Chamber Gets $100,000 Boost from Foundation

By MIKE COPELAND mcopeland@wacotrib.com

Cen-Tex HCC President Alfred Solano receives a $100,000 grant from the Rapoport Foundation

Still adjusting to the death of longtime leader Joe Rodriguez and striving to better serve Waco’s Latino population, the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has secured a $100,000 grant from the Rapoport Foundation to host more events, tweak staffing and play a larger role in job training.

“The organization has a good foundation, but there is work to be done in the areas of workforce and leadership development,” chamber President and CEO Alfred Solano said. “We want to maximize our impact on the community, and that takes funds. We are calling this an organizational relaunch.”

The 43-year-old chamber, with offices on La Salle Avenue, remains largely unknown to many, Solano said. “Some still think we’re a brand-new organization,” he said. Solano had been on the chamber’s board eight years when then-President Joe Rodriguez died in March 2016. The board chose Solano, who grew up in Waco, to succeed Rodriguez.

“The overwhelming message we wish to convey is that the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is open to everyone, and our focus is on small business, specifically concentrating on workforce, entrepreneurship and leadership development,” Solano wrote in a press release announcing the $100,000 Rapoport Foundation grant that will be spread over two years.

The money will help launch a fresh approach to working with other organizations to increase fundraising efforts “to a level that will empower CTHCC to play a role in numerous areas of need, including business referrals, networking luncheons, cultural events, scholarships and other special events,” according to the release.

Rapoport Executive Director Tom Stanton said the entity’s board felt assisting the Hispanic chamber through challenging times would prove beneficial to the entire community, which is seeing growth in Hispanic population.

“There are opportunities out there for Waco to be all it can be, and this is one,” Stanton said. “Our board has gotten to know Alfred, observed his leadership skills on the board of Prosper Waco and as second or third in line at the Hispanic chamber. They did their homework and believe he is a tremendous resource for the community, considering his abilities.”

Stanton said Rapoport trustees wanted to provide the new leader, Solano, with financial breathing room. “We have awarded grants for some very specific purposes over the years, but in this case, Alfred has the flexibility to do whatever he feels is in the best interest of the Hispanic chamber,” Stanton said.

Stanton also noted that the late Bernard Rapoport, an insurance mogul who created the foundation with his wife, Audre, had an affinity for Hispanic Texans.

“A lot of people don’t know B’s story, how his father and several other teenagers were sentenced to Siberia for their political beliefs while in Russia,” Stanton said. “His father escaped to the United States, entering at Ellis Island, and made his way to San Antonio, where he was first befriended by the Hispanic population. He learned Spanish before he learned English.”

Established in 1986, the foundation has earmarked more than $73 million in grants “to improve the social fabric of life,” according to the press release.

Solano oversees a small staff with two full-time employees, including himself, and a part-time employee. The chamber maintains a budget of about $250,000, Solano said. The city of Waco allocates about $118,000 to the chamber annually, Councilwoman Alice Rodriguez said. Alice Rodriguez is the widow of Joe Rodriguez and does not vote on chamber funding.

“I haven’t talked with the chamber about securing the grant, but I’m happy for them,” Rodriguez said. “I know it will be used wisely.”

Chamber executives and board members soon will attend a retreat at which they will discuss spending priorities, Solano said. Issues likely to appear on the agenda include using part-time interns to supplement the staff, opportunities to recruit young talent, wages, marketing and social media campaigns to spread the chamber’s message, and sponsorship of events such as job fairs, banquets, membership campaigns and fundraisers, Solano said.

“We have about 10 chambers of commerce in this community, and we need to come together to talk about providing services without duplication to the benefit of all, and that includes the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce and the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce,” Solano said. “We need to figure out how to leverage our resources, what each has to offer.”

The Hispanic chamber’s membership has reached about 260, including 60 new members signed on since June 1, he said.

“Birth rates reflect population shifts, and they point to a larger Hispanic population,” Solano said. “It’s incumbent upon us to take on leadership roles, to prepare our students to meet the needs of technology, and to assist those wanting to become entrepreneurs or members of middle management.”