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Chamber highlights Latinos' skills

Norma Martin thinks of her membership in the Gulf Coast Latin Chamber as a touchstone that keeps her focused and aware of the growing Latin community in Manatee County.

As vice president/branch manager of Synovus Bank, Martin uses the frequent chamber luncheons, dinners and other networking events as a way to stay connected.

“It keeps me knowing who’s in the community,” the Puerto Rican native said during a recent luncheon meeting at the Bradenton Country Club.

With the population explosion of the Latin community here — 13.5 percent of the county’s population, up from 9 percent in 2000 — the chamber has seen its membership swell from 75 or so two years ago to around 250. The chamber now has a full-time executive director, Cesar Gomez, an attorney from Colombia whose enthusiasm and energy are contagious. The chamber holds functions in Sarasota and Bradenton and is expanding into the Parrish/Ellenton area and south Sarasota. It also moved its office into Lakewood Ranch.

“We’d have 300 to 400 members right now if we didn’t have this bad economy,” Gomez says.

The chamber represents Latinos in business with origins in Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina and Peru to name a few. It also has non-Latin members who recognize the buying potential of the Hispanic market — $12 billion in the Tampa to Sarasota area last year and almost $1 trillion in the U.S. — and hope to network and build business relationships.

But why a Latin chamber?

Gomez says there are cultural differences that often get overlooked when Latins are a minority in a larger group. Having a separate chamber means programs can be tailored to the needs of Latin business owners.

During a recent luncheon, Mike Nieves of Bright House talked about the company’s Hispanic programming in hopes it could be an advertising avenue for them.

Gomez likes to think of his role as building bridges between the Latin and Anglo business communities.

There are key points in dealing with the Latino community that Gomez says those wanting to do business with them need to learn.

“Latinos are more open, more family-oriented,” he said. But historically they aren’t as willing to trust people because of their experience in dealing with corrupt governments and officials.

You need to develop trust first and instill the idea that if you do business with them, you’ll be around tomorrow, Gomez says.

There are some misconceptions, Gomez says, that Latinos continually have to dispel. If you have dark skin, then you must be Mexican; or if you’re from Colombia, you must know someone in a drug cartel. And one of Gomez’s favorites: bright blue, orange and yellow are the best colors to use if you are marketing to Latinos.

“That’s great for people from the Caribbean, but not necessarily the right colors for Brazil,” he said.

Understanding the cultures of different countries is important in the business world, and Gomez hopes to keep the education process going by talking with companies about their approaches, giving them ideas, answering questions and dealing with preconceptions.

“Some still think Latinos only pick tomatoes or clean homes and offices,” he said. “We have a lot of people here with a tremendous amount of skills.”