Utah has a growing ethnic minority population, adding diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives to the state’s business landscape. A group of business leaders recently gathered to discuss the role ethnic minorities play in building Utah’s economy. The group discussed the challenges unique to Utah ethnic minorities, including education opportunities, funding and communication. The group also shared success stories and offered advice to help more ethnic minorities reach success in the state.
We’d like to give a special thank you to Stanley Ellington, executive director of the Utah Black Chamber of Commerce, for moderating the discussion and to Holland & Hart for hosting the event.
Roger Tsai, Asian Chamber of Commerce, Parsons Behle and Latimer; Randi Ruff, University of Utah, Utah Supplier Development Council; Chuck Spence, Governor’s Office of Economic Development, Utah Supplier Development Council; Sean D. Reyes, Utah Hispanic Business Leadership Foundation, Parsons Behle and Latimer; Stanley Ellington, Utah Black Chamber of Commerce; David Utrilla, U.S. Translation Co.; David Kennard, Utah Business; Duvan Botero, Club Karamba, LLC; Ashok Joshi, Ceramatec, Inc.; Sabina Zunguze, Beautiful Options USA LLC;Cecilia Romero, Holland and Hart; Luz Robles, Zions Bank Business Resource Center; Jorge A. Fierro, The Fierro Group Inc.; Erni Armstrong, Freestyle Marketing Group; Juan Manuel Ruiz, Latin Chamber of Commerce; Ozwald Balfour, OMNI Media, LLC; Jesse Soriano, Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs
What are some of the unique challenges that minority business owners experience in Utah?
RUIZ: One of the unique challenges minorities face is education. The minority population just doesn’t have the access to education. Maybe it’s because of the language barrier. Maybe there are just not enough schools out there that will allow a Chinese person or a Korean person or a Mexican to take classes at the level they need to take them because discussion is not an option for them. I happened to go to school in Utah. Because English was not my first language, I was at a disadvantage with other kids in my class. I could not discuss things the same way. And, when discussions arose, I chose to be quiet because it was a challenge for me. I think that happened to most kids like me and it is what is happening to a lot of minorities today. I think education is one of the main challenges.
Another huge challenge is the availability of capital. Again, it’s one huge problem we, as a chamber, are trying to solve. We are preparing minorities with the documentation necessary, like accounting or financial records, in order to be even looked at by a bank or any other kind of financial source. Culturally, minorities are also not understood. Very few sources of capital are familiar with the mainstream borrower, but not the minority. So, I think that’s another huge challenge.
SORIANO: I think there are a couple of areas that are a concern to folks in the Latino and Hispanic community. And one of those areas is advertising. We see very, very poor representation of ethnic minorities, particularly in TV commercials and print advertising. You just don’t see very many ethnic faces among the images. So that would be one problem that I think must change as our markets become, of course, larger in our ethnic communities.
The other area of concern is that there aren’t many businesses that target different ethnic minorities. A somber example is the mortuary business, particularly in an area like Salt Lake, there are no ethnic representation to speak of. We have no mortuaries, no morticians that could deal with the end-of-life kinds of needs of our various ethnic communities.
ZUNGUZE: I think one of the missing links is mentors. The thing that I needed most when I started my business was a mentor. I needed someone to show me the ropes. I went to business school. I even went through the Utah Microenterprise Loan Fund. There are still those traditional requirements that don’t suit everybody who is out there. There are all these other nontraditional ways to get your business off the ground that people need to know about. That’s why I try to be a mentor. I work with 12 refugee women right now teaching them how to be in business. I ask them, “Do you have a business plan? What’s your marketing plan? You want to have a restaurant? Do you know what a profit plan is?” We have populations that are coming into Utah who have great ideas and would love to have businesses. Maybe they were business people in their country before coming here. Even if they have experience, they still need mentors, people to show them the way, because there are cultural differences that they have to jump. There are so many resources in this community, people just need help discovering them.
UTRILLA: Another big challenge I see are the stereotypes. It seems to me like we all categorize people. If you’re a Hispanic, sometimes you are seen as a person that’s good for hard labor. If you’re a woman, you may be seen as a person good for secretarial work despite your education or experience. We also categorize ourselves, too. I grew up in a very small community where my father worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant and my mother worked as a cook. We basically didn’t get out of that circle that was around us, and we started to believe that our surroundings were our destiny. I think people do that too often. There are too many people who lack examples out there. Too many people lack mentors or people that they can look up to.
When I came here in 1995, there weren’t many minority interpreters. In fact when I was in school for business, one of my teachers came to me and said that I was in the wrong place—that I would never make it in business. He said that I should be working at a restaurant or that type of business because of my language limitations. In that way, he was categorizing me and I started to think that’s where my destiny was. I was discouraged. Things have gotten better, but I think there’s still a challenge there that we have to overcome and that we have to change.
What industries or areas of business do you all see as being hot for development right now?
JOSHI: Energy is pretty hot.
SPENCE: Anything that is green. We were asked by the General Services Administration and the government to literally put together a list of all companies, small businesses and minority businesses who had those “green” types of products and services. And they anticipate, of course, with the stimulus package that came down and with President Obama going in the green direction that green is going to be a hot topic, and we’re seeing that right now.
ROBLES: I agree that the hottest development area is going to be green jobs regardless of whether the market is there—it’s just where the money is going to be for infrastructure. And, the stimulus is probably where we’re going to see the biggest push. I think we’re going to see a green trend where infrastructure is going to be created and money is going to be invested. Right now, no questions asked, millions and probably billions of dollars are going to green jobs.
Ironically I have seen more of the small businesses in terms of restaurants popping up. And the restaurant business is a tough business, but people love opening restaurants. Restaurant owners are probably the biggest group that [Zions Bank] has through the [Zions Bank] Business Resource Center. Even if the economy is doing really poorly or whatever the case is, people want to open restaurants. But green is where infrastructure is going to be and I think there’s where we’re going to have to move whether we’re ready or not.
What about international opportunities? Are many of you taking your business overseas?
UTRILLA: I think international development is the next big thing. Anything that is of interest in other countries is an area for development. For example, any type of product that another country can purchase. China is so big that if you were to have a product that only 1 percent of the population was interested in, you would be successful immediately. Also because of the Web, we are connected whether or not you like it with everyone in all places over the world. So if you have a product on the Web and you have a Website that people can navigate easily and be able to purchase things easily, your business can reach big populations and it will do well. Also having a Website out there in multiple languages can really benefit you. It has helped me to reach many people in other countries.
TSAI: In regards to international trade, I think we’re fortunate to have a governor who realizes that there are practical financial benefits to diversity and not just diversity for diversity sake. Within the last two or three years, we’ve seen the exports from Utah to Asia grow by 50 percent. It’s currently at $10 billion. That’s a huge impact to our economy, obviously. I think we’ll continue to see those connections grow.
BOTERO: We’ve all heard about globalization. I think sometimes globalization becomes a term and we forget about the ramifications of what it means. I happen to have a friend who works for a very distinguished architect firm in Utah. And he’s Columbian as well. He was able to start an office in Bogota, Columbia. The office has architects that serve and work independently for the architect firm, and they’re now helping with projects that are actually being built and structured in Utah, but that are being designed and worked in offices in Bogota, Columbia. I think that’s just marvelous to see the connectivity that Utah companies can have with the world, and use resources and human capital outside the borders at a lower cost. You’re bringing jobs and security to families, and obviously it’s helping the community in Utah with work. So I think globalization is a great opportunity. I’m not saying to move jobs outside the U.S. I’m saying there are international resources that we can use that can also serve minorities.
REYES: International business has had an interesting breakthrough. Parsons, Behle and Latimer is going to represent a worldwide entertainment venture, which is great for the firm. I recently met with two of the principals. Both were former senior executives of Sony and Time Warner and very well known. What they talked about is that with so much opportunity internationally now in the entertainment field, there’s not enough content and product out there from the studios. So they’re going to be looking much more to small, independent production companies worldwide and locally to mass produce content for specific regions and cultures. They were talking in particular about Asia and broke down each of the different countries they wanted to have—films, books, magazines and television production done. So this is a great opportunity, but again, like several have mentioned, it’s different, totally new paradigm. It’s not just taking “Sponge Bob” and “Dora the Explorer” and packaging that throughout all of the different countries. It’s being culturally sensitive to the needs of specific regions and then doing it here or there and providing that content. Currently they only have maybe 10 percent of the content that can fill the bandwidth of what they need, and so we’re talking about a global revolution as far as entertainment goes. It’s a tremendous opportunity for businesses here in Utah.
RUIZ: As we speak about all the hot spots in Utah business, it amazes me that most minorities in Utah aren’t starting businesses around the business trends or hotspots. Instead, as Luz [Robles] said, most of the people coming into our office are starting restaurants, are starting landscaping companies or framing companies. And what’s alarming is that the growing minority is not sophisticated enough to go into any other areas. In fact, as these populations grow and they start to filter into a little bit more sophisticated roles or areas, they’re still miles away from reaching any of the technology or business trends that we’ve talked about.
How is the state’s business climate toward minorities? Do you find the resources necessary to start and maintain a business, such as financing, are available?
RUIZ: As a board member of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, we have struggled in the past to bring to light the fact that there are Hispanics and Asians and other minorities in Utah who are worth looking into from the business perspectives.
When I started going to school here at the University of Utah about 12 years ago, the Hispanic presence was very low at the University of Utah. I have to say, though, that things have gotten better. We are seeing more and more minorities at the University of Utah. We are seeing more minorities at the Salt Lake Community College and other schools. It is a changing environment, and it’s changing very rapidly every semester. So, hope is there. We are going in the right direction.
I see local institutions, such as Zions Bank, the Utah Microenterprise Loan Fund and other lending institutions, starting to look into minorities. So, I think financing institutions are going in the right direction. We all just have a lot of work to do. We have to start advertising the resources better into the community. That, I think, is the biggest challenge we have. Our community wants to do it, they have the human capital to do it, they just don’t have the knowledge of where to go or how to do it. They have no idea what resources they have to go and tap into and say, “Here I am, take a look into my business idea and let’s get going.” I think we, as business leaders, just have to advertise how we can help more.
ROBLES: I agree with everything that’s been said, except that we cannot focus on all the problems out there because there are a lot of very successful stories. However, [minorities] are not even 1 percent of the population here, yet, we have the highest high school dropout rate in our state and that’s Hispanic and African American kids and Native American kids. The reality is all of our kids, basically, aren’t doing well. And then we’re talking about green jobs being the next big thing. But if we go outside into our respective communities and ask anyone whether they know what green jobs or energy jobs are and see if they know—I bet they won’t know. They may actually be doing them right now. They just don’t know the lingo. That’s where we have to come in. That’s where the educational piece has to come into play in a culturally and linguistically competent way.
We probably all have different stories. Some of us are new immigrants to this country. We all have our own stories, but the reality is: yes, we have more kids in college, in the business school when 12 years ago they weren’t there. But, the minority population has grown at 256 percent in the last 10 years and I don’t see that growth on the college level or graduation level or anywhere else. So we need to keep encouraging our success stories and highlighting them and making sure we get to the mainstream.
But at the same time, the bottom line is that we need to find things that are adequately and linguistically and culturally competent for our kids. We need to bring the refugee community and new immigrant communities to the discussion. Many communities have been here for generations. I know seventh- and eighth-generation of Mexican Americans that are still struggling. We need to make sure that those opportunities where the money is going to be are going to be for our communities as well. That’s only going to take place by changing our structure of education, accessing that information and advertising in an appropriate way. If you’re a 15-year-old or 16-year-old kid looking for your first job and you look to mainstream television and nothing in there relates to you, you’re probably going to look back and say, “Where do I look for role models?” And kids then end up in unfortunate situations. As minority business leaders, when we see the green jobs or whatever is going to be the new thing, we need to push that information into our communities in a way that it makes sense to them to be available in a way that makes sense to our communities.
Discuss the dichotomy of spreading minority success stories while also presenting the challenging stories. How does the dichotomy affect Utah’s minorities?
REYES: I think the dichotomy that we’ve described is one of the challenges minorities face and that the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has dealt with for many years. On one hand you have a very successful, very exciting story to talk about with business leaders. Part of our goal is to educate the general business community that we have very talented individuals who are successful minority business owners and to let them become part of the greater business story. On the other hand, you also have many up-and-coming businesses that haven’t yet achieved that level of success. So on one hand you’re trying to portray to the greater community and say, “Look at what we’ve done,” and at the very same time you’re trying to advocate for opening up doors and providing resources for a very large part of the community to help them get to that point as well. So you’re trying to do both things at the same time. It’s a challenge to show that some of us have succeeded while there’s still yet so much for us to do to help and give back and pull the rest of our community up.
BALFOUR: I think that in the entire populace that we are discussing—if you think of minorities as a group—while the segment that one describes is a distinct reality, but I think it’s not the entire picture. Those of us here probably had opportunities and took advantage of those opportunities. We, then, do have some responsibility to help others. I think that responsibility is being met, but there’s a lot more that can, and should, be done. So, we ought to have some balance in the discussion with respect to those minorities who are very accomplished and not exclude that part of the discussion because that would perhaps hinder some of the opportunities for others in that group. If others who may not have had the opportunities can see examples like those around the table here, they may think that there is hope. So, that other side should not be ignored—there is great hope and we need to make sure that our success and the hope is front and center and then we need to find a way to bridge to those who haven’t had opportunities. Many of us here probably were in that category at one time. So maybe it’s a progression. We ought not to think that if you’re a newcomer, all of a sudden you’re going to be at the top of the heap. It sometimes takes a very long process, but if they stay the course, they’ll have those opportunities too.
SORIANO: I think we also need to make sure we’re communicating with the correct individuals. It’s not enough to invite only [minorities] to your professional get-togethers. We already talk to each other. We in the minority community deal with each other almost entirely. We aren’t part of a larger network that includes people like the Huntsmans or Eccles. We’re not part of that, but we need to be. I think some of that is our own fault. Because we are categorized, we’ve begun to believe the categorization, which causes us to limit our vision. People are afraid to talk to others who they think are too high up, important or wealthy. So, we end up limiting our own vision very often.
ROMERO: I think that is true. I think there are instances and occasions where we can and do limit ourselves, but I think that the spectacular thing about minority-owned businesses is that we have the capabilities to reach across and affect other communities and bring other communities into our community so that they really understand and can learn from our experience. Jorge’s [Fierro] business is a great example of that. He’s out at the Farmer’s Market every single weekend. And, I see all types of individuals at his booth, and they’re not limited to Latinos or Asian-Americans. They’re everybody. He’s including everybody, and he’s teaching them about a culture through food. So, I do agree that there certainly are those limitations, but there are also other opportunities that other individuals can bring to the table. And I think that highlights how small businesses and other businesses and individuals that have succeeded and how we bridge that gap and bring people together so we make sure that we’re reaching into all of the communities.
Discuss SB 81. How will it affect your communities?
ROBLES: Senator Romero and I recently presented at the Asian Chamber of Commerce. And one of the things we talked about is that minority-owned businesses need to have a stronger coalition in talking to state government about policies that really make a different in terms of opportunities for education and for businesses to be more successful. For example, SB 81 will have a dramatic impact on the business community, specifically the ethnic minority business community. When you limit people to have access to professional licensure, for example, it is affecting individuals and the community at large.
For example, my mother-in-law has been a childcare provider for 18 years. She has even at points sustained her family as a childcare provider, and she has a perfect record of taking care of children. I recently literally found her crying because a lot of her friends won’t be able to continue getting a license because of SB 81. How many families are going to be hurt financially because they won’t be able to work—even though they’re providing a service that many of us have to use? Approximately 50 percent of women in the state of Utah are in the workforce. We have working families and working moms all the time, and those children are going to be hurt. But we don’t speak up enough to say this is a whole community you’re affecting. And it’s our policies that affect small businesses. The example I used of women with their daycares and their childcare centers—they are business owners who are providing a great service to our community and they also have a great business. And now many of them will be limited, the same with other professional licensures. We need to have a stronger voice when it comes to policies that affect us. We also need to demand that the media is responsive.
What can business, government and community leaders do to improve minority business in Utah?
REYES: The Utah Hispanic Business Leadership Foundation, the SOMOS foundation and some of the ethnic chambers of commerce are all trying to do similar things. But let’s take it from what we ought to be doing down to what we need to be doing and what we are doing right now. Education is the great equalizer—it levels the playing field. But it’s not good enough for us to just get our students into institutions and not have them integrated into the business community. It’s not good enough for them to get an education and then go out into the workforce and not have any of the doors opened and not have any of the mentors. Several people have said that the key is education and mentorship, which I agree with. But, that only comes individually, on a one-to-one basis. There are many people who take time out of their busy schedules to nurture and bring up other small, struggling businesses to help them out, open doors, to help them with funding.
One of the things that we’ve done institutionally is our education foundation. We give out scholarships, which is a key component, but not everything. You have to have money in order to finance and fund education. But when we get the students into the institutions, we have key people there to help the students. Many of us are first-time participants in formal or higher education—our parents were not educated. And then we take that model where we have people who are nurturing them while they are there at the institution, guiding them along the way, answering silly questions that they feel too ashamed to talk to anybody else about, helping them get the mentoring and the tutoring that they need. We take that model and apply it when they graduate and are looking for jobs.
But not only were many of our parents perhaps not educated, they weren’t professionals, so it’s a totally different dynamic out there. When you haven’t had the connections or you don’t have an uncle who went to school or you don’t have your dad’s golf partners or country club members who are there to open doors for you, then it’s incumbent upon the rest of us to help do that. Though there are many people who do reach out into the minority community on a day-to-day basis, I think we need to find a way that we can expand the reach institutionally. For example, we could make it a requirement for our board members to have to take on mentoring responsibilities. Of course that’s hit and miss, because not everybody has the same amount of time. But we need to push that responsibility.
I think we also need to define what mentoring entails. I think it’s one-on-one listening. I think it’s helping people write a business plan. It’s helping them walk into a bank and talk to a senior executive and helping them get a loan. We have a program where anybody who is a member of the chamber can walk off the street and ask for help. And, we bring in guests like Scott Anderson and Dinesh Patel who take time out of their schedules and will answer questions for hours specific to the needs of those members. That’s an informal source of education, but it is a source of quality education and it’s also a way to network. And you combine the formal education with these informal sort of mentoring aspects, and we can really help people. It’s a concrete thing that we all can do and be proud of. If it’s something that we get the whole community involved in, we’ll be cross-pollinating between minority groups and the general business community, which would serve everyone.
ARMSTRONG: I think those are all really commendable things, but beyond that I think there’s a need to publicize it and inform and share that information. I wasn’t aware of a lot of these programs and opportunities and funding. When I started my business, I wish I would have known about some of the opportunities that there are.
Minority business owners and small business owners in general have specific challenges, so having those services and then having the ability to publicize and share that information with the rest of the community is very important.
FIERRO: It’s obvious that communication is what we need. But one of the big problems that we really have is education and the government. The government seems to be able to pick and choose who they’re going to educate and who they’re not going educate. We can be fair and try to tackle this issue. It’s not only going to help the Hispanic and the Latinos, but it’s going to help anybody who comes to this country. Education shouldn’t have a price, but it does have a price in America, and that’s our biggest problem. We talk about how we can work and how we can mentor to help. But the fact is if the education is not available for everybody, we’re never ever going to solve this issue.
ZUNGUZE: Minorities in Utah are a very small population. I’ve done business in other states where there are very many more minorities. In those states, for example, I market to blacks very differently from how I market them here in Utah. Particularly in this state, you have to know everybody. If you’re marketing your business, you have to know how to market to the general population, not only to your own population. So I think that marketing is something that we need to look at. I think we need to look to those who are already succeeding in business. We need to look at how they’re marketing their business.
TSAI: I think a lot of us who have lived in other cities would love to see Utah become more diverse. Within Utah we’ve got 50,000 Asian. That’s 100 times less than there are in California—California has 100 times more Asians. But everybody keeps saying Utah is changing. I’ve only been here for two years, and I assume that’s true. In Salt Lake I’ve seen three sushi places open up in the last two or three months. I’ve been paying attention to how many sushi restaurants there are in the immediate downtown area. I’ve found 15. That’s probably more than any other ethnic food group. Imagine 10 years ago trying to find a Japanese restaurant or Thai restaurant or Vietnamese restaurant. I bet it was very difficult. The Asian community, and maybe even the ethnic community as a whole, has not reached a critical mass of having enough people to even have a Chinatown or an equivalent sort of place. I think right now maybe we’ve got one restaurant and one Asian grocery store right next to each other, and that’s the Asian community. So it’s tiny, but hopefully it’s growing. I’d love to see more of it.
Sean [Reyes] mentioned earlier that we like to project that there is a community of success, but yet it’s still behind. Yes, there are 2,800 Asian American-owned businesses that employ 7,000 people, but at the same time only a third of them have more than two employees. The businesses are all mostly tiny. People need help building their business skills. They need some sort of training and mentoring.
One of the issues that was mentioned was immigration. Within the Asian community, what we see is about a third of folks that are in the Asian community are U.S. born. And, a third of them are naturalized. I’m naturalized. I was naturalized when I was a teenager. My dad was that first generation immigrant that was foreign born. I think we’ll probably continue to see more of the Asian community go into positions of power, whether they be attorneys, business leaders or politicians. It’s interesting that within Utah, there are only three Asian American politicians at state or local level.
RUIZ: I think another possible solution is to try to eliminate duplicate efforts that are wasteful. I think one of the biggest obstacles that we are all facing is that because of this lack of communication or lack of integration we are duplicating efforts in areas and repeating services where we don’t need to be. Maybe this could be the beginning of a more integrated solution. For instance, if the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is putting together a business seminar, we all should refer people to the Hispanic Chamber who need those services. And, if there’s another organization that’s putting together something else, we should, again, refer people. In other words, maybe we need to create a committee or some kind of organization where we can cooperate among ourselves and start referring to each other on things. I think this would give us a competitive advantage over the other organizations. That way we can all focus on the things that we are good at and leave the things that we’re not good at to other people who are experts.
ARMSTRONG: I think one of the other challenges that we have is keeping our talent here in Utah. I’m originally from the Philippines and I come from a family of seven children. Now, only three of us are left here in Utah. Most of my siblings all left here after they got their education because they didn’t feel that the environment here in Utah was culturally diverse enough or friendly enough for them to stay. So, I think some of the things that we have mentioned as solutions can also work toward keeping some of the talent that we’ve cultivated here in Utah.