Chamber’s president being very proactive
Maricela Solis de Kester runs the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce with passion and purpose. She wants to strengthen Hispanic businesses and bridge the gap between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic business worlds.
As the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, the organization is shifting its reputation from social networking to helping improve Hispanic businesses.
Maricela Solis de Kester, chamber president, said one way is to welcome Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike. The No. 1 question the group gets is “Do you have to be Hispanic to join the chamber?” she said.
The answer is no.
Solis de Kester this month launched workshops for non-Hispanic merchants, “How to Reach the Hispanic Market: Breaking Barriers.” The next ones will be May 14 and June 18.
“Why should your business be Hispanic ready? If your business is not Hispanic ready, you are missing business,” she said. “On the flip side, the Hispanic-owned businesses are also trying to enter the mainstream market, especially those who come from Mexico. We’re trying to bridge those two gaps.”
Bridging the gap is only one set of words on Solis de Kester’s list. One word one will never see is waiting – it’s not in her vocabulary.
Two months ago, she witnessed how business owners were confused when city procurement officials explained how to get contract work.
The following week, Solis de Kester advertised workshops to prepare Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce members to land city contracts, and the next week workshops started.
Now, two months later, 20 merchants finished the first set of five procurement workshops. Seven workshops are left of the second set.
“Patience, I struggle with it,” said Solis de Kester, who has been the chamber’s president since January 2008.
“If we have an identified need in our community, then it becomes like a puzzle for me. I search for the pieces, put them together and move forward.”
Sandra DiCosola saw this first hand as Solis de Kester and the Microbusiness Advancement Center recruited her to teach the procurement workshops.
“What’s impressive to me is they hit the ground running,” said DiCosola, owner of Summit Contract Management. “If they say they are going to do something, they do it. Hold on to your hat when you work with them.”
As Solis de Kester took the job 16 months ago, she quickly realized the deficiencies of the chamber building at 823 E. Speedway Blvd. were a lost cause. By August, the Hispanic Chamber had moved downtown into the Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities offices, 120 N. Stone Ave., with free rent offered by TREO Chief Executive Joe Snell.
“We needed to find somewhere to go,” Solis de Kester said. “Joe said, ‘If you need a space, give me a call.’ Six months later, I was calling.”
Snell wasn’t dropping a line with “if you need a space.” TREO uses at most 9,000 square feet of its allotted 12,000 square feet in the Compass Bank building. TREO staffing has dropped from 26 to 16 in Snell’s 3-1/2-year tenure.
“I never did see when we would be able to fill this much space. We have always been looking,” Snell said. “We don’t charge them.”
The Hispanic chamber collaborated with the Microbusiness Advancement Center and DiCosola to guide 20 Hispanic merchants through the government contract procurement process in a series of five workshops in the past two months.
Merchants got one-on-one guidance on how to register on government Web sites and how to get certified to bid on Tucson and federal contracts.
“Navigating through government bureaucracy is a challenge to all,” DiCosola said. “It’s across the board for small businesses. They’re typically good at their industry. Scientists and engineers are no different to work with than blue collar.”
Margherita Arvanites is president of Desert Glen Commercial Landscape Group, which has active projects at the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain in Marana, at the Rio Nuevo Mission Gardens and in Green Valley. Yet she had not figured out the government procurement process until she took three of the five Hispanic chamber workshops and got certified March 18 with the city procurement office.
“It’s worth the hour or hour-and-a-half to go to this class and figure out how to do this,” Arvanites said. “I’m sure we would have struggled and stomped over ourselves otherwise. If we do this right, we hope to pick up $2 million or $3 million in business.”
The Hispanic chamber has led the way in pushing and encouraging the city Procurement Department to implement a February mandate from the City Council to give priority to the Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise program to increase the percentage of contracts awarded to minority-owned business.
“Now we are stepping up our outreach,” said Mark Neihart, the city procurement director. “She definitely contributed to that. I would say the Hispanic chamber has been at the forefront.”
Solis de Kester has firm goals for these workshops.
“What I would like to see in a year from now is at least $5 million in contracts awarded,” she said. “I’m thinking for $5 million, I’d like to have at least 25 of my members get contracts.”
Edmund Marquez Jr., who chairs the Hispanic chamber’s board, has seen a marked change since Solis de Kester came on board.
“She is doing a great job making sure our members are educated to survive in this economy,” Marquez said. “She has gotten us more involved in public policy and what’s going on in local government.”
Solis de Kester, 36, wants to bring a generational shift to community leadership.
“I want Gen Exers to come out and join me to shape the community,” she said. “I’m ready to pick up the torch.”
Part of her push is to embrace downtown, where the chamber has staged three events.
• The March 21 world premiere of the “Beisbol: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” documentary at the Fox Theatre.
• The annual gala at the Leo Rich Theatre.
• Business mixers at Club Congress.
“I love downtown,” Solis de Kester said. “I think downtown is misunderstood.
“The value has been, for one, the City Council is across the street. The other benefit is the business community downtown is close knit.
“Our members are seeing it’s OK to be downtown. You can park. You can walk.”
Gary Cullivan (left) and Jose Macias are laying pavers at a Barrio Viejo project. They work for Desert Glen Commercial Landscape Group, which enrolled in Hispanic Chamber workshops to win more city contracts.
Downtown reporter Teya Vitu will answer your questions from 11 a.m. to noon on Monday. Go to the comment section of this story for the interactive chat.
Maricela Solis de Kester’s goals for the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce:
• 1. Get people to understand you don’t need to be Hispanic to be a member.
• 2. Get more members through the government contract procurement workshops.
• 3. “I want to be a voice for the the business sector in policy matters. That is a new direction of ’09. Be very present, have a voice, shape and form policy (at City Council and Pima County Board of Supervisors).”
Contract Procurement workshops
• When: Tuesday, Thursday, April 30, May 5, May 7, June 2, June 4 ; most are 3 to 5 p.m.
• Where: most are at Pima Community College Community Campus, 401 N. Bonita Way, Room A130
• Cost: $40 per class
• Contact: Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at 620-0005.
Reaching the Hispanic Market workshops
• When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 14, June 18
• Where: Arizona Inn, 2200 E. Elm St.
• Cost: $35 for each
• Contact: Ricardo Esquivel at 990-3806.