“It is our time to speak up and speak loudly. We should not assume that we will not be paid attention to.”
It was May 2017, and Ramiro Cavazos, president and CEO of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was readying for yet another trip to the nation’s capital as trade officials prepared for upcoming North American Free Trade Agreement talks.
Cavazos, who was speaking at a border trade advisory committee meeting, voiced the opinions of local civic and business leaders about NAFTA 2.0, and urged state leaders to follow suit: “We need to let them know what we want to do here in Texas.”
Soon after, Cavazos would be in Washington, D.C., meeting again with White House representatives and others, doing just that. With him was 2017 San Antonio Hispanic Chamber board chair Dr. Esteban López, market president for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Southwest Texas.
“My year was a year of really fighting against some of the legislation being proposed in Austin or the rhetoric being spoken in Washington, and I could count on Ramiro and his team to be with me to make sure we were not afraid to speak truth to power, not afraid to correct people when they were giving false information or facts [on legislation] that would not only hurt Hispanic business but the overall San Antonio community,” López said.
Cavazos returns to the national stage this weekend when he will be introduced as the new chief executive officer of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at its annual convention in Philadelphia. He officially takes his new post on Oct. 1 at the chamber’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and a search for his San Antonio replacement is already underway.
“After a search and selection process that spanned several months, we have selected Ramiro because of his strong financial acumen, servant leadership, and shared vision to serve the Hispanic business community, and put our community first in everything we do,” Carmen Castillo, co-chair of the board of directors at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber, said in a statement on Sept. 5.
The U.S. Hispanic Chamber serves the interests of approximately 4.4 million Hispanic-owned businesses and advocates on behalf of 260 major American corporations. The chamber is the umbrella organization for more than 200 local chambers and business associations nationwide. It also serves as the collective voice of the 35 local Hispanic chambers in Texas, which has the most of any state.
For 10 years, Cavazos has served the interests of San Antonio’s Hispanic business owners as president and CEO of the first Latino chamber in the country, and, many say, as one of San Antonio’s most vocal and respected leaders.
“This is a big deal position, with a lot of responsibility,” López said of Cavazos’ new appointment. “For someone who came from San Antonio, with roots in San Antonio, it will continue to be beneficial for us as we advocate for issues that are affecting the Latino community.
“We’re really proud, he is a rock star.”
Experience and Skill
It was 1987, and there was a buzz among the Hispanic community. A young, personable Cavazos has been named leader of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and opportunities to meet him at the group’s mixers have become the hottest ticket in town.
But it was early in Cavazos’ career, and within a few years, the Weslaco native and University of Texas graduate left the chamber and went on to director roles in corporate global public affairs, and stints with the City of San Antonio and UT Health San Antonio. He earned his master’s degree in public administration from St. Mary’s University in 2003.
So when he returned to the chamber for a second stint in 2008, he brought with him not only a deep understanding of economic development issues facing the City but also the ability and network to make a lasting impact on the future business landscape.
Today, the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber is considered a powerhouse, and its leader, the architect.
“It is largest of its kind in the country, and while focused on the needs of small and minority and women-owned businesses, it includes tremendous corporate support, weighs in all the big-ticket items, the big policy decisions made in San Antonio,” said local attorney Louis Escareño, international business committee co-chairperson for the chamber. Escareno has known Cavazos for more than 30 years.
“In no small part, Ramiro has played a major role in carving out a special place for the chamber, for putting us at the table of these big decisions and that’s because of his experience and leadership,” Escareño said. “He really created what I call the modern chamber.”
San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez has worked in sync with Cavazos representing the business bloc on issues near and far. While Perez annually leads a delegation called “SA to DC,” Cavazos has been leading “SA to DF,” with Mexico Distrito Federal the destination. As a result, San Antonio is one of the only cities with a direct line to the Mexican president, Perez said.
“And that is the result of many years of strong Latino leadership in this community … and Ramiro has kept that door open and propped it up through strong relationships with elected leaders in Mexico and the leaders of San Antonio,” he said. “That is a clear example of someone that’s focused, someone that is interested in growing the opportunity for businesses in San Antonio.”
During his years at the Hispanic chamber, Cavazos also led 20 foreign trade missions – to Spain, Mexico, Israel, and Cuba – each resulting in new opportunities for San Antonio, said Jorge Cavanati, an international trade consultant and co-chair with Escareño.
“Ramiro has an uncanny sense of connecting all the parts that are critical to San Antonio’s economic and community development,” he said. “I will sorely miss him.”
Working on behalf of San Antonio business owners also meant frequent road trips to Austin to meet with state representatives. While López often accompanied Cavazos to D.C., they also traveled to the state capital to lobby on legislative issues like the bathroom bill (SB 6), opposed by many business owners.
Current Chairwoman Erika Prosper now has that advocacy role at the chamber, and while working alongside Cavazos the past eight years serving on the board, she’s witnessed his courage as well.
“Ramiro is not afraid. He has working relationship with a lot of different people, and he basically stands up for his members,” Prosper said. “He is one of the most consistent chamber presidents, always going to council chambers, to the capital, to fight for members, whether it’s getting a piece of business or involves getting legislation passed. He’s not always the most popular guy in the room, but he’s never been afraid to do it … so I’ve got to respect that.”
Loud and Clear
Cavazos also made friends along the way, a cultural trait as much as a personal one.
“San Antonio is a city that works well together regardless of racial or political affiliation, and that experience will be very helpful at the national level especially with how highly charged and combative Washington is right now,” Cavazos said. “I look forward to being a very loud and clear voice to advocate for issues that matter to all Americans. We represent the future of America, its past and present, as an ethnic group.”
Cavazos’ advocacy locally in the last year has included speaking out against a proposal that San Antonio host the 2020 Republican National Convention, saying he was not convinced of any long-term economic benefits. He also spoke against adding a labor peace agreement in the City’s airport concession bids that he said could make it harder for local businesses to compete.
His history of taking a stand for small business goes back much farther. In 1998, Cavazos led the effort that saw the City of San Antonio pass the first Small Business Economic Development Advocacy Program (SBEDA) Ordinance. The ordinance language was drafted by chamber leaders and served as the first-ever set of goals for the awarding of small business and minority contracts.
It was a historic moment for the chamber and demonstrated the organization’s influence with city leaders on behalf of the business community. Tejas Premier Building Contractor President Julissa Carielo, who participates in the chamber’s Maestro Entrepreneur Center, said Cavazos’ legacy is that he built a home for many small, minority and women-owned businesses – people who are now leaders in the community.
“Watching Ramiro has always encouraged me to want to do more and to be a part of what is happening, or shall we say what should be happening,” Carielo said. “To have that voice and make sure that we are doing everything we can to keep improving as business owners and as proud leaders of this community. We all play a part of building our great San Antonio and with Ramiro’s leadership he made sure the chamber was the organization bringing us all together, making us stronger leaders to continue the works of the chamber.”
The Latina Leadership Institute is one of several programs the Hispanic chamber has developed under Cavazos’ leadership. The Institute is a six-month program designed to build the skills, knowledge, and confidence that Latina leaders need to succeed in their political aspirations.
CORE4 STEM Program is another program Cavazos oversaw and it exposes youth to education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, while the chamber’s R.I.S.E. Workbook helps both children and adults learn life skills that will help them prepare to become the future workforce.
Prosper pointed at those programs as examples of Cavazos’ openness to new ideas, and in keeping them going beyond the trial year. “In my time on the board, there’s never been a time that he hasn’t risked big on programs that would benefit children, businesses, the Hispanic community,” she said.
“And I think it’s in that risking big and being creative and being comfortable with creating pilots and seeing how to tweak them … that’s a very unique thing that doesn’t often happen. He’s done a great job of encouraging each chairperson to make their mark and then sustaining that program.”
As CEO, Cavazos also led the way in tackling issues important to the region’s major employers and San Antonio’s workforce. When a city-mandated paid sick leave ordinance was proposed in August, he told City Council that while the organization supports the concept, it should not be implemented in a “prescriptive manner,” noting the decision should be made at the state level to ensure fair business practices.
Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, who heads up economic development for the state, said Cavazos understands the needs of the community and has the capacity to achieve big goals.
“The State of Texas has benefitted greatly from Ramiro’s leadership, and I am extremely proud to call Ramiro a dear friend,” Pablos said. “While we will certainly miss him here in Texas, we know he will continue to make San Antonio and our entire state proud through his leadership at the national level.”
San Antonio Home
In Washington, Cavazos hopes to be the eyes and ears for San Antonio.
“I intend to stay very connected to Texas,” he said. “I plan to keep my feet on the ground firmly planted knowing that’s going to help me be a better leader.”
He will maintain his home in San Antonio while he commutes between the two cities. His wife and two children will remain here. “And we’ll see how it goes. For our family, this is a great opportunity, but also a sacrifice,” he said. “This is just a great opportunity I couldn’t pass up but also one that lets me serve my country and contribute the way I have here.”
Though he’ll be missed, Cavazos’ departure isn’t really a loss for San Antonio, Prosper said. “At the end of the day, all economy and all politics is local,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what decisions are made at the national level. It’s executed at the local level, and makes or breaks at the local level, so it really is a great thing to have someone who ran a local chamber but also brings that need to continue to have relationships up to the national level.”
López agreed. “This is excellent for San Antonio,” he said. “All eyes will continue to be on San Antonio, and what we’re doing right and wrong. We really are the example of what the United States and Texas is going to look like in 10 or 20 years, so we need to figure out how to make sure we’re advising Latinos in this community in order for the entire community to be prosperous.”
Cavazos said serving as president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber was not just another job for him. “Every day is different and fun. The challenges are many, but it’s never boring,” he said, adding he looks forward to working with his successor.
Though finding a replacement won’t be easy, López said, the next Hispanic Chamber CEO and the City of San Antonio will have Cavazos where he can do the most good.
“It’s the next phase. We’ve always had a friend in [the] U.S. Hispanic Chamber, but now we have one of us, who is not only from Texas but San Antonio,” López said. “And that’s a testament to the work we have done through the various chairs and his leadership of the organization.”