Monday, February 23, 2015

Liliam López: President and CEO of the South Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Recently, Mrs. Lopez sat down with us to talk about what business owners are looking for in recent college graduates and how she learned those skills for herself.

What is the South Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, how was it founded and what do you do as President and CEO?

The South Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was founded in the year 1984 by several local entrepreneurs and me, and never in our wildest dreams did we think that the chamber was going to become what it has become today. What started as a small project more than 20 years ago has evolved into a major one that has affected our community in a positive way, with many programs set in place that help business owners and students in our community. It has been really successful and I am very proud to be a part of this group of wonderful executives and entrepreneurs.

What are some of the Chambers programs and activities?

The Chamber has several programs. We have an education enhancement program that provides scholarships to financially disadvantaged Hispanic students who are pursuing health related careers, and have awarded more than $500,000 worth of scholarships since its inception. We also have a program where we provide students who are not necessarily at the top of their class, those with a 2.8 – 3.0 GPA, a paid trip to a U.S. city with several of our partners. We have visited Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Seattle, San Antonio, and have always provided students with some type of business agenda, besides the tourist visits. More importantly we partner with a company that is headquartered in whatever city we choose, and we have a full day of seminars and workshops with the students, so that they are able to see their counterparts [minorities] in a business setting. We want them to be in front of professional people that have really made it to the top, who are Hispanic or African American so that they may see themselves reflected in these people, and they see that there is an opportunity to eventually have a high position within a large company.

What sort of activities and programs does the Chamber provide its members and the business community in South Florida?

We have over 1,200 members and usually have two monthly luncheons. Some are part of the “Lunch and Learn Business Series,” which helps to enhance our member’s businesses by bringing a panel of experts to them on different topics that are relevant to the business community. For example, we just celebrated an education summit where we had the Provost of St. Thomas University, Dr. Irma Becerra, and the presidents of other local colleges and universities explain to our members what they are doing with regards to preparing college students for the business world. Many of our members tell us that when they hire someone who just graduated from college, sometimes it’s very difficult because there is a disconnect between [academia and the business world], and what we learned from this forum is the importance of businesses providing internships for students. That is something that we do as well at the Chamber. We provide internships to students so that they can acquire knowledge and see what the real world is all about because school is one thing, but when you are out there in a job, it is completely different. So we brought that to the table to our members.

Next month we are having a panel discussion that deals with climate change, and how that affects our businesses. We have seen how the rising tides have flooded Biscayne Blvd. and the streets of South Beach. Many people cannot even get to the businesses that do their laundry or restaurants, or what have you, and that really affects the economy. So what is the government doing? We are bringing PhD experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. to talk about what they are doing and how climate change at the global level is affecting everything.

We also have a “Lunch and Learn” coming up in the month of May that will deal with long term care. Being that this community is 67 percent Hispanic, we all take care of the “abuelitos,” the fathers, and the “tias” as they grow older and sometimes we do not know what services are out there to provide us with the help we need for their care. That is important to bring to our members because as business people, when we are a caregiver, that takes time away from us and our business. So the more knowledge that we have about the programs and services that are available to us, the better it will be for everyone. We feel that is our obligation to bring this also to our members.
We have continuous events that deal with everything that can affect businesses. Once a year we also bring the director of the Small Business Administration (SBA) and different banking institutions to talk about small business lending.

What would you say is the one thing that you learned at St. Thomas University that is still helping you in your career to this day?

At St. Thomas University I gained a lot of confidence in myself. The classes were small and when classes are small and you are shy, and believe it or not, I was not always as open as I am open today, it helps when you are able to meet one-on-one with your professors. I think that it is very important, because when you are in a class with 40 or 50 students, who is going to raise their hand and ask a question? Sometimes you feel awkward, you feel that maybe your question is not a valid question, that it’s a dumb question, so being in a class with only 18 or 20 students, I remember that made it easy for me to raise my hand and ask questions and get the confidence to be more outspoken and learn how to speak in public. So I gained a lot of confidence when I was at St. Thomas University and I know that it was because of the high quality professors and the small class size that gives students the opportunity to grow and show their full potential.

Who would you say has had the most influence in your career?

It has not been just one person. There are many people who have touched my life. Many people who have come on board with this organization, who have contributed their time, their skills and knowledge, and those people, I really salute them because their friends, their members, board of directors, my chairman of the board, Felipe Basulto and my previous chair, Santiago Quintana. I have had so many chairs that have been so committed and they have put so many hours into this organization and it’s been an inspiration to me. Even the members, the smallest of members in our membership category, small business owners, tiny mom and pop shops, you always learn from them. There is always someone that has something to teach you. So in reality there are so many people that have touched my life and have been influential that I really cannot pin point just one person. I would have to say there are a lot of people who have touched my life.

Throughout the years you have stayed very involved with St. Thomas University. You are on the Business Board of Advisors and the Alumni Advisory Council. Why do you feel it is so important to stay engaged and give back to your alma mater?

It is very important to stay engaged with the institution that you graduated from because you are able to let other people know that you graduated from that university and at the same time speak highly of it. If you are not engaged you do not know what is going on, what new programs and projects are being developed and you cannot be a spokesperson for the university. In my case, being involved with St. Thomas University is important because I am able to help by talking to other people about the university. I am proud of my university that helped me so much and I ask everybody who has graduated from St. Thomas University to be involved, become active, and be a spokesperson for the university. Spread the word about the wonderful programs, the small class size, the professors that are highly qualified, and when you do that, you are also giving back to the community because you are opening the doors to other people to learn about St. Thomas University.

What advice would you give to students that are interested in following a similar career path as yours?

If you would like to be the President and CEO of a nonprofit organization like the South Florid Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, you have to be someone who can multi-task, who is able to do a hundred things at once, not get overwhelmed or aggravated, and have a good sense of humor. You have to be able to focus and have good people skills. When you deal with so many people you have to be able to be nice and at the same time be firm and be able to say no. Especially for us women who are sometimes sweet because you can be easily taken advantage of. This is a very rewarding career, but you have to be a people person and that’s what I am. I love to be with people and talk and help the community, help businesses get together, and connect people. If that is not what you like, then don’t do it because you will be dealing with people all the time.


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