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Michel Zajur speaks to a group at a Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event called Hispanic Connect: RVA. (Photo courtesy Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce)
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The Virginia Asian Chamber of Commerce helps connect business leaders across the state. (Photo courtesy Virginia Asian Chamber of Commerce)
The roots of any culture can be learned and practiced at the dinner table. As Richmond’s Hispanic population grew during the 1990s, it was fitting that a restaurant would become a second home and gathering place for immigrants.
“For 35 years, La Siesta was an informal place people would come for assistance and help,” says Michel Zajur, whose family owned the Chesterfield County landmark eatery, which closed in 2009. “There was no Latino community to speak of back then.”
Zajur developed programs at the restaurant for children to learn about Latino culture and to learn English. He also played matchmaker for business owners and job seekers. For decades, the small business owner watched the needs of the local Hispanic business community grow at La Fiesta. His close contacts suggested he start a chamber of commerce.
In 2000, Zajur founded the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and he serves as its CEO today.
“People who have limited English or knowledge of the American system are fish out of water,” Zajur says. “Here, we can work with them in Spanish, understand their culture, offer bilingual programs and help them get into the mainstream.”
Today, one in nine Virginians is an immigrant and one in seven is Asian or Hispanic, according to the American Immigration Council.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 Survey of Business Owners shows 44,575 Asian-owned businesses in Virginia, with sales and receipts of $13.2 billion and 92,141 employees; 28,578 Virginia Latino-owned businesses had sales and receipts of $5.9 billion and employed 34,177 people in 2007.
Despite an increased presence and measurable growth in the business community, Hispanics and Asian-Americans continue to need support. Beyond language, stigmas and misunderstandings about different cultures have long prevented Asian-Americans from successfully securing contracts and recruiting employees, says My Lan Tran, the Virginia Asian Chamber of Commerce’s executive director.
“The East and West do not have the same values and mannerisms,” the former political history professor says. “We talk less, are more conservative, and smile a lot. You don’t always know what we’re thinking. It’s also not often an Asian-American will sign a contract during a first meeting.”
Those are just examples of the types of minor differences that can affect business relationships. The Virginia Asian Chamber represents a variety of countries that all have their own values, cultures and languages.
“We work to help the community and their entities to be aware of our existence, our positive contributions, workforce development, hiring opportunities and more,” Tran says.
Tran meets one-on-one with local economic development agencies, chambers and business leaders across Virginia and from other states. Her goal is not only to spread awareness, but to play matchmaker among businesses. She cites the Virginia Initiative for Growth and Opportunity, also known as GO Virginia. The campaign prioritizes collaboration among business, education and community leaders with the goal of expanding the private sector.
“It’s hard work,” says Tran. “But businesses can’t grow unless we’re able to connect people.”
Staff members at both the Hispanic and Asian chambers have become experts on hundreds of different industries and subsectors so they can be good matchmakers. The Hispanic chamber holds workshops for construction companies about licensing, contracts and federal safety requirements. It also helps farmers bring produce to market and advises local businesses about exporting to Latin America.
The Hispanic chamber’s Passport to Education program supports students in the Latino community and prepares them for college or post-secondary education. The chamber will soon begin a three-year program in select Richmond area schools thanks to a new partnership with Communities in Schools.
“They are struggling to address a lot of issues facing the Latino students that we are going to help them solve,” Zajur says. “If our children don’t get the vital education they need now, they’ll struggle their whole lives.”