A native of Guatemala who’d been trained there as a nurse, Carmen found herself living the life of a suburban mother in St. Louis County after her husband’s employer, Emerson, transferred him to its headquarters here. While volunteering with various healthcare organizations, Carmen spotted a need for a service that would provide companies with temporary Information Technology (IT) staffing.
She decided she was the one to fill it, even though: 1) She was female and Hispanic, while IT was dominated by men who no hablan español; 2) she was already middle-aged; and 3) she didn’t, when it came down to it, really know much about IT. She couldn’t do anything about the first two, she reasoned, and what difference did the third make? She knew how to ask questions.
“I’m pretty nosy,” she says with a twinkle. The effect is all the more disarming because her diminutive frame cannot contain her warmth and good humor, which spill from her like water from a tiny vase.
So in 1997, Carmen and a partner started NextGen Information Services. They had no clients and no revenues.
Today the client list includes AT&T, Ameren UE, and many other big corporations in St. Louis. It also has big-name companies in such places as Atlanta and Denver, where NextGen has established branch offices. And revenues are approaching $75 million.
Success like that has placed NextGen on all kinds of lists: Inc. Magazine’s list of Fastest Growing Hispanic Companies, St. Louis Business Journal’s list of Largest Minority-Owned Businesses, etc. NextGen is one of St. Louis’ most impressive Hispanic business stories.
But there are plenty of others, notes Karlos Ramirez, , a Chicago native who moved here at the start of 2011 from San Antonio to become executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis. After ticking off names in the construction, software development, real estate and restaurant fields, he says, “The entrepreneurial spirit of the Hispanic community here is amazing.”
Moreover, he says, the Hispanic business community here appears to be gathering momentum. His own organization provides evidence; the Hispanic Chamber’s corporate membership has grown by two and a half times in the last two years. And behind that growth, he notes, is a major spurt in the Hispanic population of the St. Louis metropolitan area – 82 percent in the period 2000 to 2010, according to census figures.
Encouraging as that is, the St. Louis Mosaic Project and other initiatives have been launched to boost immigration into the St. Louis area, precisely because of the recognition that immigrants tend to be highly entrepreneurial and to stimulate vitality.
Ramirez acknowledges that some bigger cities have long-established programs to assist Hispanic business people. But St. Louis, he says, is “more open and energized” than some others because it’s at an earlier and more exciting stage of development.
Carmen certainly sees the change. When she started, there was little in the way of formal support. So she simply asked for help and “a lot of people gave it just out of their good heart.”
That is simply typical of St. Louisans, she believes. Having lived in Latin America and Houston with her husband, she found this community “more homey” than others. “Ballwin has Ballwin Days,” she points out. “Chesterfield (an adjacent suburb) has its own events … I just love the feel of it. And I also like the big-city things: the Symphony, the Classical Guitar Society, the theater, the Cardinals. Once I knew St. Louis, I said, ‘I’m staying in St. Louis.’”
But now, she says, the community does indeed have far more help to offer new businesses than when she started hers. Organizations like the Hispanic Chamber; like SCORE, a non-profit mentoring service; like the Regional Business Council, the Minority Business Council, the International Institute and others are all eager to provide support, she and Ramirez note.
The community is coalescing, Ramirez observes. A restaurant district has developed on Cherokee Street in South St. Louis. The Hispanic Arts Council is not only continuing to bring high-profile Latino artists to town but is also mounting a new drive to send local young people to college, among other new educational initiatives. His own organization is attracting more corporate support and growing staff and services; recently, for example, with help from the locally based Centene Corp., it launched the Latino Leadership Institute to help professionals develop their organizational and community-development skills.
“All the right people are working on all the right things,” he says. “I think it’s an exciting time for our community and our region.”
Carmen couldn’t agree more. She’s become one of those people now trying to help other Hispanic businesses, mostly by helping them network.
“I’m very into helping,” she says. “Because other people helped me. And I kind of know the ropes now.”