The photos kept by U.S. Hispanic chamber president Javier Palomarez in his office - him with Warren Buffet, him on a friend’s yacht - speak volumes of his success. They say little about how things almost turned out quite differently for him.
Palomarez, president and CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was 15 when he was pulled out of class by the principal at his Edinburg, Texas, high school and was told his mother had a heart attack and died.
“In a very sudden and tumultuous fashion I didn’t have a parent,” Palomarez said. His father had left when he was 6. “The options were I would become adopted and become a ward of the state. And then my brother filed for the opportunity to be my guardian … I rebelled and took off.”
He lived on the street for more than a year, until one day, his brother Mario walked out of a McAllen, Texas, restaurant where he had gone with a date and found Palomarez near a dumpster in the back of a parking lot.
“I just happened to be there. I would sleep there behind the dumpster. There was another building there so it was kind of a cozy little slot to slip into,” he said.
Palomarez disclosed the personal details of his life in an interview with NBC News while preparing for this week’s U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative summit that began Tuesday evening.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Palomarez serves as host to the likes of David Rubenstein, co-founder of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who serves as assistant majority whip in the Senate, and a number of Hispanic business leaders and owners.
The occasion marks five years at the helm of the chamber for Palomarez who took over as president and CEO when the USHCC was in debt, had “lost its luster” and was about to disappear.
“I was told we had 32 days of life left. We came within a month of this organization being shut down forever, and you’d never hear about the USHCC again,” Palomarez said.
Changing the Hispanic narrative
Today, USHCC has moved beyond rescue and is growing in stature along with the surge in Latino-owned businesses.
Palomarez has taken on immigration reform, supporting legalization for its economic merits and pushing political campaigns to spend more dollars on Spanish-language media. Last year, the chamber held its annual convention, a separate event from the summit, in Utah, a state not often associated with Latinos although they are 13 percent of its population.
But largely, Palomarez dedicates much of the chamber’s work to promoting, assisting and weighing in on potential legislation or government action on behalf of the 3.3 million Hispanic-owned businesses that contribute more than $486 billion to the American economy. The chamber also advocates on behalf of 249 major American corporations who are its supporting partners, he said.
“All too often, sadly, we are cast as maybe not as well-to-do as others, not as educated, not as much of the mainstream,” Palomarez said.
But there's more to the story of Latinos, he argues. While the overall number of small businesses in the U.S. has declined in the last decade, Hispanic-owned businesses have doubled in size, Palomarez said.
“In the last five years, 581,000 Hispanic firms were created. If you remove the impact of those 581,000 firms you would see the economic recovery would have been much more difficult, and unfortunately our community never gets credit for that,” Palomarez said.
“We laughingly refer to ourselves as a 34-year-old start up because, in essence, we had to push the reboot,” he said of the U.S Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “I think it was born out of this notion that others believed that the Hispanic business story had not been told.”
To move the chamber forward, Palomarez stopped accepting federal grants, saying “I haven’t taken a dime from any government agency." He reasons that the chamber can’t propose to be a business organization supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs “if you are not an entrepreneur.”
He also determined that the organization had to move on from the civil rights focus, which was the mission of other Latino and minority groups, although he recognizes it's that fight that makes it possible for him to be where he is. The chamber planned to honor civil rights leader, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at its legislative summit gala Thursday night.
The association remains bipartisan. Last year Vice President Joe Biden and then House Majority Whip Eric Cantor were guests at the summit. Palomarez flew to the immigration town hall held by MSNBC and Telemundo last month aboard Air Force One with President Barack Obama, yet he is often prodded by Republicans about running for office as a GOP candidate.
“We laughingly refer to ourselves as a 34-year-old start up because, in essence, we had to push the reboot,” he said. “I think it was born out of this notion that others believed that the Hispanic business story had not been told.”
A girl, a scholarship and no fear
With his silver hair and fit frame, Palomarez, 54, displays little that hints of the tragedy and struggle of his youth. So when he tells his story, which he does guardedly, the natural question is, how did he go from lost teen to emissary of the thriving Latino business community?
The answers: falling in love with a beautiful girl, the Wall Street Journal, a few mentors and fearlessness, Palomarez said.
“I went (back) to school when I met a girl who was a beautiful college graduate working at a bank,” he said. “She came from a well-to-do family. I was 19, close to 20 and I was working on a ranch next to her father’s farm.
“I had to impress her, so I went to night school, got my GED and saved up enough money and went to college,” Palomarez said. She is now his wife Rebecca, with whom he has two sons, Rigo, 23 and Diego, 19.
While attending college, the dean and several business school professors applied on his behalf for the Wall Street Journal Student Achievement Award. The award provided Palomarez with the money for meals and to finish school.
“It was funny, I was so broke I couldn’t even pay attention, but I had the Wall Street Journal every morning,” he said. “It really opened my eyes and I started realizing, ‘Oh my God, there’s all kinds of stuff going on. I just need to get out of here and go find it.”
Palomarez is the youngest of 10 children; his mother worked as a maid by day and middle school janitor at night. In the summer she took her children to labor as farmworkers in Indiana and other places. Fast forward years later, and Palomarez had graduated with degrees in finance and sales and marketing from what has become the University of Texas-Pan American.
His first job was with Allstate Corp. in Chicago where he started in operations; during his 13-year career he moved on to marketing and sales, where he was integral to the company's Hispanic marketing. He later became an executive at Sprint Corp. and also ING Financial Services.
His mother, originally from Matamoros, Mexico, had been a silent example, someone who "had all the breeding, all the education, all of the elegance that you could possibly imagine, but was handed a set of circumstances." She taught him "always up, eyes forward, moving forward" and that with will and hard work a person can power through anything, he said.
He said he combined that wisdom with his experience as a teen after her death . "Once you've lived on the street, once you've been truly hungry, you're never full and you're never afraid,” Palomarez said.
That fearlessness has propelled him to do such things as call Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., for some mentoring and advice on occasion, he said.
But Palomarez said he thinks there is an entrepreneurial spirit in the Latino DNA, something, a faith, that leads many to embark on starting up a business, despite difficult circumstances. The sort of spirit often found in immigrants, he said.
“There is absolutely nothing unique about me,” Palomarez said. “I represent millions of Latinos just like me and in this job I have the privilege and really, gift, wonderful opportunity, to meet them ... I find people who have created huge enterprises, have provided jobs and security for thousands of Americans and they started off just like me or in situations just like mine."