After resignations, Hispanic nonprofit's conference moves ahead -- Gazette.Net


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A Hispanic nonprofit has put behind allegations of financial problems that resulted in two leaders resigning this year, as it prepares for its 11th annual Maryland Hispanic Business Conference on Tuesday, the organization’s executive director said.

“The response has been fantastic,” said Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the conference. “We have more exhibitors and believe it will be similar in size to last year,” when the event attracted about 750 people. The conference is a joint collaboration of Hispanic chambers of commerce and government agencies.

In February, 2012 Chairwoman Maria Jose Zelaya and 2010 Chairwoman Lorna Virgili resigned, citing the group’s alleged violations of nonprofit rules, failure to file federal tax reports and other issues.

While Rodriguez said those issues have been addressed, Virgili disagreed. The parties engaged in mediation, but that did not resolve anything, Virgili said this week.

“It is a shame that [conference leaders] continue to mislead sponsors and the business community,” Virgili said. Conference leaders made the organization “their private business,” she added, and a budget surplus did not go to organizing chambers.

Rodriguez said the conference completed an in-house audit and engaged in mediation.

“We have nothing to hide,” Rodriguez said. “The allegations are not true, and we can prove it with our record keeping. ... We built this conference for the 11th year and have the trust of the government and business community. We have everything in order and are focused on putting our best foot forward.”

Some Hispanic chambers and other entities are no longer involved with the conference, Virgili said. That includes the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Montgomery County, of which Virgili is a board member, she said.

The Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce are helping organize and promote the conference, Rodriguez said.

The Hispanic Business Conference Foundation of Maryland reported revenues of $111,060 and expenses of $107,160 in its most recent tax filing, for 2011. It finished the year with a balance of $42,965.

Former DEBD leader to keynote

At Tuesday’s daylong conference at the Montgomery County Conference Center, the keynote speaker will be Aris Melissaratos, former secretary of the Maryland Department of Economic and Business Development. He is now senior adviser for enterprise development to the president at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Other planned speakers include Joshua I. Smith, chairman and managing partner of Silver Spring business consulting firm the Coaching Group and a board member of Fortune 100 companies Caterpillar, FedEx and Allstate; Nicole Quiroga, general manager of Telemundo WZDC-25 and WZTD-45; and Steven A. Silverman, director of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development.

With the theme of “Creating Strategic Alliances for Success,” the conference will have eight seminars on issues such as financing, exporting, contracting, starting a business, selling to the Hispanic market and networking with social media. Representatives from banks and lending companies will meet one-on-one with attendees to discuss loan issues.

“Access to capital is still a big issue among Hispanic businesses,” Rodriguez said. “We have a lot of banks as exhibitors who bring their expertise and can help with loans.”

Fast-growing segment

Hispanic-owned companies are the fastest-growing business segment in Maryland, said Bill Villanueva, a conference board member and founder. The number of such businesses grew 68 percent from 2002 to 2007, faster than those owned by blacks and people of East and South Asian descent, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Those 26,000 Hispanic companies in Maryland had annual sales of $4.4 billion in 2007. Germantown gas station owner Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Properties was the largest Hispanic-owned company in the state last year with revenues of $292.6 million, according to Hispanic Business.

“We are more than our food, music and artistic abilities,” Villanueva said. “Don’t get me wrong — we are proud of those things. But let’s celebrate our dynamic business community and the positive impact we are making on the economy. ... It’s significant.”

Furthermore, Hispanics living in the U.S. had a combined buying power of $1.1 trillion in 2011 and that should reach $1.5 trillion by 2015, according to a recent report from consumer research firm Nielsen.

“Hispanics have great purchasing power,” Rodriguez said. “You see a lot more companies working with the community now.”

Sponsors of Tuesday’s conference include not just government agencies such as the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development but many companies. Those include Verizon Communications, Ambit Energy, Wells Fargo, Capital One Bank, Geico, New York Life Insurance and Bank of America.

Among those to be recognized at the event are physicians Alberto J. Diaz with the American Dream Award and Ligia Peralta with the Latina Powerhouse Award. Anthony Carr and 809 Band will perform during a mixer at the end.

“Each year, we strive to make the conference more interesting,” Rodriguez said. “We want to improve on it each year.”

kshay@gazette.net