Latino entrepreneurs find success in Sonoma County
From his cramped, one-room office in Sebastopol, Hector Velazquez runs his advertising business using Internet streaming technology from the Netherlands, cloud-based servers in South Africa and radio-style voice-overs produced in sound studios in Mexico.
Velazquez, an advertising entrepreneur, produces and sells streaming music to numerous Latino supermarkets, hair salons, insurance agencies and dentists up and down California.
While elevator music pioneer Muzak Holdings also offers in-store audio advertising, Velazquez’s Nexo Advertising employs the often bombastic voices found on Spanish radio to produce a uniquely Latino sound for its lengthening list of clients, who in turn cater to one of the fastest-growing ethnic populations in the United States.
“When people walk into their stores, they want that feeling like people are in Mexico,” said Velazquez, who was born in Mexico but moved to Napa with his family in 1979 when he was only 5 years old.
Though his advertising operation defies the stereotypical Latino businesses - he is neither a landscaper nor a “bodega” market owner, Nexo’s success goes hand in hand with the growth of Latino businesses in Sonoma County and beyond.
There are more than 4,000 Latino- owned firms in Sonoma County, or nearly 8 percent of the county’s 52,458 businesses, according to new data from the county Economic Development Board.
They generated $560.4 million in retail sales in 2007, the most recent data available, or nearly 9 percent of the county’s $6.4 billion in overall sales, said Al Lerma, EDB program manager. And that’s not counting “informal” Latino businesses, like street vendors and others that operate without business permits, Lerma said.
Nationally, the number of Latino businesses is increasing at about 8 percent annually - twice the growth rate for all business. Lerma said he expects countywide business statistics, which will be available later this summer, are likely to show similar trends.
The growth in both the Latino population and Latino businesses is having a broader impact on the general economy and local community. The Latino consumer market is no longer the exclusive domain of Latino business owners, Lerma said.
“I think you’ll see the general business market respond,” he said. “But you’ll see the Latino business community grow to meet those demands as well.”
New county assistance program
Recognizing the impressive growth of local Latino-owned businesses, the county has recently launched a bilingual business assistance program aimed at addressing common obstacles Latino entrepreneurs face. Managed by the county Economic Development Board, the new bilingual business assistance program will include:
- Establishing a bilingual business assistance hot line to help new and existing ventures with startup and expansion questions.
- Conducting business workshops on such topics as exporting, marketing and obtaining investment capital.
- Providing assistance to entrepreneurs who are struggling with city and county regulatory processes, such as business permits and licenses and government inspections.
- Partnering with local lenders to help facilitate access to small business investments such as micro-loans.
The county’s investment in small business development is an investment in jobs, said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose 5th District includes southwest Santa Rosa.
Two-thirds of all jobs in the United States are with small businesses, Carrillo noted. With that in mind, he said, it makes good financial sense for the county government and local business groups to support the dramatic growth of Latino-owned ventures.
There are ample opportunities today for Latino entrepreneurs, he said, just as there were for previous waves of immigrants.
“The opportunities that were there for Italian or Irish immigrants are certainly there for a new segment to try,” Carrillo said. “Those opportunities are just as real today.”
The growth of Latino-owned businesses in Sonoma County is fueled by a demographic shift that is changing California. Latinos now comprise 26 percent of the county’s population, up from 11 percent a quarter-century ago. Later this year, the U.S. Census Bureau is expected to declare Latinos the state’s largest ethnic demographic, surpassing non-Latino whites and dwarfing all other minority groups.
For some local business owners, that growth has begun to blur the lines between what is perceived as the traditional Latino market and the broader Anglo market. Just as there was a time when pizza became as American as Italian, Latino food and culture have increasingly become part of the mainstream.