In the two years preceding the last presidential election, the White House launched a project that today can serve as a model for attracting, engaging and mobilizing the U.S. Latino community.
Led by community strategist Juan Sepúlveda — then executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics — the project sought to accelerate civic engagement in the Latino community by educating and empowering Latino leaders to, yes, educate and empower their own constituents. It was a bold "training the trainers" strategy that had the simple goal of scaling the administration’s effort to understand and serve. Or, as a colleague of ours who played a critical role in the project said, "It was a strategy for engaging the Latino grassroots by activating the Latino grasstops."
Fast forward four years, and we are looking at a field of candidates — in both parties — who may not yet know how to reach the Latino grasstops. Yet it's a year when reaching these folks can make all the difference. The only thing that has changed these past four years is the visibility we now have into a key patch of the grasstops — Latino business owners — who may play a unique role in helping to elect the next president.
First, let’s look at the number of Latino business owners, and the role they may have already played in the GOP primaries and caucuses. The Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative (SLEI) has access to the country’s largest database of Latino-owned businesses. We conducted an informal (unscientific) poll of business owners in the states where primaries and caucuses have been held, with an eye trained on what might happen on March 15, when voters turn out for their parties in Florida, one of the most Latino-heavy states in the union.
In addition, we analyzed applicants to the Stanford Latino Entrepreneur Leaders Program. The threshold for acceptance to that program is high; your business needs to have at least $1m in annual revenue or $1 million in investment. Combined, the two samples provide a view into the size of the Latino-owned business community as compared to the entire U.S. business community.
If you are not familiar with the work of SLEI — which has been helping to evangelize both the size and influence of Latino business owners — the number of Latino businesses out indexes the U.S. Latino population (which is roughly 17 percent of the total U.S. population). Here’s a snapshot of Latino-owned businesses in key primary/caucus states: Texas (29 percent of all businesses in the state), Florida (29 percent), and California (23 percent). Pretty big percentages, right? But another thing that’s important to keep in mind: we are not talking about only mom-and-pops — corner-store bodegas, and strip-mall taquerías. In fact, there are close to 200,000 Latino-owned businesses generating over $250 thousand per year for a total of roughly $390 billion in sales.
Not that there’s anything wrong with mom-and-pops. The authors of this article each owe a great deal to small Latino businesses that supported them since youth. The point we’re making here is that the strip-mall taquería is a stereotype that limits our ability to see the impact of Latinos “outside the neighborhood.” The reality is that there are many Latino-owned businesses in media, entertainment, fashion, healthcare, manufacturing, professional services, and yes, technology, which we are watching emerge here from our offices in Silicon Valley.
Latino businesses we’ve polled are highly active in so-called mainstream civic and business communities. Ninety-six percent of the Latino businesses we analyzed had at least one owner involved in civic and social engagement (CSE) with 47 percent being involved in a leadership role.
If we apply these stats to Florida we would expect close to 579,000 Latino business owners involved in CSE and close to 285,000 Latino business owners serving in a leadership role.
These Latino business leaders are serving in both Latino and non-Latino organizations like chambers of commerce, non-profits, and PTAs. If we consider that each of these business leaders influence at least 10 people, then their reach in Florida would be close to 2.9 million. Couple that with the well-known phenomenon that Latinos in general — business owners and non-business owners alike — outperform most other groups on social media, and you can begin to understand the overall power of the Latino grasstops.
There’s another word that marketers use to describe people with this kind of influence: “multipliers.” Which is to say that Latino business owners not only have a surprising amount of financial capital but an equally surprising amount of social capital, enabling them to reach people at greater scale and at greater speed. For this year’s presidential candidates — especially those in the GOP which we believe may be underestimating the power of the Latino vote — it's whether all this social capital can translate into political capital.
We believe the answer is yes. And we also believe that the question is timely. We are just days before a slate of contests when one of the most visible Latino politicians ever — Marco Rubio — may be voted out of the primary cycle in his own state. Has Rubio done an effective job of engaging and mobilizing the Latino business grasstops, who can not only reach Latino voters but other people they influence in their communities (recall the rough math we did on the state)? Would it have made a difference?
At this date, of course, we don’t know. But what we do know is that no presidential campaign this year has done anything closely resembling the work that Sepúlveda did for the White House in the years before the last election. One of the biggest learnings from that initiative was the sentiment of the U.S. Latino vote as seen through the then grasstops. Sepúlveda and his team polled Latino leaders in more than 20 cities, asking them what issues matter to them most and what they would most likely invest their time and energy supporting.
At the top of the list: education. Close behind: healthcare, jobs, and Immigration reform, despite the belief that Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and other non-Mexican Latinos weren’t bothered by the anti-immigrant rhetoric that had already surfaced in American politics, an entire election cycle before Donald Trump. As it turns out, they were bothered. And the negative rhetoric had the effect of galvanizing and rousing the Latino metatribe, what old-school marketers used to call “the sleeping giant.”
Word to the wise: before engaging the public on any issue that could be unifying or divisive, consider engaging the Latino power voter. And the first step to engaging is to listen, because others listen to her.
Remy Arteaga is the Executive Director of the Latino Business Action Network (LBAN), a nonprofit that partners with Stanford University through research initiatives and the Stanford Latino Entrepreneur Leaders Program. Giovanni Rodriguez, a Silicon Valley-based consultant, advises organizations on data-driven strategies for cross-cultural engagement. The views expressed in this article are entirely their own.