Although Rob Elias has a new role at the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, he’s no stranger to Tucson or our business community. A University of Arizona graduate in political science, Elias has supported Tucson business for nearly 20 years, working with everything from credit unions to hotels to the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Elias’ strengths mostly center around marketing, communications and branding, but he also co-founded the Oro Valley Music Festival.
His work focuses on helping businesspeople, either by connecting them to business resources and finances, or to similarly minded professionals. He says these goals made him a natural fit for chambers of commerce, which took him first to the Tucson Metro Chamber, and now to the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
In his new role, Elias aims to create meaningful change for minority-owned businesses. The nonprofit Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was incorporated in 1989, and in 2013, was recognized by the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as the Large Chamber of the Year.
“Tucson has an extremely large and growing Latino community, and supporting them was just too great an opportunity to pass up,” Elias said.
Now that you’re officially President/CEO of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, what are some business plans you have for the local community?
I’m right in the middle of my third week in this role, and it’s been quite an ordeal trying to wrap my arms around all the facets of it. But it’s already been an amazing time. The one thing I can talk about is that chambers in general have done a phenomenal job helping local business through advocacy efforts, knowledge sharing, and creating connections.
But the business landscape is changing at an incredible pace, and we have to do a better job of understanding what is changing and how we can change within it. And the thing that’s causing this change are consumers. Consumers are changing, and recent events of social change and social justice conversations, as well as the pandemic, are magnifying this.
I’m a big believer that consumers are more aware of the powers we possess through our buying decisions and spending habits. It’s causing businesses to evolve and shift, and we have plans in the Hispanic Chamber of how we’re going to address this by evolving our offerings and events… We’re eager to get started on them, but we need to pace ourselves, which is hard to do
Now that COVID is winding down, have you seen any unique ways that Latino or minority-owned businesses are bouncing back or supporting each other?
The Latino community is extremely resilient, and they’re extremely loyal to the businesses and people that run those businesses. And that’s one of the aspects we’re going to dive into in the Hispanic chamber. We’re going to take a human-centric approach, and the reason being that 100% of businesses are run by human beings. This is made even more apparent in the Latino community, where we are so ingrained in the connectivity of each other.
Our lives revolve around that connectivity. As things start to open up, because I think the Latino community is a bit more cautious about re-entering, it’s going to take us a little bit longer. But I think we will get back to the way things used to be and support the businesses we so love.
You helped organize the Oro Valley Music Festival. Now that public events are coming back, do you have any plans for helping or supporting these events to return?
That was an incredible event that we put together, especially considering we had no experience putting on an event of that magnitude. But one idea morphed into something much larger. Now with the Hispanic Chamber, it would be an understatement to say that music, arts and culture are a big part of the Latino community. It’s an enormous part of who we are.
While we don’t have any plans in the works, we’re obviously open to using our platform in any capacity that helps move business and the community of Tucson and Southern Arizona. If that revolves around music, we’re more than happy to explore those opportunities.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing the Hispanic business community? Is it mainly recovering from COVID, or are there issues that are extending from before the pandemic?
There are definitely extended issues we need to talk about. We need to understand one thing: Latinos by nature tend to gravitate towards starting a business, and for a number of reasons. Of course it feels good to be our own boss, and we want to create a legacy that our families can continue, and we’re also interested in creating generational wealth and security.
So one thing I feel Latinos faced was a shrinking support structure to help them through the challenges of entrepreneurship. It isn’t easy to start a business, and those challenges definitely increase when you’re a minority-owned business.
Another challenge from before COVID, and something that we’ll continue to work on, is Latinos climbing the corporate ladder. The number of minority CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is staggeringly low, and it hasn’t really grown much in the past decade.
Furthermore, the pay disparity among people of color still continues to be an issue. This causes Latinos on average to have a lower credit score and also impairs our ability to earn capital for businesses we want to create, or that we’ve already created.
What do you think makes Tucson an attractive place to have a business?
There is a long list of things I can talk about, one of which being our climate: the fact we have as much sunshine as we do, and we don’t have to worry about natural disasters, other than the heat during the summertime.
But probably the biggest contributor is the culture of who we are as a city and a people. We have such a rich heritage and culture within the business community that everyone seems to embody, regardless of whether you’ve been here for 90 years or nine days. Everybody assimilates and gravitates to that coolness and unique factors we have here, anywhere from our vibrant murals to the interactions that people have with Tucsonans.
We are a bigger city, but it really doesn’t feel that way. I like to say that Tucson is one-and-a-half degrees of separation, whereas everybody else is three or four degrees of separation, because everyone is so ingrained in each other. Now that’s not a tangible thing, but you can feel it.
That’s why I think people gravitate to Tucson. And we’re not a shrinking community by any stretch. Despite the efforts of some, the growth is definitely happening here.