Growing up working in a family-run furniture business in Mexico, Ramón León learned from his parents that social justice is paramount to running a good business. “If you have 10 employees, you are not just impacting 10 lives, you are impacting 10 families,” his parent told him. That lesson has been his guide as a Twin Cities business and community leader over the past couple of decades.
León is the President and CEO of Latino Economic Development Center, a community development center that provides economic opportunities to Latinos in the state of Minnesota. León was also one of the founding board members of Mercado Central on Lake Street in Minneapolis. He talked to TCDP about starting out as a business owner, the role of faith and family in business, and his vision for justice in economic development.
How is the work that you are doing with the Latino Economic Development Center different from that of other CDCs?
The organization itself started with a social justice organization vision. We go deeper than many CDCs and we are focused on the Latino community, and we do heavy community organizing work. For example, we have 35 different workshops that go from immigration laws, and tax laws, educating.
We are focused on building and using the economic power that Latinos achieve for social justice. It is not just business for business sake. It’s much more than that. For example, we have an economic scholarship fund that funds high school students who want to go to college. We also educate business leaders and business owners to be socially responsible. We train them as leaders, and we also make them aware of what their role should be as leaders in the community and as regular people.
Where does your sense of social justice come from?
I grew up in a family where social responsibility was something that we always talked about. I come from a business family and we always talked about the fact that business ideas are worthless when you don’t have a community that buys your goods and services, or when you don’t have a good and dedicated work force. That’s why you promote your employees and give them incentives, and recognize the huge responsibility that comes with having employees. If you have 10 employees, you are not just impacting 10 lives, you are impacting 10 families, and if they are large families, then whatever your decision is you are going to affect that community.
My family … had a furniture business and when I came to Minnesota I started my own furniture company and I did re-upholstery work for commercial accounts with hotels and restaurants and residences. And I had other businesses where I [sold] antique style furniture and rustic style furniture from Mexico. So that sense of justice from my family’s business, well I used it here.
Latino Economic Development Center’s President and CEO Ramón León will be presented with the Ohtli award at the official Mexican independence celebration event on September 15, 2009 by the Mexican consulate of Minnesota. The Ohtli award – which is the Nahuatl language word for “opening doors” – is one of the most prestigious honors bestowed by the Mexican government to recognize individuals who have distinguished themselves in improving the quality of life for Mexican citizens living outside Mexico.
The Honorable Consul of Mexico; Ana Luisa Fajer Flores, will present Ramón León with the Ohtli award at the celebration of the 199th anniversary of the Independence of Mexico which will be held at The International Market Square in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Tuesday September 15th at 7 pm.
What is the biggest issue that your clients face when they try to start businesses?
There are several. First, not understanding the system. In this country you have to request authorization to do almost anything. In a Latin American country, if you wanted to open a business, you could do it almost overnight. But here you can’t. You realize that you have to have the right zoning, and all the right licensing, you need the right capital and to train your employees.
Sometimes our clients assume that those are challenges that people put there in order to prevent them from opening a business, they don’t realize that the licensing inspectors have a responsibility to the community too. So sometimes that becomes a perception of discrimination or racism, when in reality, everyone who wants to open a business has to go through the same thing.
Many entrepreneurs that we see were employees in their home country but not necessary employers. So another challenge becomes, ‘do you know how to treat your employees well?’ If you were subject to abuses in your home country as an employee, then it is likely that you will become an abuser as an employer. So we try to get them to see the other side of the coin.
What’s the role of faith and religion in business?
I came here in 1991 and I used to go to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church for religious services in Spanish. After church people would gather around and talk, and you would start to hear about issues. Many of them were about education—people would say, “Our children aren’t being properly educated…they’re sitting in a corner because they don’t know English.” The worst thing they were talking about was that some of their children couldn’t weren’t eligible for higher education because they didn’t have the proper documentation. Some people said, “I’m being harassed by the police by the INS and the police even though I’m a citizen and the fact that I have a Latino last name means that they think I’m undocumented.” Then some people would say,“When I go to the clinic and the hospital they can’t understand me because there are no interpreters.”
And all these issues were being talked about. Whenever I talked about building economic power at church, they would tell me, “you don’t talk about business at church!” But I always told them that the philosophical teachings of the founder of our religion were of equality, of social justice, including economic justice. Our community comes from Mexico and Latin American countries where religion doesn’t mix with businesses, but here we had the opportunity to start raising those issues inside the church. Why? Because church was one of the few institutions that Latino people trust.
When we had the opening of Mercado Central, Father Lorenzo who blessed the building, said, “I hope you remember there are other important things in life, not only material.” In reality the most important message he gave on that day was that they had the responsibility to treat people equal, as business owners with the people who are working for you and the people who come and shop from you, and the community as a whole.
So how did Mercado Central grow out of those meetings at church?
I was the founding board president of Mercado Central, but before that we worked with the churches, with ISAIAH—an interfaith network that had a different name at the time …. We formed teams to work on those issues. One of them was immigration, the other was economic development. I headed the economic development team that ended up with Mercado Central.
We started looking for a building when the project for Pride and Living (PPL) bought the three buildings and asked us if we wanted to be the tenants. We said “yes” but that we wanted to be the owners, too.
So, I went back to my community. They were disappointed to find out which building it was, because it was in such bad shape that no one wanted to even walk down the street. If we could do some thing then we could get the respect of people. Finally Mercado Central started in 1999, but the dream started way before that.
How did you change from working with Mercado Central to the Latino Economic Development Center?
When you do a project like that you start seeing other issues, so I stepped down from the board, and I was invited [to start] Latino Economic Development Center. A lot of people from other parts of the state starting asking us how they could do the same thing [as the Mercado Central] and I always referred them to the only two places with bilingual staff, the Neighborhood Development Center and Whittier CDC, but they were neighborhood organizations, so if a Latino came from other parts of the state, they couldn’t be helped. So we started saying things like: ‘we should have our own banks, our own scholarships, we need to create jobs when and where they are needed and we need to grow in a smart way.’ So that’s when we decided to have a Latino economic development organization.
What is the psychological effect on Latinos you serve of having a successful business strip on Lake Street?
This makes them feel at home. They see that we are able to achieve, that we are able address issues all together. Then perception that other people [non-Latinos] have is that we have our own lives too.
I’m really glad that I came here to Minneapolis St. Paul. When I came there was nothing for newcomers at that time, and that was a disadvantage. But it meant we could build and shape the community the way we wanted. In this particular case we had the opportunity to build a socially responsible business community from the beginning. The Latino community was more willing to hear about social responsibility because we were working shoulder to shoulder and we were providing access to those resources that they needed, whether it was Global Market, or Mercado Central or Plaza Latina on Payne Avenue in St. Paul.
What’s the role of family in business?
Latinos are very family oriented people, sometimes too family oriented. [Laughing.] There are several businesses in Mercado Central that are million dollar per year business, and they started with mom and dad and the children working part-time. But that’s why the role of women in business is also very important. We have an award recognizing women business leaders because they have a special role in the family and the community and business, and they end up working twice as hard and they don’t take any credit. But we [men] take the credit. We are trying to push women to take credit.
How is the economic downturn affecting the Latino business community here?
The Latino business community, well we have high expectations. We don’t have the Honeywells, or the Targets or the Best Buys yet. That takes time. But all these Latino small businesses here in the U.S. are building clinics, hospitals, and sending money to the towns they left behind. So we are facing these economic challenges here but we are also doing our own part there. So it is a double burden, where we are supporting two systems by spending our salaries here and paying our taxes here, but we also support a system there. What keeps countries and societies alive is the immigration movement, is this constant movement of people throughout history, from Africa, Asia, Europe and wherever. They take with them their wisdom, their energy, and their determination to succeed. That’s what keeps the world alive, but we need to be more tolerant.
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