden knowing that you’re impacting many employee families who need that paycheck.”
USHCC President and CEO Ramiro A. Cavazos said Rodriguez has a unique understanding of both the challenges and the opportunities facing Hispanic entrepreneurs because of her extensive banking experience, as well as her childhood in Brownsville, Texas.
“She has humble beginnings,” he said. “She understands poverty. She understands the importance of biculturalism and bilingualism in a country that is now embracing diversity and needs to own it.”
Rodriguez was the middle of four children born to a mother who immigrated from Mexico as a teenager and a father who was from the Florida region. Neither of her parents attended high school, and she was the first in her family to graduate from college.
About a year after college, she went to work for what was then Texas Commerce Bank. After several mergers and acquisitions, the bank became part of JPMorgan Chase. She has built a 33-year career with the bank, holding multiple positions including consumer banking, branch management and business banking. In her current position, she is working with the CEO of the consumer division on a strategy to provide financial guidance to help all customers achieve financial health, regardless of their income and assets.
Throughout her tenure at the bank, Rodriguez has focused on financial health across the spectrum of bank customers. When she was managing business banking, she often worked with small and minority businesses, many of whom would ask “What does it take to do business with JPMorgan Chase?”
She said, “I thought that was a great question. I was able to spend a lot of time with my colleagues in supplier diversity and learn more about how to help people get there. It’s one thing to provide products and services, but to do it for an organization of our size, you have to be able to scale. For many small businesses — especially Hispanic-owned and minority businesses — that’s a challenge.”
Ultimately, Rodriguez’s work in the bank’s business development efforts led to her involvement with the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and then USHCC.
Cavazos said her extensive banking experience made her a natural fit for the chamber and will be a benefit as she assumes leadership of the USHCC board.
“Alice brings a wealth of knowledge focused on how small Hispanic-owned businesses can access more capital,” he said. “She has spent her career creating bridges between small businesses that need capital and banks such as JPMorgan Chase.”
Cavazos and Carmen Castillo, outgoing USHCC chair, agree that Rodriguez has been a pivotal member of the chamber’s board during her five-year tenure. Cavazos said Rodriguez has played a significant role in what he terms a renaissance of the chamber and its mission over the last two years. Castillo said she believes Rodriguez will continue that work as she assumes leadership of the board.
“She is very good at operations and that truly complements Ramiro’s leadership as CEO,” she said. “Alice is also very caring and very dedicated to our community.”
Rodriguez attributes USHCC’s success to having a good balance of corporate leaders, Hispanic entrepreneurs and leaders from local chambers.
“That allows you to have a good lens of all the constituents who are trying to drive the same mission,” she said. “We have really grounded ourselves on a strategic initiative to ensure that we’re focused on the things that are most important.”
Rodriguez said she is particularly proud of the board’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.
USHCC EXPANDING HISPANIC ENTREPRENEURSHIP
USHCC recently received a $1 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency as part of the [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act.
“There’s no question that Hispanic-owned businesses are really struggling right now as a result of COVID-19 and the economic impact it has had,” she said. “Our businesses tend to over index in sectors that have been really hit hard like retail, restaurants and construction, so the MBDA grant allows us to work with the local chambers to put technical assistance centers in places that really need some attention right now.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, USHCC had begun to focus on strategies to expand digital access to its offerings. Those discussions proved fortuitous once the pandemic forced many into remote work.
“We had a strategic retreat in January and talked about the digital space and began planning to expand our digital offerings,” Rodriguez said. “Then, the crisis happened. Our team hasn’t missed a beat because we were already thinking about how to do more from a digital perspective.”
USHCC will host a virtual annual convention Sept. 27-29 and hopes it will achieve the same success as its recent webinars and online workshops. Since March, the chamber has offered more than 100 workshops to help entrepreneurs weather the pandemic by securing federal and local aid, as well as finding new ways to do business.
“The idea is to have a forum to learn from each other how to pivot,” Rodriguez said. “Two very critical things that small businesses have to be doing right now is really watching their expenses and pivoting to different revenue streams.”
She said the pandemic may also offer some Hispanic-owned businesses the opportunity to grow by acquiring other businesses, and the chamber is beginning to look at ways to help businesses identify the potential sources of funding that could make acquisitions possible.
EXPANDING BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES
As Rodriguez begins her tenure as USHCC chair, she is focused on helping Hispanic-owned businesses survive the current pandemic and achieve significant growth as the economy rebounds.
“Estimates today are that 45% to 50% of Hispanic-owned businesses won’t make it through COVID,” she said. “It will be a success if we can significantly impact that forecast. I’m not going to say we’re not going to have any businesses close, but I will feel we failed if we allow that high a percentage to close.”
One of Rodriguez’s goals is to expand the number of Hispanic-owned businesses with more than $1 million in sales. About 6% to 7% of non-Hispanic small businesses have sales of more than $1 million; Hispanic-owned businesses have about half of that at 3%.
“If you got Hispanic businesses to parity with the non-Hispanic businesses, it would add another $1.5 trillion to the [gross domestic product] of this country,” she said. “I would like us to be bold enough to say that within the next five years we’re going to move that number a certain percentage. If you put that stake in the ground, then it forces you to put the right programs in place to make it happen.”
Rodriguez said she also would like to expand the influence of Latina-owned businesses.
“Women have opened businesses a lot faster than other business owners — six times faster than non-Hispanics,” she said. “I’d love to see that number grow because I think women could be very instrumental in helping with collaboration between businesses, for example, in terms of helping businesses think through opportunities to grow through acquisition as opposed to growing organically.”
Another goal for Rodriguez is continuing to expand the chamber’s digital offerings. Almost half of Hispanic-owned businesses are millennials and the average age of Latinos in the U.S. is 32. She said that makes it imperative that the chamber continue to expand its ability to offer education and services to Hispanic entrepreneurs based on the more modern technology that many of them rely on for information.
Finally, she said, it’s important that the chamber expands its advocacy efforts to continue to create a landscape that is conducive to growth for Hispanic businesses.
“The federal government is understanding how important small businesses are, and it’s trying to put stimuli out there to make it work, but our job is to make sure our legislators understand where the true pain points are,” Rodriguez said.
Expanding advocacy efforts will include continuing to work with local chambers to help them implement the programs that best serve their members, as well as partnering with other minority business advocacy organizations.
“I believe the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has a real opportunity and responsibility to be the premier voice of the Latinx community,” Rodriguez said. “I want us to continue to amplify the needs of our community and make sure that we’re taking a leading role in that. We can also take a leading role in collaborating with other minority chambers so that when you put it all together, it’s an even louder voice in terms of what our country needs to get back on track.”
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