Gilbert Herrera, chairman of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, sees Houston as a reflection of trends happening in large cities worldwide. The city is growing more urban, global and diverse, he says.
The chamber hopes to play a larger role in managing that growth and has renewed efforts to connect the city's growing Hispanic population with the mainstream.
Herrera recently spoke to the Chronicle about the chamber's future as it celebrates its 35th anniversary. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: How has the chamber changed over the years?
A: Today, we have approximately a dozen college-educated, full-time staff who are all bilingual. That's the most substantial change. Ten years ago, we had a mixture of part-time contract staff, and today the quality of the staff is the single biggest attribute we have. (Chamber President) Laura Murillo is a Ph.D. from UH and grew up on the east side. She understands how to work downtown and in the community. She is really sophisticated in how to operate in multiple constituencies.
Related story: "Incredible Journey: Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Celebrates 35 Years"
Q: What are the chamber's current challenges?
A: Our thesis is economic, workforce and leadership development. Those are foundational goals. So when you talk about challenges, we are about providing infrastructure to a large demographic in this community that needs infrastructure. The ultimate challenge we face is how do we create more economic connectivity for that community, for those business owners and for those families. If we can solve that question, we've answered a lot of the other questions.
Q: What would you like the chamber to be doing that it is not currently doing?
A: Two things stand out. One, about 50 percent of our economy is energy and 30 percent is health care. We have to be more effective advocates for those industries and be relevant to the institutions in those industries. If Shell, Chevron and Exxon don't see us as advocates, I question how sustainable their membership is and how relevant we are. Issue No. 2 is, any effective economic model is based on cooperation between business and government. We're a bridge to that. Higher education is a part of that. The University of Houston, Rice University, the University of Texas System and Texas A&M System are key relationships for us because higher education drives leadership development.
We've also got to be more impactful for things the health care community needs. For instance, Texas has sought a waiver to expand out the Medicaid Act. In 10 years, I would hope that we could be a focal point for how an issue like that gets addressed. We are peripherally involved right now, but aren't really central to the conversation.
Q: How would you describe the chamber's politics?
A: To the extent we're involved in politics, it's from the policy standpoint. We're for a tax environment and climate that allows for business success because when business thrives, our community thrives.
At the end of the day Houston is full of organizations that advocate for their self-interest. You have unions, arts groups, architects and others. Everybody expects everybody to be a good advocate, but you have to play the game that what's good for Houston, is good for us -- not just what's good for me. It's pluralistic. The whole has to be served. Our view is that historically when blacks, Asians, Hispanics or other groups speak out, it's, "There they go. They want a separate community." Wrong. We're not doing anything different. We're part of that mainstream.
Q: How do you draw in the small businesses that aren't as involved in the community?
A: There's author after author, book after book, talking about the constant theme of the breakdown of institutional trust. People don't trust institutions the way they used to trust them. How people get information and who they look to for validation has been evolving over the past 30 years. We've created tools that really reflect how our members gather information. For instance, Laura Murillo has a radio talk show on "La Tremenda" on Monday mornings.
We also give people a forum online with social media. The 40-and-under crowd wants a virtual experience. They see the whole notion of social influence, and they look for validation amongst their friends and peers. If their friends are participating, and they're seeing it on Facebook or Twitter, they show up. Those 50 and above, that's not their thing. They look to more established entities, such as their accountant, employer or lawyer. We really try to go after all of those pathways.
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