Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO and founder Michel Zajur builds bridges between communities.
Michel Zajur at Richmond’s Main Street Station.
Born in Mexico City, Michel Zajur immigrated to Richmond with his family in the early 1960s. For over 30 years, the Zajurs owned La Siesta Mexican Restaurant, a popular eatery that also served as a de facto information hub for the Hispanic community.
In the 1990s, Zajur and his wife Lisa formed Siesta Town (now known as the Spanish Academy and Cultural Institute), a program to help young students—and now Fortune 500 companies—learn more about Hispanic culture. After years of counseling customers on employment, housing and legal matters, Zajur formed the membership-based nonprofit Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2000 with a dual mission to provide the Hispanic community with access to education and information and to help with integration into the community-at-large.
The top 20 Hispanic-owned companies in Virginia produced revenues of $1.3 billion and employed 7,613 people in 2012, according to the 2012 HispanicBusiness.com 500 ranking. These figures, combined with the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report that Hispanic-owned businesses increase at more than double the national rate, mean Virginia is poised to play a key role with a new generation of business owners. With offices in Richmond and Vienna, Zajur and the VAHCC have worked to collaborate with other chambers, businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to leverage this growth. They host conferences, workshops and networking events and participate in events like the Latino International Trade and Business Summit. Attendees at the annual Hispanic Gala in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month in October have included former president of Mexico Vicente Fox.
The 58-year-old Zajur currently chairs the Virginia Latino Advisory Board, serves on the State Board for Community Colleges, and has been appointed by governors Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Bob McDonnell to serve on various commissions, task forces and transition teams. In September of 2012, Zajur received the Ohtli Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Mexican government upon a non-Mexican citizen.
Just seeing what my parents went through—I think it can be a lot easier if you have an organization like this to help guide you. My family came from Mexico when I was very young. We were the translators for our parents. There was no other option. You had to learn English, you had to speak English. If you wanted any different kinds of food, you had to go to Washington. We even grew jalapenos and different things because it wasn’t easy to get.
A lot of what we do is help companies that face barriers so they can reach the market. We help them with Spanish, as they are trying to market their products to the Hispanic community, or help them do better outreach, or hire Hispanics. Language and cultural barriers are huge, so, one of the things we do is go to the companies and help to acculturate them and set up training for culture and language.
We need engineers, we need scientists, we need the workforce for tomorrow. The Hispanic community is the fastest growing community. It’s a very young community, yet it has the highest dropout rate. That’s a problem. One of the big programs we’ve initiated is Passport to Education. We give out scholarships and information for students and we’re building a web portal to help guide parents and families. We worked with NASA at the Science Museum and brought together 200 Hispanic students and did a live tele-link with them—[the students] were talking with the astronauts in space, and it was televised nationally.
When I started the chamber, I went to see Jim Dunn, who was the president of the Richmond Chamber. I didn’t want to start anything that divided people. I told Jim I felt this was something very needed, because how do you bring people who speak limited English that aren’t going to get involved in the RVA chamber ... they feel like fish out of water. He encouraged me.
One of the businesses we helped bring here is Goya Foods. We were having our gala and so I went and called the owner, Bob Unanue, and I invited him and said, “Look, I know you were here looking in Virginia, and I’d like to invite you [to the gala] so you can see it and not write it off.” So he came, and I introduced him to the governor, then it was Mark Warner, and to the head of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce and the [Virginia] Secretary of Commerce and Trade. He and his brother Peter, they were the last ones to leave; and after that they came back and saw there was a Hispanic community here. They ended up putting their distribution center here just south of Chesterfield.
The greater Washington area probably has one of the most affluent Hispanic communities in the world. A lot of our members in Northern Virginia are big IT companies. Dario Marquez [CEO of MVM, provider of physical security services and specialized training programs] has over 3,000 employees. I met Tony Jimenez [founder, president and CEO of MicroTech, a technology integrator and service provider], when he started his company and was working from his kitchen table. Now he’s grown his business to over $300 million, and it was listed as the fastest growing Hispanic company for three consecutive years. Joe Travez [CEO, Prototype Productions, a high-tech product development, manufacturing and commercialization group] sold one technology for a half-billion dollars.
So how can you help mainstream businesses do business with the Hispanic community here in the U.S., which is over 45 million Hispanics? It’s a huge opportunity, and you don’t want to miss the wave. If you can learn a little Spanish for competitive advantage, if you can understand and be acculturated, that’s how we’re helping mainstream business. On the Hispanic side, and that’s why our logo is a bridge, is the same thing—you’ve got to learn English. If you want to have any success here, you’ve got to learn English. If you want to go ahead and understand the system—the educational system, you want to understand how to do business, how to market yourself—you are in a new country, this is your country now, and you’ve got to learn about it. VAHCC.com