Thriving in volatile times: Hispanic business executives hold sixth annual event in Cincinnati

CINCINNATI - Months after Mexico native Alfonso Cornejo came to Cincinnati 25 years ago as a Procter & Gamble executive, he was berated over the phone by a vacuum parts salesman because of his accent.

"Can't you speak American?" the man chided him.

"I'm sorry, my English is not very good," Cornejo recalled saying, to which the man replied, "I want you to speak American, not English."

Cornejo, now the owner of AC Consulting Associates and president of Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA, can laugh about the incident today, though the memory is indelible to him. The happy epilogue, he said, is that that exchange would never happen today thanks to a more diverse population.

"We have progressed a lot," he said.  "Now people are used to accents and people who look different."

Thriving in the Tri-State

On Thursday, Cornejo will join fellow Latinos and executives from a multitude of ethnicities at the Westin downtown for the Cincinnati chapter of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs annual Executive Perspective event. Attendees will share stories and discuss ways to continue the progress for a new generation of Hispanic business and civic leaders.

This year's theme is thriving in volatile times, and event organizers have worked hard to make business leaders and aspiring business leaders of all stripes feel welcome.

"It will feel like a family reunion rather than a rigid corporate event," said Orlando Gutierrez, president of the Cincinnati chapter of NSHMBA. As senior finance manager of corporate brands for Kroger, he oversees $16 billion in sales of more than 100 brands.

In January, the group's board began a deliberate effort to assemble a panel of executives that includes both men and women as well as non-Hispanic whites and African-Americans. The lineup is:

  • Linda Burtwistle, president of First Student
  • Jorge Corral, managing director of Accenture
  • Phillip Holloman, president and COO of Cintas
  • Rodney McMullen, president and COO of Kroger.

"We want you to arrive and feel included," Gutierrez said.

A growing group

According to Gutierrez, Hispanics are increasingly well-represented among executives in Greater Cincinnati, led by Procter & Gamble's global operation that draws the best and the brightest to Cincinnati and other major institutions, with a greater concentration than most Midwest cities.

"The largest Cincinnati metro organizations are credited for this special case. The main employers of professional Hispanics are P&G, General Electric, Toyota, Ethicon (J&J), University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Children's Hospital, University Hospital, etc.," Gutierrez said.

Still, there are plenty of growth opportunities for Hispanics in executive ranks. NSHMBA, a 25-year-old organization whose Cincinnati chapter is ten years old, works to foster the development of future leaders through management education, professional development and cultural awareness.

Cultural impediments remain to Hispanics breaking into the leadership ranks, Gutierrez said, including a tendency to share credit with colleagues even when interviewers are inviting them to tout their individual accomplishments.

Both sides are coming toward each other in this regard, he believes, with Hispanic executives learning to promote themselves more and, thanks to increasing diversity, corporate leaders being more appreciative of collaborative thinking.

A natural fit

Hispanics are fueling the Tri-state's growth. According to the 2010 census, the 15-county regional population grew overall by six percent – lagging some competitor regions – while the Hispanic population skyrocketed 124 percent.

Cornejo, whose business helps small companies do business in Latin America through human resources work, labor negotiations and a host of other services, came to Cincinnati from Mexico as a P&G executive. He has since worked for Clorox and Chiquita before setting off on his own.

By the time Cornejo contemplated starting his own business, his children were already working in Cincinnati and raising their own families, and he had grown to love the area.

"I think Cincinnati is awesome," he said. "We have the best hospitals, the best universities. And the arts? Give me a break. Cities much larger don't have the arts that we have."

Cornejo is nearing retirement and plans to stick around.

"I have been witnessing the growth and for the better. Years ago, we had two Mexican restaurants and they were both in Northern Kentucky: Montoya's and Sylvia's. Now, we have 93, and some of them are real Mexican!" he said. "The fact that we have 93 tells you that the population has been attracted to our culture."

Cornejo said Cincinnati's values are a natural fit for Latinos. "To us, Cincinnati is a family town. We are a relationship-based culture. We develop strong relationships. Cincinnati is Catholic, and we're largely Catholic. We hate cold weather, but five or six days of snow a year is pretty much acceptable."

Starting over, finishing strong

Tillie Hidalgo Lima has lived the American dream. She overcame adversity to become CEO and president of Best Upon Request, which provides concierge service to businesses and hospitals. The company takes care of little things like paying bills and servicing cars so that patients can focus on healing and workers can focus on their work responsibilities. The business is ranked 393 among the top 500 Hispanic-owned businesses nationally.

Hildalgo Lima earned NSHMBA's national Brilliante Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence in 2008 and is enthusiastic about the group.

At 10 months old, she and her family fled Cuba in the midst of Fidel Castro's takeover, moving to Atlanta for a short time before settling in Cincinnati in 1966. Her father, a trained engineer, took any job necessary to provide for his family, at one point selling pots and pans door to door while earning a PhD from Georgia Tech.

When Hidalgo Lima entered kindergarten, she spoke no English and was tested for deafness because of her silence. In grade school, she was placed in the lowest level classes due to prejudice about her heritage and her language skills.  Kids called her names.

But she persisted, driven by her parents' emphasis on education as a means to success, eventually getting promoted to the top level classes in grade school, then honors English at St. Ursula High School and a bachelor's degree in pharmacology from UC.

"I strongly believe in freedom and what a privilege and an honor it is to be a U.S. citizen," Hildalgo Lima said. "My parents taught me that no one can take away a love of family or your education."

She loves her adopted city and has watched her own daughters pursue higher education and careers.

Hidalgo Lima will be part of the mix that leaders of the event Thursday hope inspire more leadership among Hispanics.

"We have many people with different culture backgrounds, different mindsets who will be focused on achieve our goals," Gutierrez said. "We make a huge case that diversity always brings business success." 

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