Networking in the Hispanic Community

Following is the latest in our series of articles on networks in various special interest communities. I worked on these articles in connection with research that we did for the Virtual Handshake book.

Networking in the Hispanic Community

by Wendy Maldonado and David Teten

We constantly hear that effective networking is critical to building a successful career. However, the concept has come slowly to the Hispanic community, where it is largely a tool of the assimilated and the educated.

“It’s only in the last generation that Latinos have begun to rise to positions of access and influence, where they could create some semblance of networking,” says Dr. Juan Andrade, Jr., President of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute.

The numbers back up Dr. Andrade’s assertion. According to the most recent data available, Hispanics comprise 11.1% of the U.S. workforce, and as much as 30% of the total workforce in states such as Texas and New Mexico. Still, only 4.5% of managers and 3.8% of all professionals are Hispanic.

All executives interviewed for this article possess powerful networks, but the more senior executives rely heavily on contacts within the community.

“If I were to define my power base, it would be Latino, mostly from college and the legal profession,” says California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. I help them, and they help me.”

Henry Cisneros, CEO of American City Vista and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), agrees. “As HUD Secretary, I traveled to cities constantly, and my secondary job was Latino community outreach for the Clinton Administration,” he says. Today, he considers all of the people he met his friends and contacts.

In contrast, younger executives interviewed found considerable strength in diversifying their networks outside of the community.

“I make it a point to network across groups—the African American, the general industry, and the Hispanic community,” says Rosa Alonso, a senior executive and corporate consultant. “I’m involved in both worlds because in order to do my best, I need to do well in both.”

“I don’t limit my options to the Latino community,” says Maribel Schumacher, President and CEO of Tu Casa Entertainment, a Latin media management and marketing firm. “Yes, I want to leverage it. I’m very proud of my heritage and culture. But I don’t limit my dealings to Latinos.”

The success of Ms. Alonso and Ms. Schumacher mirror the findings of Dr. Donna Maria Blancero, Associate Professor at Touro University International, and Chairwoman of the Board of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs. Dr. Blancero focuses her research on Hispanic career advancement in corporate America. First, she noticed that those with more education had an increased ability to network effectively. Secondly, she noticed that insularity could hurt the potential for advancement.

“We have to make sure that our networks include non-Hispanics,” says Dr. Blancero. “If we restrict ourselves to Hispanics only, it’s nice for strengthening and preserving our culture, but we’re not tapping into the power structure of corporate America.”

However, due to the small numbers of Hispanic executives, strong connections within the community are still vital.

“My networks have been built informally, and they’ve been really influential in my career,” says Lisa Quiroz, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Time Warner, Inc. Her friendships with other Hispanic women have provided both job opportunities and emotional support as her career has blossomed.

As the demographics of the country continue to change, and Hispanics continue to increase numbers in managerial ranks and the boardroom, effective relationship building is as important as ever.

“As Latinos assimilate more into social and political circles, opportunities for networking will increase,” says Justice Moreno. “There is no longer just an old boys network.”

Online networking

The evolution of the Internet has also impacted the ways Latinos are connecting to one another. At first, it didn’t catch on as quickly as it did with non-Latinos.

“I don’t want to make a broad generalization,” says Ms. Alonso, “but I almost feel like our community would rather do things in person, with a handshake, a hug, or a kiss. My non-Hispanic colleagues have done a much better job of connecting online.”

Marco Davis, Director of Leadership Development at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), agrees. “The Internet may not be real or warm enough for us—we need more contact.”

Reflecting the importance of personal connection, instant messaging and the exchange of family photos are the most popular activities for Latinos online, according to America Online, Inc.

“The beauty of the Internet is that it seeks to fill the void that TV still has,” says Roberto Ramos, President of Latin Vox Communications. “There is very little enlightened English language content targeted to Latinos, with the exception of Migente.com

One of the most successful Latino online communities in the U.S., Migente is targeted to English dominant, acculturated American Hispanics. Most of its 3.1 million members across the country are in their early twenties, and use it to socialize and network with each other.

In California, the state with the largest Latino population in the country, two organizations, the Latino Professionals Network (LPN) and Muybueno.net, have leveraged the Internet for professional networking, with excellent results.

“I wanted to create an umbrella group of Latino professionals in Southern California,” says Alejandro Menchaca, the founder and President of LPN, based in Los Angeles.

After attending a number of uninteresting networking events, he thought he could do better.

“I wanted to make events fun and create a huge networking extravaganza,” he says. “Latinos desire a social component to what they do.” He ended up discovering a huge niche market, and today his events draw between 500-800 people every six weeks. Most of LPN’s membership is between the ages of 24-42.

He credits the success of LPN to two factors: timing and technology. He started LPN at a time when there was a rise in a critical mass of young Latino professionals in the region. Second, he adopted the Internet as a communication medium from the very beginning.

Unlike other organizations with older members, which would fax invitations, he relied on email to alert members to events in those early days. Today, by sending out electronic invitations and regular newsletters, he now counts over 12,000 members in the LPN network.

MuyBueno.net, another online success story, focuses on Bay Area Latino professionals. Cesar Plata, its founder and President, was originally a member of Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), but thought Latinos could benefit by networking across professions.

Partly inspired by attending First Friday networking events with African American friends of his, his idea clicked into place, and MuyBueno.net was born.

Mr. Plata notes that most of the attendees are the first in their families to attend college. Since most people did not grow up going to company parties with their parents, MuyBueno’s events give them an opportunity to hone networking skills and promote themselves in a friendly environment.

As MuyBueno.net evolves, Mr. Plata sees it becoming more mainstream. Considerable numbers of non-Latinos now attend his events, especially people who are looking to hire highly skilled Latinos or learn more about the Hispanic market.

Today, he counts over 15,000 members in his database and hosts some of the largest Latino networking events in the Bay Area. “I blow away most Chambers of Commerce with attendance,” he says.

With Migente.com, Muybueno.net and LPN as pioneers, online networking in the Latino community is becoming as inevitable as it is in the mainstream professional world.

The challenges of building a Latino rolodex

At the same time, building a Latino rolodex presents a unique set of challenges. Simply broaching the topic with Hispanic executives elicits a wide range of emotions, from pride and hope to downright exasperation.

“We are disorganized and tribalist,” says Fernando Espuelas, CEO of VOY Group.
“It’s not just about being successful as individuals. It’s about creating networks and platforms to create Hispanic talent. We don’t have a tradition of working together.”

Lisa Quiroz of Time Warner, Inc. agrees. “We are light years away from the African American community and other ethnic communities in terms of organized networking,” she says.

Unlike other affinity groups with stronger shared experiences, the sheer size and complexity of the Latino community complicates the relationship building process. Language preference, degree of acculturation, educational attainment, and economic status, along with country of origin, can create conditions for community fragmentation and infighting.

“I continue to see balkanization along lines of national identity,” says Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, President of the Recognition Group. Half Colombian and half Israeli, he has an insider’s perspective on both the Latino and the Jewish networking traditions.

“While the potential for impact in the Hispanic community is much greater, we have so many problems in the way that we network that you just don’t see in the Jewish community,” he says.

Indeed, a Cuban-American who arrived in Miami in the 1960’s, a Puerto Rican in New York, and a Mexican-American from Los Angeles are likely to view themselves as more different than alike, in spite of sharing some aspects of a Latin cultural heritage.

“I don’t think there is a Hispanic community. It’s made up of many communities,” says David Perez, CEO of Latin Force LLC, a marketing firm in New York. “There is a unique American concept that exists in the U.S. of “Latino” that doesn’t exist in Latin America or the Caribbean. We have a mixing of nationalities and an affinity around a Latin heritage, but the real segmentation in the Hispanic market is by nationality and place.”

Federico Pena, former Secretary of Transportation and Energy, and Managing Partner at Vestar Capital Partners, doesn’t discount the reality of the divisions, but he does believe that it is eroding.

“When I look at successful Latinos, I’m just proud they are Latinos,” he says. “National origin doesn’t matter. The rest of America doesn’t care. Those distinctions and concerns are less real today than they were before.”

Regardless of their perceptions on networking, those interviewed for this article expressed a deep desire to build a more cohesive Latino community, while creating access and opportunity for the younger generation.

“Why is it, given the wealth of experience and knowledge we have, are there not more Latino CEOs, board members, and members of Congress?” asks Professor Andy Hernandez, Executive Director of the 21st Century Leadership Center at St. Mary’s University. “When Latinos get into the power structure, they don’t want to look or act too Latino, or hire Latinos, because it might look bad. Bill Richardson and Henry Cisneros were exceptions to that rule.”

As the numbers have swelled and Latin culture has integrated itself into the American mainstream, a number of enterprising Latinos have seized the opportunity to create new professional organizations. The New America Alliance is one of the most recent and most powerful examples of this trend.

The brainchild of Henry Cisneros and Raul Yzaguirre, former President of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), it brings together some of the most influential Latino business leaders in the country to create economic, political, and social capital and a tradition of philanthropy in the Latino community.

“We finally had a critical mass of Latinos that had achieved status and wealth,” Mr. Yzaguirre explains. “Instead of being grant seekers, we wanted to become grantmakers. Most importantly, it was about making Wall Street, pension funds, and the SEC accountable to us. We want to control our own destiny, and present the case for investing in our community.”

With membership at $10,000 and $25,000 a pop, the New America Alliance is serious about raising the bar. It numbers well over 100 members, virtually all of whom are C-level executives.

A less formal but even more exclusive gathering is Encuentro. Modeled after Renaissance Weekend, this off-the-record annual retreat takes place between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It includes only 35 people plus their families. Attendance is by invitation only, having formed organically, and the identities of the attendees is a well-kept secret.

“It’s not about media or hype or people posturing to get in,” says one source, who asked not to be identified. “This is where Republicans and Democrats can speak to each other openly, and where they can talk about the big picture issues. It’s about leadership building and network building in a non-threatening environment.”

Elite groups like these, or locally formed professional organizations at the city or regional level, all share a desire to open the doors of access.

In this quest for integration and influence, Professor Hernandez of St. Mary’s University emphasizes the need to focus on power, and not diversity. “The focus on diversity doesn’t force you to do anything differently. As soon as the power structure changes, diversity will follow.”

As the Hispanic community continues to grow in size and influence in the U.S., its favored methods of networking continue to evolve, depending largely upon degrees of assimilation and education.

While senior executives built powerful networks with each other as they trailblazed their way to leadership positions, younger professionals are realizing the power that can be leveraged by building relationships both inside and outside the Hispanic community.

This trend may finally be the key to accessing the power and influence Hispanics have desired for so long.

Wendy Maldonado is the founder and Principal of Xochitl, a retailer of fine furniture, housewares, and artwork from Mexico, scheduled to open in autumn of 2005. Previously, she worked in cross-marketing for investment banking at Merrill Lynch, and as a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. She also served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Belize. She holds an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, an MPA from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and a BA from Yale University. She was one of Latina Magazine’s Top Ten Women of the Year of 2003.

David Teten recently completed his first book, The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online (www.TheVirtualHandshake.com), published by the American Management Association, and co-written with Scott Allen. The Virtual Handshake is the first book that explains how to find your next client, your next job, or your next business partner online. The Virtual Handshake explains how to take full advantage of blogs, virtual communities, social network sites, and other “social software”. David is CEO of Nitron Advisors, LLC (www.NitronAdvisors.com), which provides institutional investors with direct access to frontline industry experts, and Chairman of Teten Recruiting (www.Teten.com), an executive recruiting firm. He was formerly CEO of an investment bank specializing in internet domain names. He is a frequent keynote speaker to finance and technology industry conferences and at such universities as Wharton, Columbia Business School, Yale, and Princeton. David formerly worked for Bear Stearns’ technology/defense investment banking team, and was a strategy consultant with Mars & Co. He holds a Harvard MBA and a Yale BA.