LARGO — Luis Canola arrived in the United States seven months ago, and in August, he opened a business selling vinyl wraps and advertising services to food trucks and other businesses.
He soon recognized he would need to network so he could grow his new business. Just as he began looking around, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Pinellas County formed.
“Basically what motivated me to be part of the chamber was to make myself known and to bond,” said Canola, 36, from Colombia, whose business TpaWraps Custom Vinyl is based in Largo. “It is an operation of addition, not subtraction, because we are very focused on growing and being successful.”
The new chamber has enlisted 15 companies as paying members so far, at $150 per year, and has drawn interest from some 253 others, said founder and president Eli Gonzalez, a writer and publisher.
The Hispanic chamber held its first networking event last month at the Countryside Country Club in Clearwater and quickly sold out the 75 available slots. Thrive DTSP, a co-working space at 136 4th St N Suite 201, offered free office space.
“Because our focus is entrepreneurs and business support, we believe in diversity and prosperity,” said Thrive manager Brooke Beeler. “The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is so in line with everything that Thrive is all about that it’s natural to support them as much as we can.”
The new chamber is based on five pillars: mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs, education, networking, community service and accomplishment.
“We are going to work to enhance business and community opportunities for Hispanics in Pinellas County,” said González, 53, who has served as ghostwriter of 85 books founded a local publishing company. Born in New York, the son of Puerto Rican parents, González served five years as a board member with the regionwide Tampa Bay Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Board members of the new chamber also include Joe Lugo, founder of communications firm J^3 Creations; Tellie Loida Gonzalez-Hall, manager at TGH Consulting; and Dr. Cesar Lara of the Center for Weight Management.
The chamber is a great idea but one that will require a great deal of commitment to succeed, said Diane Cortes, president of the Tampa Bay Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“We are willing to guide and support them in whatever they need,” Cortes said. “But let’s be clear: Chambers of commerce need time to grow and strengthen.”
Creating the new chamber will benefit the larger Pinellas County business community, said Chris Steinocher, president and chief executive of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We have been so longing for a partner in the Hispanic community,” Steinocher said. “We are seeing more diversity in Pinellas County and I think the faster we build relationships, the further we’ll go.”
Hispanics account for about 11 percent of the population in Pinellas County — about 103,000 people, according to figures from the University of Florida. The number is expected to grow to 15 percent by 2045.
The Hispanic chamber of Pinellas will provide education and training to local businesses in areas such as starting out, expanding and networking, González said.
Business owners need not be Hispanic to join or attend events.
“Our local Hispanic entrepreneurs were on an island because they had no networks or a place to meet,” González said. “They were surviving with talent and passion. Now they will no longer be alone and can move forward together.”