As president of the Colorado Springs Hispanic Business Council and program manager for Onward to Opportunity, a veterans career transition nonprofit, Joe Aldaz has made it his mission to create employment and business opportunities for all in the region.
A native of Raton, N.M., Aldaz found himself in Colorado Springs following an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy, graduating in 1983. He worked mainly in space operations and spent many tours of duty in Colorado before his final assignment — also at the Academy — began in 1999.
After his retirement, Aldaz said he followed the “natural pathway” one takes after a military career in space operations.
“With the many defense contractors here, I was employed by a defense contractor for about 18 months and was laid off,” he said. “I kind of did some personal evaluation of what I really wanted to do. I didn’t see myself spending another 20 to 25 years in the same field, just wearing civilian clothes.
“That was when the Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber of Commerce reached out to me. I didn’t have any experience in that but they felt that, because of my military background, I would fit the role they needed at the time.”
Aldaz has twice worked for the Hispanic Chamber, once in a paid position in 2006 and again beginning as a board member this year and as president as of June. The organization changed its name to the Hispanic Business Council in the intervening time while Aldaz pursued leadership roles in other nonprofit settings, from veterans assistance to a charter school in Pueblo.
Talk about your first stint with the chamber.
I was brought in to professionalize their board and, at the same time, they needed to increase their revenue. Of course chambers of commerce are membership-driven. So I brought the membership, which was less than 100 at the time, to a little more than 200 members. … I spent about a year with them as CEO and president and then moved on to an opportunity with the USO. I was the Rocky Mountain USO director for about five years and built the first USO center at Fort Carson and oversaw USO operations at Denver International Airport.
How did you double membership?
I think it’s being out there as the face of the organization and developing the events so they can come and participate.
Pretty much, on the financial side, you have to press the members to renew and pay membership. That is the main revenue. You have to be aggressive in having them take advantage of the membership — but also pay for the membership.
How old is the chamber/council?
It was originally started in 1989 and one founding member was former mayor Lionel Rivera. I think it was in late 2008 that it dissolved. I don’t know the circumstances. But a gentleman by the name of Anthony Perez, who is from Chicago, got a group of community leaders to resurrect it in 2016 and called it the Colorado Springs Hispanic Business Council — which functions as a chamber of commerce.
What does the Hispanic Council do?
We operate like a regular chamber of commerce. We’re focused on providing resource training and workshops not only to Hispanic-owned businesses but small businesses to help elevate and grow their business. We do it through multiple ways: We provide luncheons. We had one last week where guests learned about global chambers. The executive director of the global chamber of commerce in Denver talked about knowing how to do business not just in your community but across the state, across other states and even globally.
We also offer business-to-business networking called “Enlace Latino.” And we’re looking at signature events. Last year the council did a diversity business summit in March and we’re looking to do a second one in 2019 and develop a couple other signature events. One is a fundraiser called “Profiles in Courage,” a dinner the week preceding Armed Forces Week. We plan to honor up to five Hispanic veterans who reside or have lived in El Paso County.
Anything else we should know about the council?
There’s a myth that because we’re the Hispanic Business Council that membership is only for Hispanic-owned businesses. We are a diverse organization.
We do focus on trying to support Hispanic-owned business but we’re inclusive to any business that wants to learn how to do business with Hispanics and the Hispanic market. We’re the largest minority group in Colorado Springs and we continue to grow. As of 2017, I believe there were more than 117,000 Hispanics living here, over 6,000 Hispanic-owned businesses. It’s a market that’s untapped in a lot of ways. You need to take a leap of faith if you’re not a minority business to learn to collaborate to grow each other’s businesses, but also the community.
Talk about your full-time position.
I accepted a role in June last year to be program manager with Onward to Opportunity. It’s out of Syracuse University. We provide training and education to transitioning service members, veterans and spouses, which leads to certifications in IT, [human resources] and project management, all at no cost to the participants. We’re set up at Fort Carson and 18 different military installations across the country. We’re Syracuse employees but work out of what’s called the Institute for Veterans and Military Families.
What are your responsibilities?
We provide four days of classroom instruction, so I teach, which leads to six to 10 weeks of industry-validated, computer-based training that leads to a certification exam. In that six to 10 weeks we try and build networks and connect them to the community through networking events, additional training and workshops to help them be better prepared to transition out of the military.
Are those veterans staying in the community?
If you look at the data specific to Fort Carson, the average is about 400 [soldiers] a month transitioning out of the military and about 60 percent want to stay in the community. There’s definitely a need.
Are there challenges specific to the Hispanic business community?
I think, because they’re a small business, their customers are of Hispanic heritage the majority of the time.
Colorado Springs has a lot of high-tech industry and some don’t understand how to make their business attractive to the defense sector. One of our goals is to provide them with the appropriate certifications to be able to do business with the government. That allows businesses to be competitive.
I think another challenge is just, as society has developed there’s — I’m not going to say a fear — but a hesitancy to have dialogue and fellowship [with different cultures].
What are some hurdles to cultures coming together?
I think sometimes the language barrier can stand in the way. Many Hispanic-owned businesses are more comfortable speaking Spanish. That can be a challenge.
I think a lot of times there’s an educational challenge — they may feel they’re not of the same caliber because of their educational background. But the Hispanic community is very entrepreneurial. Many come to this country for an opportunity to build a business. That tells you a lot right there about work ethic, ambitions, goals and things like that. We want to help them beyond that, whether it’s enabling them to take an English course or help them navigate certifications or extra training that can benefit them.
Have you received feedback about the political environment and its impact on the Hispanic business community?
I haven’t heard anything. We’re not mature enough right now to take a lot of [policy] positions and being a membership-driven organization, you always have to be sensitive about the positions you take. … The position you take on policy could strain your relationship with members and they could discontinue their membership.
Are there policies right now that could impact Hispanic businesses?
Immigration policies. We don’t know what the outcomes will be. But this is an area we can be helpful with in the community. As president, when I go into a relationship or collaboration or if we’re discussing policy, I’m looking at the win-win outcome. As a country, as a whole — putting parties aside, putting cultures aside, putting race aside — if we look at what a win-win relationship looks like and how we can compromise, I think we’d have great improvement. … I think that’s where we, as a nation, have hit a barrier. We don’t know how to compromise anymore.