| Q&A with Gale Castillo, Executive Director of Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce
What was the business environment like for Hispanic/Latino businesses when the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber was founded? The reason that we started discussing formation of the chamber was the environment – in general was very negative for Latinos. Like now, we were seen by the public as illegal immigrants, we were all taking from the system, and all our kids are gangbangers. We wanted to form an organization that would bring visibility and recognition to the contributions that we make. We wanted to highlight the fact that many Latino business owners are contributing to the economy through their businesses by creating jobs. We also wanted to highlight our young people – their good works and achievement. We wanted to establish an organization that focused on business and economic development – not a social service agency. We wanted something that was affiliated with a national organization – to lend our efforts credibility and prominence. That’s why we decided to form a local chapter of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
We brought the national president and vice president to Oregon – they served as keynote speakers at one of the very first big dinners that we had. We had members of the city council and head of the Portland Development Commission.
As part of our work, we decided to add the scholarship program to accomplish the goal of highlighting the accomplishments of young people in our community. The scholarship program has really taken off.
When we started having our membership luncheons, many people were shocked to see so many professional Latinos: attorneys, CPAs, educators and business owners coming to our events.
The role of the Hispanic Chamber – and the role I take on personally – is to educate our community about who we are and where we could continue to grow. Growth, not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of education and accomplishments.
The other role is to educate the general community about who we are and what we can accomplish through their help. That help could be through employment opportunities, contract opportunities or supporting our scholarship program.
How has the business environment changed in Oregon since the chamber was founded? The Latino population in Oregon has grown tremendously – from 1990 to 2000, there was 144% growth in the Latino community. Oregon is now among the top 10 states for Latinos, in terms of percentage of growth. We’re not Texas or California, but in terms of percentage of growth, we’re one of the fastest growing Latino communities nationwide.
There has been a lot of positive change in the last 10 years. We’re seeing more Latino businesses starting and expanding. There are more Latino workers and professionals. There’s a lot more interest among the public and private sectors in engaging Latino contractors and workers.
How did your business and entrepreneurial experiences prepare you for the leadership role at the chamber? I have a tremendous understanding of what small businesses face on a day-to-day basis, just to sustain their business, let alone to grow it. My husband and I run Cascade Centers, and in addition, I’ve had a small retail business downtown. Both of those experiences have taught me about the challenges of owning a business: making payroll, having enough revenue to meet expenses, sustaining your market, meeting challenges that are outside of your control. When I owned a retail business downtown, I couldn’t control the construction in front of my store. I couldn’t control the decrease in tourism that occurred across the nation, following 9/11. I couldn’t impact a snow storm or ice storm that kept people away from downtown.
How did your background in public service impact your perspective? When we started the chamber, the board wanted someone with a public and private sector background. If you look at the chamber, our members include small business owners, corporate businesses, and a lot of public sector involvement as well. My background in understanding – and knowing – the individuals in the city, state and county levels has really helped our members engage the public sector. This comes with understanding how the agencies work, and what some of their challenges and goals are.
What were some of the unexpected challenges you had when you were first establishing the chamber? I did not expect that we would be as well-received as we have been, by the public and private sectors, as well as our own community. I’ve been in Oregon for a long time and have known people who come to our events who have been for a long time. They felt comfortable coming to our events. The feedback we received was that our events are done in a professional manner. We address topics that are of interest to the business community. We come from a business point of view, in terms of how we address areas of concern.
For instance, we present our scholarship program as a workforce issue that all businesses are confronting. We’re not taking a “do-the-right-thing” point of view. Instead, we’re advocating “do-the-right-business-thing.” It’s good for business and industry, because we need these prepared and skilled workers. Scholarship funds, in fact, are an investment for the future of business and the workforce.
What accomplishments are you most proud of? I’m most proud of the small businesses that we assist. We’ve made a difference in the lives of business owners and the families they help support. Young people are a vital part of small family-owned businesses. They’re learning how to use software programs so that they can help Mom and Dad and hopefully, maybe even take over the business when their parents retire.
We’re very proud of our scholarship program and the difference we’ve made in young people’s lives. We’re supporting their good efforts.
What were some of the initial challenges that you came across? We had no resources, no staff, and no office – nothing. We literally started from scratch. When we started, we had a small group of people. Eventually, we grew to 20, 50, 100 and so on. We grew the membership slowly, but we had no resources to work with. We were doing luncheons and a few scholarships. After we received funding, we were able to hire an executive director and Mary Ann – my assistant – full-time. That’s when we took off. The two of us were able to dedicate ourselves full-time to growing the chamber. As we continued to grow our membership, we continued to raise money.
The chamber has been around for 13 years, but we’ve only had our office for the last two years. Frankly, we didn’t open an office until I felt confident that we had enough money in the bank that would enable us to sustain an office. Our next challenge is sustaining our operations: sustaining our services and sustaining our ability to raise scholarships.
What do you consider as the most gratifying aspect of your role as executive director for the chamber? Talking to people about our community and all the good things that are happening out there, and having people who want to be part of that. After I talk to people about the chamber, they want to become a member, participate in a trade show, or participate in our scholarship program. People have a positive response to our messages, and want to assist.
There are few people out there who don’t want to take part, and I don’t spend a lot of time with those people. The chamber runs public service announcements that run on TV about our scholarship program – both in English and Spanish language stations. Whenever those run – especially after-hours – the phone rings, and we get negative calls. We get messages that say “Go back to Mexico!” or “Why would you expect me to help you go to school? I never went to school.”
What opportunities do you see for Latino professionals, entrepreneurs and business leaders? People tell me: “With all this increase in population, you guys would be so powerful.” Frankly, growth in numbers doesn’t do us any good unless we’re educated and we’re prepared to take on the responsibilities and positions that are needed. That’s why we promote scholarships to support young people who want to go to school.
We’ve also instituted a Latino Leadership program for those people who already are in the workforce, but continue to need mentoring and encouragement to continue to move up the management ladder within the organization – whether public or private. We’re trying to give them specific skills that will help them be successful in the workplace: identifying their leadership style; help with communication skills; help with strategic planning and project planning skills; overview of major systems.
What are some of the challenges? Particularly for young people, as the opportunities present themselves – one has to say yes. It’s taking that risk and moving outside of your comfort level that will allow you to grow, make errors and learn.
We didn’t get here by always being perfect – we all make mistakes. Hopefully, we learn from those mistakes and grow from that experience, and move on. If you’re not willing to take the risk, you’ll never grow – personally or professionally.
How does your cultural background affect the way you lead? My staff and I are very hardworking. We do what it takes to get the job done. We’re not just doing 8-to-5: my staff members are here on Friday evenings or on the weekends conducting workshops. We’re out in the community, at events whenever and wherever they occur.
Early in your career, what were some of the hurdles you had to overcome as a Latina? Fear. I’ve usually been the only Latina or Latino person in a group. I was the first in my family to get a college education. I’ve been in boardrooms and meetings where I’m the only Latina in the room. I’m the first Latina Portland Development Commissioner, and the first Latina commissioner for the Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Commission.
Someone, somewhere felt confident that I’m able to handle the responsibility. I try and encourage people on my staff or those in the community to move outside their comfort level so that they can experience, learn and grow.
How do you overcome the fear of moving outside your comfort zone? Don’t think about the fear. Focus on the opportunity: what is the opportunity for the position? Is there an opportunity for you to do something good, or learn something that can be applied to another situation?
What’s the most important piece of advice that anyone has ever given you? Think before you say anything. How you present yourself is very important. If you dress professionally, people tend to treat you more professionally. If you speak professionally in a business meeting, people will take you more seriously. Be concise in how you express your ideas. Be collaborative in solving problems.
Looking back to your career, what are you most proud of? I’m proud that I was able to be married, raise a family and still contribute both to the business and civic communities. In essence, I was able to have it all and keep a balance. My husband and I are very close, and we’re close to our son. I’m not just a Mom, not just a wife, not just President of the chamber, not just a business owner – I’m all of these things, and maintaining a sense of balance among my many roles has been very important.