In many ways, Juan Zaldivar's daily life in the restaurant business hasn't changed in 20 years. He's still working hard — oftentimes seven days a week — in hopes of bringing home at least one more dollar than the week before.
But in rising from busboy who barely spoke English to businessman who co-owns two restaurants in Middlesex County, he learned a big lesson: Sometimes the best way to build your business is to spend a few hours away.
Two years ago, Zaldivar started attended networking and social media and business development meetings set up by the Middlesex County Regional Chamber of Commerce's Hispanic Business Council.
The council was developed three years ago to give the county's Hispanic-owned businesses — which number more than 6,300, according to the most recent census data — a blueprint for growth outside of the traditional business practice of simply working harder than the next guy.
Zaldivar is now a firm believer in the idea.
Traffic to his restaurant has increased. The statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has asked him to be involved in upcoming Super Bowl events, and Gov. Chris Christie dined recently at his daughter's restaurant in New Brunswick.
"Most people don't want to spend time on those meetings," said Zaldivar, who co-owns Lola's Latin Bistro and Civile é Tornato, in Metuchen. But "those people refer you."
Statewide, Hispanic-owned businesses contribute roughly $10 billion a year to the state economy, according to the state's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Middlesex County is home to a large concentration of those businesses — more than all but two other counties in the state.
Many of those businesses are small, with fewer than five employees, said Luis De La Hoz, a microloan officer at the Intersect Fund and a member of the Middlesex County Regional Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
Often, the proprietors do not speak English. Many of them don't use email and work long hours throughout the week, leaving little time for traditional networking events.
De La Hoz said he and other members of the chamber realized that segment of the county's population needed help navigating the state's business environment.
"We are trying to bring together a community that is not familiar with the regular tools you use in your daily life," said De La Hoz, who came to New Jersey from Colombia nine years ago.
"It's not easy. It's a lot of hours. It's a lot of phone calls. It's a lot of time," De La Hoz said. But "we realized that we needed to focus on their needs."
So the members of the chamber's Hispanic Business Council began visiting Hispanic-owned businesses throughout the county — literally going door to door — and identifying several of their most critical needs, which include access to capital, networking assistance, and marketing and social media training.
Twenty-five people came to the first event the group, held at New Patio, in New Brunswick, said Alex Hollywood, executive director of the Middlesex Chamber. That evening, one woman stood up and asked the members of the council — in Spanish — what had taken them so long.
"They're a part of our economy, and they're running businesses," Hollywood said. "We're teaching them how to present through the mainstream market. You should have business cards. You should have promotional material. You don't have a website? Let's work on that."
Now, the council offers six small networking events throughout the year that connect these business owners with each other, as well as with professionals from the non-Hispanic market that can help them develop or grow their businesses, Hollywood said.
Each year culminates with the annual Hispanic Business Expo, which has grown from 50 exhibitors and 250 attendees in 2010 to nearly 150 exhibitors and 800 people this past July.
"The whole point of having free meet-and-greet events throughout the year and the Expo is to connect Hispanics with the mainstream market, and to connect our members with a rapidly growing population," Hollywood said in an e-mail.
The statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce participated in the Expo for the first time this year.
Carlos Medina, one of the Hispanic Chamber's executive board members, said the number of Hispanic-owned businesses in the state is growing faster than small businesses in general.
Medina said the state's broader business community is well aware of the power of this segment of the population, and efforts like that of the Middlesex Chamber are helping both groups thrive.
"It's really about putting them together and letting them close the deal themselves," Medina said
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