A chamber of commerce is, loosely, a business network meant to promote and foster the interests of its members, typically local businesses. What this can look like in practice is sometimes unappealing to potential members. Businesses may join, question the benefits of their membership, and move on.
But that’s the dark side of the chamber world. One mark of a good chamber is gearing efforts toward reflecting and magnifying the desires of members to enrich the communities in which they exist. The Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County makes it their priority to listen to the community and its members before worrying about ribbon-cutting events and coupon books (though these things have their place).
Little known fact: the Latino chamber is open to everyone. Xochilth Garcia, membership and office manager, says, “We have a very diverse member list. We don’t only have Latino members; we have Asian members, African American members, you name it.” The chamber was founded in 2003 to create a bigger impact in Madison’s economic growth through visionaries cooperating with one another, which means ethnic barriers would directly inhibit their mission. Also, as Xochilth informed me, it’s the 21st century.
But being in the 21st century also means doing business through rapidly evolving mediums and social-media platforms. The Latino chamber has a strong focus on educating members on the aspects of business outside an individual’s skillset. Temo Xopin, member and branding specialist for businesses, says of many Latino entrepreneurs, “You start a business because you know how to do one thing or because you see an opportunity or because that’s the way out. So you worry about the technical aspects and legal aspects later, after you have time. After you’re ready. That’s when you go to a place like the chamber.”
Eric Zuniga, member and founder of Ipsum Digital Media, has grown professionally as a young video producer and entrepreneur through his work with the Latino chamber. “When I started at the Latino Chamber of Commerce, I was 22. Right now, I’m 24, almost 25. Jessica calls me the baby of the chamber because I’ve pretty much grown with them. They molded me into what I am today.”
The chamber fostered Eric’s passion for directing until he started his media company. Now, Eric has his own talk show, Bienvenido Wisconsin. “We recently just won Best in Show at the Best in the Midwest Media Fest.” An echo of the chamber’s mission, Eric uses his show to highlight local businesses throughout the state. “With the Latino Chamber of Commerce, I’m getting the connections to make my talk show, and I’m also prepared to manage it.”
Reflecting on when he pitched his idea to the chamber, Eric says, “They never tell you not to do it. They just tell you how to make your vision a reality.” This extends beyond starting a business, with additional focus on growing a business and integrating into and supporting your community.
“Every business is different, and every business has a different vision,” says Xochilth. “We give you the tools. We maximize everything we do to create those connections. We try to maximize economic development and job creation through advocacy and programs. We want each other to be successful. We believe in unity, and we believe in potential and talent.”
At the heart is a really simple philosophy: if the community is thriving, businesses are thriving. Supporting your fellow businesses and investing in community programs, fundraisers, and events assures you’re operating in a community that can harbor your vision. The Latino chamber makes themselves accessible to all by keeping their cheapest annual membership option at $50.
“We don’t want people to just open a business,” says Xochilth. “We want to know why you’re opening that business, why your business is different. What we can do to make your business more successful.”
A huge step toward this goal happened when Jessica Cavazos became the Latino chamber’s president and CEO. One of her first initiatives was to create an incubator to educate chamber members about running and building successful businesses in Dane County.
Before Jessica, MATC was one of the few options for some of the chamber members looking to educate themselves in business, and finding the time wasn’t practical or even possible for everyone. Jessica brought in Jorge Antezana, a professor at Madison College, to act as the chamber’s vice president of operations, and the chamber started leading classes and holding informational presentations for its members. Now instead of scheduling for close to a year’s worth of courses, members are getting information relevant to their business in chunks, saving them time and money.
“You don’t know the things you don’t know,” says Temo. “It’s not about selling and doing the work or providing the services. Once you get into a place like this, and they start teaching you about the different things you didn’t know, then you start to see the whole process, and you see all the different steps. They make it easy to follow the model that they have there. I’ve seen a lot of businesses that were doing good, and now they have a formal way of doing business, so they’re thriving.”
Xochilth says the best part is “Our members are the ones teaching the classes. If your mastery is in numbers, you’ll come in and teach about accounting. If your business is related to taxes, you’ll come in and talk about taxes and tax laws. If you’re a lawyer and you have a law firm, you’ll come and talk about business law. If you’re a lawyer with focus in immigration rules, you’ll come teach about immigration law.”
The Latino Chamber of Commerce is always seeking out ways to provide its members the knowledge and tools they need to succeed in the Greater Madison area model of quality, sustainability, and community. “There’s enough room for everyone,” says Temo. “By having certain types of mentalities and values, you start attracting people that are the same.” People who will work with and educate their peers and competitors to continue cultivating an economically and morally robust Wisconsin.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie.
Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County
2881 Commerce Park Drive, Suite E
Fitchburg, WI 53719