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Newport News Daily Press

York County, Va.-Based Hispanic Chamber Of Commerce Opens For Business

By Elena Gaona, Daily Press, Newport News, Va.

May 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003
KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. All rights reserved. 

May 24-YORK COUNTY, Va.-The meetings begin with a Latin kiss on the cheek. Fresh coffee is poured and a friendly exchange of compliments about hairstyles follows.

But the six women starting the first Latino chamber of commerce in Hampton Roads get down to business in a matter of minutes.

There is a lot left to do before the chamber starts operating next week.

The newly conceived Peninsula Tidewater Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will support Latino small businesses from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach, Va., and other large companies that want to deal with the Latino community. The chamber will operate out of York County.

The organizers Gaby Lopez Rengifo, Jazmin Zamora Davidson, Alejandra Lee, Victoria Osores, Awilda Rivera and Gloria Day started meeting a year ago to structure the nonprofit organization. A dinner and reception will kick off the chamber's operation next Saturday in Newport News.

The latest census figures show Latinos now number more than 35 million in the nation, and have doubled in Hampton Roads throughout the 1990s. With the growth in population, Latino businesses have followed, opening throughout the region. Business owners from countries including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Argentina are joining in the new chamber.

The all-female organizing group also wants to make sure another group of business owner feels included.

"Men are welcome," joked Zamora Davidson, comptroller at the Williamsburg Winery and vice president of the chamber.

The women were friends before they decided to form the organization. They were sitting around Rengifo's kitchen after a dance class offered by the classically trained Osores, when she said she wanted to open her own dance studio.

Rengifo, who is president of the new chamber and has owned her own business for 10 years, suggested starting a chamber of commerce to support others like Osores.

A similar Hispanic chamber of commerce opened in Richmond in 2000, but this one is not related. However, the Tidewater group will be linked to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Rengifo said.

The chamber's main purpose will be to put people together to make deals, she said. She said she knows firsthand how difficult it can be to make it in this country as a minority business owner.

She started One Of A Kind Landscaping in Hampton after trying unsuccessfully to get a job in architecture, her field of expertise. The booming landscape business is now in York County.

Although she has a master's degree in planning and development from Peru, Rengifo couldn't get hired as a draftsman in Virginia, she said, even though she is legally permitted to work in the United States.

"I even offered to work for free, but they heard my accent, and they didn't believe I was capable of doing things here," Rengifo said.

"Building here is nothing, it's so simple. In (Latin America) everything is made with heavy concrete walls and enormous columns."

She bounced around several jobs, including delivering newspapers and working at a laundry service. Her husband, also an architect, became a construction laborer.

It was not until she became friends with Latino doctors and lawyers that she figured out how to navigate the U.S. accreditation system to transfer her Peruvian degree into a general U.S. bachelor's in architecture and open her landscape business with rented equipment.

"You don't need a lot of money to start a business," she said.

"You just need a desire to make it."

Today the company has 11 employees.

Throughout the years, she hired dozens of professionals and college students as landscape laborers while she helped them figure out how to get into their own fields or open their own business, she said.

And that is the point of the Peninsula Tidewater Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, say the women. But not all members are immigrants.

There are about 30 members so far, including SunTrust bankers, attorneys, flower shop owners, doctors and a Hampton human rights organization.

Membership will include forums with government contractors so small business owners can move from subcontracting to the more lucrative level of general contracting, Rengifo said.

They also plan to offer small business training, promote trade shows and put on business solicitation workshops.

The chamber also will offer services for larger companies that want to deal with the Latino community as clients, said Awilda Rivera, the chamber's marketing chairperson. They also plan to be a vehicle for local companies that hire large numbers of Latinos to reach new workers.

"We are growing so much as a community," Rivera said. "Companies know that to survive they need the Hispanic community."

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