MANATEE -- The Gulfcoast Latin Chamber of Commerce wants you as a member.
And if you're interested in doing business in Manatee and Sarasota counties with those of Latin origins, you probably want to join.
It's a new year, and the chamber has a new president and chairman of the board: Jason Fromi, who has several initiatives under way he thinks will build membership.
The chamber, which was founded in 1994 to provide more networking and business opportunities for the Hispanic business community in Manatee and Sarasota counties, is offering six all-Spanish luncheons this year in conjunction with its monthly English version. The first was held Thursday at Mr. Tequila's on Cortez Road.
"Our membership wanted an all-Spanish luncheon," Fromi said. "So, every other month we'll have one where the entire meeting is conducted in Spanish, but anyone is welcome to come."
Chamber Vice President Jason Ramos also supports the Spanish lunches.
"We cater to cultures. For some of our members, English is not their forte," he said. "We provide an outlet for that."
This year, the chamber is concentrating on fewer events but emphasizing the ones they do have, including Cinco de Mayo and Taste of Latin America Festival on Main Street Sarasota May 5; Quinceaneras, benefiting Hispanic youths; and quarterly Conexiones. There also is the annual Latin gala in Lakewood Ranch in November, a black-tie event.
The chamber membership hit a high of 300 a few years ago, but in the past two years membership has lagged, Froni said. Current membership is about 200.
This year with the membership emphasis, the chamber will have one person dedicated on membership renewals and another on new sales, Fromi said.
The chamber is also working on business sponsors.
"We had two big ones, MacDonald's and Tropicana, come on last year," he said.
All nine board members are volunteers, and members represent 16 Latin countries.
With Hispanics providing more than $100 million in buying power in the state, Fromi says the chamber plays a crucial role in helping business people bridge cultural gaps.
"We can be an economic force in our community," he said. "We are looking at doing more educational things, providing training for people who want to do business with Latin America, for example."
The chamber is involved in a partnership with Jorolco International to conduct a trade mission in September focused on Bogota, Colombia, Fromi said. About 30 people are expected to participate.
"We are working with companies locally and with chamber members who are interested in doing business in Colombia," he said.
Fromi, an Anglo who speaks fluent Spanish as well as English, French and Danish, was questioned recently by a Spanish
publication about being the head of a Latin organization. He's only the second non-Latin to serve as president in the organization's nearly 20-year history.
The thought had occurred to him before he took the leadership reins, but he was assured by fellow members that his presidency was supported.
"They told me, 'You have volunteered the hours, you've been involved, we know you can do it,'" he said. "People know you care about us."
Ramos sees Fromi's presidency as a positive for the chamber.
"It is a good example of what we are about, trying to integrate these two communities," he said. "We are trying to open doors and make connections between the two."
Elizabeth Anzellini, on the chamber board, thinks Fromi is right for the job.
"Jason has been in the chamber for more than four years, he is always helping and he works with the Latin community. He's also got great ideas," she said.
Fromi grew up in Iowa and was initially exposed to the Latin culture through his aunt, who was born in Cuba.
"She was the only person I knew who grew black beans in her garden," he said.
He later participated in a student exchange to Mexico and as an adult has traveled widely. He has lived in France, where he took classes in Spanish. He's lived in Denmark and has his master's degree in romance languages.
Fromi enjoys different cultures and recently returned from a trip to Southeast Asia.
"One thing I've always thought and said, when people want to know why I'm interested in learning other languages and about other cultures, is what it opens you up to," Fromi said. "There are so many opportunities and interactions you can be involved in so you don't stay stuck in your little world."