By Pamela J. Willits
Ask Luis Cartagena of the Young Latino Network where Cleveland’s economic future lies, and he’ll point to the work ethnic found among northeast Ohio’s Latino community. Talk with him long enough, and the conversation turns to exports.
Cartagena, who became the organization’s treasurer in 2009, sees YLN as a support system, especially for entrepreneurs. Founded in 2002, the Young Latino Network gives members the opportunity to develop business relationships, find mentors, and volunteer in community projects.
“We want the Young Latino Network to be a pipeline for new leaders,” Cartagena says. Its motto — empowering the Latino community through leadership development and civic engagement — speaks to the future.
“YLN is a great place for young professionals right out of college to develop leadership skill,” Cartagena says.
Through the Young Latino Network Fund, the organization fosters career development by providing members scholarships for leadership development programs offered through Cleveland Bridge Builders, Lead Diversity, and the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute.
This summer the Young Latino Network celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Ariel International Center, a downtown incubator for international business development and events that caters to diversity and encourages entrepreneurship among minorities.
In today’s economy gaining access to capital continues to be a hindrance for minorities wanting to start their own businesses. However, there have been some local successes.
Young Latino Network member Elvis Serrano is one such entrepreneurial success story. The owner of JiBaro World Eats food truck can be found downtown on Walnut Wednesdays, serving up food inspired by his Puerto Rican roots.
YLN also continues to look for new ways to connect young professionals with companies looking to hire. Previous corporate-sponsored events showcased employment opportunities with New York Life and Giant Eagle, both looking to recruit bilingual talent. In 2013 YLN will hold speed-networking events to introduce members to corporations looking to tap diverse talent.
National interest in YLN is growing, particularly on social media. “Things we are doing here in northeast Ohio are getting the attention of groups from New York to Texas,” Cartagena says. While there are no immediate plans to expand its reach nationally with individual state chapters, 2000 followers on Twitter and 600 Facebook fans may be hoping differently.
Cartagena’s involvement with the Latino community extends beyond YLN.
As a mentor with Esperanza, a nonprofit that works to improve Hispanic academic achievement, Cartagena offers teens guidance through ELLOS, a youth mentorship program.
Cartagena also holds a position on the Spanish Language Advisory Board for the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. “We are the fastest growing minority, yet we are the least represented in local government,” Cartagena says. Last month the Hispanic Roundtable hosted a candidates and issues night, providing an opportunity to meet local candidates and hear about local issues.
With the 2011 opening of a Minority Business Development Agency Business Center in Cleveland, Cartagena found himself in yet another role. As a business advisor, he helps minority firms access contracts and capital.
According to the MBDA website, minority business are on the upswing. Statistics show 5.8 million U.S. minority-owned businesses contribute more than $1 trillion in gross receipts to the national economy. They also provide six million jobs and are a leader in new jobs growth.
Developing global competitiveness could be a big asset for Cleveland area businesses. “Through the United States-Columbia Free Trade Agreement, the national office of the MBDA is working with business owners to gain access to procurement opportunities in Columbia,” Cartagena says.
Having the fifth-largest economy in Latin America, Columbia is among the top markets for U.S. exports. “There’s a growing market and being bi-lingual helps in finding business partners,” Cartagena says. Agriculture and construction equipment, medical equipment, auto parts, and information technology equipment are products currently in demand.
On March 14-15 the MBDA will hold a business-to-business conference in Cleveland. Attendees will learn the ins and outs of the export industry, as well as how to position a minority owned company for domestic and international growth.