It’s been a year since Alfonso Ribot and a small group of entrepreneurs decided it was time to break down barriers and help lead the way for the Hispanic business community in the Savannah area by forming the area’s first Hispanic-focused business chamber.
“The Hispanic community is growing in the Savannah area... And Hispanics have a big entrepreneurial spirit and, because of that, many individuals I talked to wanted to start a business, but they didn’t know how to go about doing it,” said Ribot, who serves as the chamber’s president. Plus, the language barrier often held back aspiring Hispanic businesses, he said.
Nearly 373,000 people live in Chatham, Bryan and Effingham counties, and about 16 percent of those people identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
So, Ribot said, the formation of the Metropolitan Savannah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, or Cámara de Comercio Hispana de Savannah Metropolitana, which aims to develop, strengthen and support relationships with Hispanic-owned companies, was long overdue.
“When I asked the (Savannah-area Chamber of Commerce) why it wasn’t done before, no one could answer the question... The chamber didn’t have too many Hispanic businesses other than the big chains. They weren’t focusing on the Hispanic market because they couldn’t get to it,” he said.
Throughout the year the Hispanic chamber hosts numerous seminars, networking events and guest speakers and has grown to 72 members, of which about 30 percent are non-Hispanic owned businesses. They’ve joined, Ribot said, because the organization also lends a helping hand to areas of the community that want to connect with more Spanish-speaking clientele. “If we make those businesses grow and prosper, if we help those businesses have better customer service, then the community around them is going to get benefits,” Ribot said.
John Newton, media relations chair and editor of La Voz Latina, said the new chamber also wants to focus on smaller in-home businesses that normally might not be able to take part in a chamber organization, so the group introduced a special $75 membership for individuals.
The chamber celebrated an early milestone in March when they were included in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Ribot said the group was the first of Hispanic-origin in the parade’s history. In another area, the chamber is in the process of setting up a charitable foundation and has plans to launch an entrepreneurial after-school program next year.
“We believe that if we teach our young people to start a business to give jobs to people rather than just get a job, that’s a more broad scope of life,” Ribot said. “If I learn how to get, I’m helping me, but if I learn how to create jobs, then I’m helping a lot of people and helping myself.“
On Saturday night the chamber celebrated its first year with an awards banquet. Sponsored by Wells Fargo and St. Joseph’s/Candler Hospital, the event honored a group of individuals and businesses that have had a significant impact on the Hispanic community, including those smaller home-based companies. “This year we have an award specially for a home-based business. You don’t see that anywhere else,” Ribot said.