Back in the 1970s, "Hispanic" was not yet a commonly used word, in Houston or elsewhere. Professionals with Latin surnames found themselves shut out of the corporate world. Manuel Leal was one of them. Fresh out of law school, he couldnt even land an interview.
"With my last name and the way I look, it was darn near impossible to break into the mainstream," he said.
His father, who owned a radio station in San Antonio, was the president of that city's "Mexican Chamber of Commerce." Leal decided to try start something similar in Houston.
He went to talk to some officials in Houston City Hall, who directed him to what was then referred to as the Latino department. The men there liked his idea. They brainstormed a name.
One of the city officials said, "There's a new word coming up; it's called 'Hispanic,' and it seems to be gaining acceptance," Leal remembers. They drew up a few documents, and the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was born.
"There was one problem, though," said Leal, who in 1983 went on to become the first Hispanic judge appointed to the United States Bankruptcy Court. "We did not have any members."
And how the times have changed.
This month, the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is celebrating its 35th anniversary. Today, the chamber boasts 5,000 small-business members and corporate representatives, 400 corporate sponsors and a staff of a dozen people, all of them bilingual and college educated. It works with an annual budget of about $2.5 million.
The organization has become quite influential in the Greater Houston area, playing a key role, for instance, in the process of redrawing the district boundaries for the Houston City Council. In short, it is among the largest ethnic business-development organizations in the nation, second only perhaps to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. How have they been able to grow so large?
"Aside from working night and day?" said Laura Murillo, the chamber's president and CEO. "We started focusing on member services and delivering what we promised."
To be sure, the chamber owes some of its success to changing demographics. In the 1960s, the city was home to about 72,000 people of Hispanic descent. Today, that number is 1.5 million. That amounts to about 40 percent of the city's entire population.
"That strikes me as one of the more significant demographic transformations in modern history," said Gilbert Herrera, an investment banker and the chamber's current board chairman.
It is for that reason that the chamber in recent years has adopted a bold tagline: "The Leader of Houston's New Majority."
But the demographic shift tells only part of the story, and not even the largest part. Of even greater consequence has been a tectonic shift in the structure of the organization itself.
At the Brink
As late as 2007, the Houston Hispanic Chamber was floundering—in danger of collapsing altogether. That year, the board of directors devised a strategic plan that they hoped would guide the chamber and its members back to sound fiscal health.
It appears to have paid off. Although the chamber has been around for 35 years, the lion's share of the growth happened in the years since the strategic plan was hatched. Since 2007, membership has grown tenfold. The headquarters has moved from a small office building in the outskirts of town to a 12-story building in the heart of downtown Houston.
The strategic plan is multifaceted, but ultimately addresses a major problem: The Hispanic community has been economically disconnected and politically disenfranchised from the big players in Houston. One of the major roles of the chamber is therefore to connect the Hispanic community with some of the key drivers of the local economy.
"Twenty or thirty years ago, it was small businesses networking with each other," Herrera said. "Today our mission is really more about putting our members in a position to network with external parties."
Last year, for instance, Chevron hosted a procurement summit at the chamber, at which the oil company brought 25 purchasing professionals from all over the country. The chamber also hosted an international trade event, putting its members in touch with importers, exporters, insurance companies and banks from across Latin America.
In the coming months, the chamber will devote much of its attention to connecting members to businesses tied to the Houston economy's two largest sectors: energy and health care.
Herrera says he is pleased with the results to date, but he's far from sanguine. He points out that while the chamber has a record 5,000 members, the Houston area is home to roughly 69,000 Hispanic-owned enterprises.
"We've had an enormous run-up, but we have a long way to go," he said. "If this were a book I'd say we're probably on chapter five."
From Leal's vantage, it's been an incredible journey. Now a 73-year-old professor at Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, Leal is a chairman emeritus on the chamber he founded. He still attends the occasional meeting.
"I keep quiet, and sit in the back and watch," he said. "I listen to the new generation."
He said he's extremely proud to have started something that is now thriving. "Aside from my family, it's the most satisfying endeavor I seem to have accomplished in my lifetime," he said.
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