ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Michelle Hernandez was glad to return to New Mexico after spending three years in Los Angeles getting her law degree.
For one thing, the Albuquerque native had to endure being asked for a green card when she wanted to open a bank account in Westwood, an LA neighborhood. Then there was her experience in a local laundromat, where she was accused of not speaking English because she looked Hispanic.
But above all, she said she was frustrated trying to find a community group with which she could volunteer.
“One of the reasons I came back to Albuquerque is … I was trying to do that (volunteer work) while I was a student in LA, and I never felt like it was my community,” she said. “I always felt like you needed to be born and raised in LA to feel like you’re from LA”
So Hernandez came home and found what she was looking for with the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce – starting with her first introduction in 1997 up to now, as she takes over as chair of the nation’s largest Hispanic chamber.
Hernandez, a certified health law specialist, is the ninth woman to lead the chamber since its inception in 1975. And she’s doing so at a time when there’s a new chamber president and CEO (Ernie C’de Baca), new board members and a new Albuquerque mayor (Tim Keller).
“It’s a transition year,” said Hernandez, 46, who works at the Modrall Sperling law firm. “I think it’s exciting. We’ve got a really engaged and active board. They are very committed.”
The chamber has 1,300 members, most of whom are based in Albuquerque, although it also has some out-of-state members.
One of Hernandez’s goals during her one-year term is to make sure the chamber is reaching out to young professionals in the welcoming way that greeted her when she returned from Los Angeles.
“It’s not always easy to be a young professional in Albuquerque, especially if you haven’t grown up here, or for someone like me – you’ve come back and it seems like a whole new world because now you’re here as an adult,” she said.
She recalled attending her first La Noche Encantada, the chamber’s annual fund-raising gala, in 1997.
“I had just moved back,” Hernandez said. “I had never been to anything like that – just the sheer number of people and it was black tie and it was gala. I just was in awe at how big it was and then to see the organization that was running it, professional Hispanic leaders at all these really high levels of business and politics.”
She said she wants other young people to have the opportunity she did to find a network of professionals, and not just those in their own age group but across generations, as well.
“I do think there’s a great opportunity to make sure we are making it more of a community effort, so it’s cross-professional and cross-generational.”
Another of Hernandez’s goals is to make sure there are opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses.
She points to the chamber’s efforts to get its members signed up with the city’s Minority Business Enterprise program. The program requires the city to take affirmative action on hiring women and minority-owned businesses.
“We’re promoting it to businesses to make sure they’re signed up,” she said.
The chamber also works with the city on convention and tourism efforts through an annual $700,000 contract, C’de Baca said.
Under the agreement, which is renewable every five years, the chamber “promotes Albuquerque as a destination for Native American and Hispanic markets,” C’de Baca said.
Hernandez said another of her goals is to make sure the chamber is providing its members “value-added” benefits during a time when chambers of commerce are struggling to remain relevant.
The board, she said, will likely have a retreat to focus on “what is the role of a Chamber of Commerce today, because that has changed.”
The Hispano chamber offers “team membership engagement specialists” who are assigned to each business that joins, offering help with anything from expanding a business to finding the right person at City Hall who can help with a permit, Hernandez said.
The group also is working on an internal referral system – like an inhouse Yelp – so members can do business with each other when they need to purchase an item or a service.
Simply put, it’s no longer good enough for a Chamber of Commerce to charge people dues in exchange for doing nothing more than publishing an annual directory, Hernandez said.
“So it’s not just sign up members, get in a book and hopefully it all works out,” she said. “We’re trying to really make sure we’re relevant and providing a service to our members.”