This article is part of a new series at Long Island Wins looking at immigration and business on Long Island.
“He needed new challenges,” says Brenda Aguilar, executive assistant at the Long Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
She’s talking about Luis Lopez, the 62-year-old president of the chamber, a retired-cop-turned-entrepreneur-turned-leader of one of Long Island’s leading business associations.
For Lopez, a staid and sturdy fellow with gray hair and an accent from the South Bronx, that challenge came in the form of the restaurant business. With no prior experience, a few years ago he bought Wickers Restaurant, a Hicksville lunch, dinner, brunch, and catering spot.
Lopez embodies the dream of many of the upstart entrepreneurs on Long Island: He’s achieved so much in the business world that he’s able to take on a restaurant as a pet project.
His contributions to the local business community, however, go beyond his own ventures.
With his record of success as a buoy, Lopez became the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in January 2009, and currently helms the 1,200-member organization. He’s been a member for over a decade.
“We specialize in providing Hispanic businesses a way to assimilate into the business world,” Lopez says. “How to operate and maintain their business in conjunction with the laws and regulations that exist.”
The chamber has native-born and immigrant members, as well as members from outside the Hispanic community, and it provides bilingual services, a big plus for new immigrant entrepreneurs navigating the Long Island business world for the first time.
“We also have a lot of people who have been in business for awhile but they don’t really have the wherewithal to connect with government agencies,” he says.
Lopez, who is Puerto Rican, started his career as a police officer in the Bronx, where he had lived since he was 10-years-old. During his tenure with the NYPD, he worked as a street cop, combatted organized crime, and engaged in community policing.
After he retired, he moved into the security business and founded Alante Security, an operation that has done security work for a range of federal agencies, including Homeland Security in Queens and the tower at LaGuardia Airport.
He brings that experience to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where the members range from bodega owners and restaurateurs to major banks and corporations like TD Bank, HSBC, WalMart, Home Depot, Avis Budget Group, and MetLife.
An example of one of the chamber’s smaller businesses is Magenta Promotions, a custom apparel and promotions outfit co-owned by the husband and wife duo Christian Duffoo and Patricia Bernal, who are Peruvian immigrants.
“We decide to join because it’s a very important network,” Bernal says. “It’s one of the most prestigious organizations [of its kind].”
The professional development offerings are also a plus. “There is support with seminars, marketing tools, strategy, accounting, human resources, and management,” Bernal says.
Magenta Promotions also participates in a New York State business incubator program that is run through the chamber. As a result, they get a space in the chamber’s Melville office, which includes a secretary, desk, computers, and Internet access. According to Luis Lopez, the office space is offered for roughly one-sixth of what it would be worth normally.
Of course, these perks wouldn’t be particularly useful to the large companies that join the chamber. But for those companies, the chamber serves as a way to connect with small business owners in order to find Hispanic candidates for job openings and to provide loans and services to beginner businesses.
The members of the chamber also form a community outside of the office, participating in annual events like a Christmas party where members bring toys for needy children, and a dinner and dance in the fall where a portion of the proceeds fund scholarships at Briarcliffe College.
One upcoming chamber event in May, the Sixth Annual Latina Hat Luncheon, will honor a mix of successful Latina businesswomen on Long Island (May 19, The Carleton at Eisenhower Park, $75 members, $90 non-members). Each year, over 200 guests attend the event.
Annual chamber dues are $250 for individuals and $1000 for large corporations, and for small business owners like Christian Duffoo and Patricia Bernal it’s worth the expense.
“When you try to connect with the Long Island community, you need to network,” she says, referencing the chamber. “It’s like a bridge.”