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The Boston Globe

Latinos Turning Focus To Networking

By Sasha Talcott, Globe Staff

17 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

When Ferdinand Alvaro Jr. wanted to start a minority-owned law firm in Boston three years ago, he immediately ran into trouble. The Puerto Rican lawyer and his partners, two black men, made presentations to the cream of Boston's downtown: banks, mutual funds, and other companies throughout the financial district.

They got only a handful of clients.

In a pinch, the firm, Fitzhugh, Parker & Alvaro, looked to companies outside of Boston, such as Ford Motor Co., Prudential Financial Inc., and American Express Co. Those companies not only signed on, but dozens of others did, as well, helping the law firm grow rapidly.

Its gains have come at a cost, though: A whopping 95 percent of the law firm's business now comes from outside of the state.

"People are very polite: They say, `Thank you, It sounds great,' and that's the last time you hear from them," Alvaro said of looking for Boston clients. "I don't want to sound bitter, but that's our experience, and I suspect it's not unique."

Such is the uneven playing field in Boston's executive suites, still largely occupied by non-Latino whites who grew up together in various neighborhoods in the city.

Boston companies, eager to market their products to a fast- growing Latino population, are hiring a growing number of young, college-educated Latino workers for their entry-level ranks, and Latino-owned firms are springing up around town, as well. But many of these budding executives still work largely in isolation, without connections to the city's business elite.

Today, a group of mostly young Latino professionals plans to make a high-profile bid for attention with a conference to showcase their skills and help them network with companies around town. Rather than point fingers, the group, the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, plans to bring in a handful of more senior Latino executives who have worked their way into the system to explain how they did it.

The conference, with no small degree of symbolism, will take place in what once was a bastion of Boston's patrician culture: the old BankBoston headquarters near Post Office Square, which now belongs to Bank of America Corp.

Today's meeting is part of a broader effort to link Latino professionals in Boston, as well as provide career advice to Latino immigrants in high school and college.

Latinos, a fast-growing demographic in Massachusetts, made up 6.8 percent of the Greater Boston workforce in 2002, up from 5.8 percent in 1999, according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Still, they represent only a small fraction of the city's managers, about 2 percent.

Many of these Latino professionals say they face no formal discrimination in the workplace. In fact, they say, they often find their companies hire them in part because of their ability to speak Spanish and build ties to an important target market.

"I have too many opportunities," said Liesl Sitton, a senior manager in the Boston office of the accounting firm Ernst & Young, who grew up in Puerto Rico. "I think, `What am I going to do next?' "

Even Alvaro, a Harvard-educated lawyer, attributes his firm's difficulties in Boston to a lack of comfort with diversity, rather than to blatant discrimination. And in some cases, he said, he has been welcomed into the corporate scene: The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce recently made a big push to encourage his firm to join, and its chief executive, Paul Guzzi, took Alvaro out to lunch.

The big challenge for some of the younger executives is finding mentors to help them.

"In order to move ahead in anything, you have to have an executive sponsor: someone to put his arm around you and basically serve as a strong referral," said Rene Jarquin, a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch's private client group. When he moved to Boston recently, he immediately sought friends among the city's Latino professionals.

To integrate into Boston's executive scene, however, Jarquin relied on a time-honored tradition: He called his father-in-law, an Irish Catholic active in Boston College's alumni club. From there, Jarquin gained access to high-ranking executives at companies such as John Hancock Financial Services Inc. and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which he said would have been difficult otherwise.

"These networks, all it takes is for them to get to know you," said Jarquin, originally from Nicaragua, who now lives in Wellesley. "They're not going to discriminate against you if you're Latino. But to have them get to know you, if you don't marry into that tribe, it's very difficult."

As Latino families move to Massachusetts, many of their children are building ties in exactly the same way as generations of Bostonians did before them: They become friends at school, stay in touch through college at one of Boston's universities, then form alliances as they enter Boston's corporate scene.

Jabes Rojas, who moved to Boston from Guatemala at age 11, said the friends he made at Boston Latin Academy have played key roles in his career. One recommended him to executives at John Hancock, who hired Rojas to help with its community relations. He recently left Hancock to get a master's in business administration from Boston College.

Rojas, 30, compares the uphill battle of Latinos in the workplace to the early stages of feminism during the 1970s, after flocks of women had joined the workforce but had not yet learned to seek out mentors to advance. He said it's only a matter of time before Latinos prove themselves.

"We'd say the challenges are not necessarily due to discrimination, but that not enough of Latinos have gotten the opportunity to move up yet," he said. "From our perspective, it's a new opportunity that we think could help companies do well in their growth."

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