By Rick Laezman
December 2000 - The founders of La Red Club Los Angeles knew they were onto something when more than 200 people showed up for their first event, a mixer in September.
"There is no existing organization in L.A. that offers networking opportunities specifically to Hispanic high-tech professionals," explains Francisco Gimenez, whose organization is for Southern California Hispanics who work in new media. "We wanted to fill that gap by bringing everyone, and their companies, together locally."
The task is relevant, in part, because of the specific challenges facing Hispanic Internet companies – challenges that English-language firms don't have to contend with. "Contrary to what you might think, the difference between Anglo and Hispanic Internet businesses is not one of language. Most people in Latin America speak English," Mr. Gimenez points out. "It is a question of content. Residents of Latin America and Hispanics in the U.S. who surf the Net or shop online are looking for different things than their Anglo-American counterparts. The differences come down to culture, taste, and product choices. The popularity of soccer in Latin America is one example."
More importantly, Hispanic Internet businesses need to attract both investors and consultants. The former may become more difficult with the recent downturn of Nasdaq, but club members are not discouraged.
"My focus is to create a bridge," says Servio Acuna, also a club co-founder. "I envision La Red Club L.A. as the bridge that crosses the divide between what I would call the general Internet market and Hispanic entrepreneurs.
"There are so many Hispanic Internet entrepreneurs in California now. And there is so much expertise and venture capital in the general market. We want to encourage these two communities to get to know each other."
Unlike Miami, where venture capitalists and Hispanic Internet entrepreneurs routinely form successful partnerships, Southern California has not been a hotbed of Hispanic new-media investment, according to Mr. Acuna. The club, he says, was formed to change that.
Forming partnerships between Hispanic and non-Hispanic companies does not entail breaking down overwhelming cultural barriers, he adds. On the contrary, he sees it as a much simpler task of increasing awareness.
"Many venture capitalists can't believe it when they first find out about the Hispanic market. We want to create more opportunities for them to learn about the market, and we want to give Hispanic entrepreneurs more exposure to the venture capital community so they can take advantage of the resources it has to offer."
Once everyone gets together, La Red Club's founders believe it will only be a matter of time before more successful partnerships are formed.
"My second goal for the organization is to provide a platform for entrepreneurs and investors to capitalize on good relationships and form strategic alliances," explains Mr. Acuna. "Several good relationships already have been formed as a result of the first event."
Vicente Cue, another co-founder and the business partner of Mr. Gimenez at PrecioMania.com, a Spanish-language price-comparison site, says that on the whole, Southern California's Hispanic Internet companies are not as "established or experienced as their New York and Miami counterparts." He wants to see the club help Hispanic entrepreneurs advance their learning curve. Along those lines, an event tentatively planned for this month – to be jointly sponsored with another networking group, Venice Interactive – will focus on professional development, with speakers and presentations.
Mr. Cue believes that when it comes to foreign trade and investment in the high-tech industry, California has historically focused on Asia, and that explains much about the lack of investment in the Hispanic Internet market. He has observed "many U.S. companies that want to expand into the Hispanic and Latin American markets, but they aren't sure how to position themselves or to approach Hispanic companies that can help them." He sees the club as a way for them to take that first step.
La Red Club's founders have reason for a positive outlook. The club has signed up more than 500 members, and the first event was such a hit that a second, larger gathering was to take place last month.
Messrs. Gimenez, Acuna, and Cue co-founded La Red Club with two other Internet entrepreneurs: Fernando Orvananos, who teamed up with Mr. Acuna to start the entertainment Web site PlanetaLA.com, and Rudy Kish, an executive with the Internet advertising company Ad Pepper Media.
La Red Club also has a chapter in New York City, and efforts are under way to start one in Miami. More information on the group is available on the Web at www.laredclub.org.
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