The Hispanic presence is so predominant in Miami, it may be the only city in the nation where you can run a large, successful business and never have to learn how to speak English.
In language, culture, custom and business, the Latino way is the lifeblood of this tropical paradise on our nation’s edge.
Indeed, Hispanic entrepreneurs here speak about their sweltering metropolis as a big, warm extended family, always ready to offer a generous embrace. But in order to get that community hug, first you have to pass the language test. That’s how you prove you belong.
“When I knock on a potential client’s door and I’m speaking English, they’re a little hesitant,” said Bennie Essig, a certified arborist who for the last 15 years has owned a successful landscaping company, B&G Property Maintenance.
Essig’s father is white and his mom is Cuban. With his dirty blond hair and light skin — in addition to his German surname — Essig doesn’t immediately look like he belongs. He can see the uncertainty in his customer’s eyes.
“Then I start speaking Spanish to them and the door opens a little more,” he said. “They let you in, ask if you want coffee and you’re a part of the family all of a sudden.”
In effect, for entrepreneurs in Miami, Spanish is a vital business tool.
“In South Florida, the business culture and Hispanic culture are so intertwined that one must always take the other into consideration if you have any hope of survival and success,” said Herb Sosa, a longtime Miami fixture in the corporate and nonprofit worlds and publisher and editor-in-chief of Ambiente Magazine, a bimonthly serving the LGBT community that is offered in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
“Regardless of your focus, the international quality of the area, especially the cultures and languages, must be considered and integrated into your customer service, advertising, social media, menus, catalogues, etc.,” Sosa added.
Miami stands out like a glistening jewel when you consider Hispanic entrepreneurship in the United States. Of the 400,000 firms recorded in Miami-Dade County in the 2007 census, 60 percent of them were Hispanic-owned. Indeed, of the top 500 businesses last year on HispanicBusiness.com’s listing, an astounding 58 of them were in Miami, with 111 in Florida, the vast majority in south Florida.
They include hundreds of businesses with revenues in the multi-millions, such as Adela Gonzalez’s temporary employment agency, Future Force Personnel, which brought in revenues of $17.75 million last year. Or Olga Ramudo’s travel agency, Express Travel, which saw revenues of $22.65 million in 2013.
And of course the area is also home to tens of thousands of business whose revenues are smaller, but still enough to provide a fine quality of life for many Hispanic entrepreneurs. A recent study released by the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Geoscape found that Hispanics who own their own businesses are more than three times more likely to have annual household incomes over $150,000 than is the broader Hispanic population.
In a nation where an estimated one in three Americans will be Hispanic by the year 2060 (the current number is one in six), the success of Hispanic entrepreneurs in Miami may provide a vibrant model for the rest of the nation to follow.
Though outsiders might be tempted to look at Miami’s Hispanic community as one big monolith, 1.7 million strong, in fact it is a quilt made up of many different nations, unified by language, but distinguished by many distinct cultures. Sosa said this was never more evident than during the recent World Cup.
“The days of Little Havana being the one and only center for all things Hispanic are long gone,” he said. “Drive in any direction from the airport and you will find neighborhoods, businesses and cultural diversity representing almost every country and ethnic background. The World Cup only magnified this reality, with street fairs, parades and celebrations — often rallied around local businesses — celebrating each country’s victories or wallowing in defeat.”
While Cubans have predominated in South Florida for decades, the growth of other Hispanic entrepreneurs in the area is evidenced by a dizzying array of Hispanic chambers of commerce. In addition to the South Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Miami Beach Latin Chamber of Commerce, there are separate chambers for entrepreneurs with roots in Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
“Cubans were here first, but we’re definitely a minority now,” said Nikki Novo, a Cuban-American life coach whose family moved to Miami from New Jersey when she was 7.
“Now you see a lot of Venezuelans, Colombians, Argentinians, even people from Honduras and Guatemala.”
While there can be some competition and even rivalry among these groups, there is also a feeling of a larger, cohesive Latin community unified by the commonalities of Hispanic culture. And the Cubans take pride in the fact that they paved the way for others.
“The Cuban community is extremely proud of being the most successful immigrant group in U.S. history, politically and economically,” said Sosa. “This is a fact, not ego. What we have accomplished in South Florida, and quite candidly in most every community that has welcomed us across the U.S., is to develop and stimulate the economy and get involved civically and politically. This is the American way, and I believe we have mastered it.”
Sosa said Cubans have actually helped fund new businesses by other Hispanics, in addition to helping them run for office and become community leaders.
“I have never seen any legitimate animosity or regret of any kind, but instead a sense of overall pride and success in what we have collectively accomplished,” Sosa said. “I believe Miami is the face of what America can become — successful, vibrant, historic, modern and thriving — because of its diversity, not in spite of it.”
The region’s embrace of Spanish culture is what enabled Juan Rodriguez and his wife Caro to move to Miami earlier this year to start a shoe company. Cavalani Shoes takes the traditional espadrilles popular in Spain and spruces it up with modern, stylish designs. The shoes are handmade by local artisans in northern Spain.
“Having a product from Spain, that is very typical to Spanish culture, and that is also found in Latin American countries, people have been very receptive to our shoes,” said Rodriguez, 39, who was born in London but whose parents hail from Spain.
In just three months, Juan and his wife, who is from Colombia, have placed their shoes into boutiques throughout south Florida and even in some New York City shops, in addition to many online shops. Because Miami is a central business hub for companies in Latin America, word of their shoes has spread quickly.
Rodriguez said he was pleasantly surprised by how much easier it is to start and operate a business in Miami than in Spain.
“Here, things are a lot more straightforward,” he said. “There’s a lot less red tape. It’s very easy to start a business and make money with it.”
Hispanic entrepreneurs in Miami emphasized how much business they get from “word of mouth” marketing — friends, associates and family members passing on a recommendation. That is the family-centered essence of Hispanic culture.
Life coach Novo said at least 90 percent of her clients are Hispanic, often affluent young South American women searching for direction and recommended by previous clients.
“Your network is so important here,” she said.
But Novo said when businesses are seen as part of the family, there can be a downside: low expectations.
“It might be wrong to say, but when you’re doing work for family, you don’t necessarily hit the deadline in the same way as when you’re doing business for others,” she said. “Because Hispanics are so family-oriented, with a very loving air, many run their business in the same way, thinking ‘Oh, they’ll understand if I come a few hours late’.”
Because there’s an abundance of nonprofits in Miami set up to assist small business owners and because city regulations require that large city projects must use a certain percentage of Hispanic-owned businesses, Hispanic entrepreneurs claim the city provides them with ample opportunity to grow. Some new businesses even find startup capital through investors applying for the EB5 investors’ visa, which provides green cards to entrepreneurs who spend $500,000 to $1 million of their own funds on a job-creating American business venture.
Miami’s growing stature as the business capital of Latin America and a global finance center means its Latin nature is only going to deepen.
“You couldn’t even get gas in Miami without being Hispanic,” Essig added, with a chuckle. “My grandparents have been here since the 1950s and they have never learned to speak English. And they have no interest in learning.”