Business Q & A

A conversation with Charlie Rivera

Charlie Rivera is tired of being the Hispanic Guy — the one everyone calls when they want to include the Hispanic community in any effort.

So he and others in Wichita are trying to develop a corps of young Hispanic leaders.

The Hispanic population is growing — Sedgwick County has 58,000 Hispanic residents, making up 15 percent of the population — but Rivera said it underperforms financially and socially. It needs to become better integrated into the American mainstream to prosper, he said.

The first young leaders from the Kansas Hispanic Education and Development Foundation will graduate in December.

Rivera, born Brooklyn, N.Y., to Puerto Rican parents, came to Wichita in 1979 to pursue a degree in microbiology. He worked at Koch Industries for three years and then started his own New York Life insurance agency. The firm now also does financial advising. He helped start the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2002.

Rivera, 59, and his wife, Marion, have three grown children.

Why all the community work?

"It's what you do outside of work that makes you great. I had been in the financial service business for 20 years, and I was making an adequate living, but I was frustrated. I was working a lot of hours, and I wasn't really hitting the niches that I wanted to hit and was effectively pretty burnt. In 2000, I got some strategic coaching and as a result of that I started the Hispanic Chamber. Why? As the coach said: 'Find some way you can give back and you will notice that you will benefit from it.' "

How does your outside activity reinforce your professional life?

"It's complementary. Here's an example: I rock-climb... and when you rock-climb there is a word that we use, and when you see people climb you always hear them yelling at each other: 'BARK.' Check the belay. Check the anchor. Check the rope. And check the knot. And every time you move, you holler out 'BARK' and the next guy hollers out 'BARK.' One day I said to an experienced climber, a doctor buddy of mine, and I said, 'I get tired of barking. Why do we do that?' And he said, 'The pain of discipline is less than the pain of failure.' One mistake on that ledge, and it's pretty bad.

"I don't want you sitting there daydreaming about some crazy event. I want you engaged in what you're doing."

Why create the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce?

"I realized that many Hispanic businesses did not have the structures in place to grow and didn't understand how to work with attorneys and CPAs and bankers, and they needed that little bit of coaching to get there. I basically wrote a $500 check to get it started and served six years as president."

And now why are you pushing the Kansas Hispanic Education and Development Foundation?

"We looked at some of the big issues facing the community. We don't have a month that goes by that somebody doesn't call me: 'Would you serve on this board, act in this capacity, be part of this start-up group?' We do not have enough leaders. There are only a few of us.

"So, we went to the Health Foundation, received a grant and partnered up with the African-American Coalition. We had 20 candidates, 10 African-American and 10 Hispanic, and we did an extensive interview process. This is a 12-month program, on Friday nights and Saturdays, which means they have to be dedicated to do this. We hired a full-time instructor, borrowed various leadership curriculums and brought in guest speakers. At the end of the year we'll have 20 qualified candidates to serve on various boards throughout the state."

How will these leaders then lead?

"My job now is to find places for them. I got a call that Wichita State University has an economic development group that wants to reach out to Hispanic businesses. I can't do any more. Please find me somebody on this cadre of students and please get them involved in this."

And you also want to push Hispanic youth to reach higher?

"Here we are with a huge Hispanic population around the state, which is depleting our resources and overwhelming our schools, creating drain on our resources because you have all these kids who only speak Spanish — these teachers can't handle that.

"And yet, we have more foreign students at Wichita State than we do African-American and Spanish kids from our own state. At Wichita State, when you remove all the foreign kids, the minority population is only 2 to 2.5 percent. When my kid got into law school, of 104 candidates, only four were Spanish. I jumped in my car and went to see the dean. I swear to God. And I said, 'Dean, what's going on here?' And he said, 'Charlie, they're not applying.' "

Are there particular issues with Hispanics in closing that gap?

"Many first-generation Spanish families want their kids to go to work right away. That's the tough part. You have all this social pressure on these young adults. You're 17, 18 years old, and you don't want to go to college; that's another four years. You can go to work tomorrow as a welder and start generating money for the family in 90 days."

"And even many of my college students have small aspirations. It's very frustrating because I ask, 'Why are you not achieving the architect degree? The engineering degree? The legal, the accounting degrees? That is where the greatest opportunities are.' They get into college and they stay in a little bit of a comfort zone.... This is not the easy route, but this is where significant change can happen. That's a tough twist, to take the risk."

But you see the Hispanic population as having great potential. Why?

"I sit on the advisory board of the (WSU) School of Engineering, where I'm recruiting Hispanics to become engineers. There's a huge drain in engineering right now. Thirty percent of the engineers in America are going to be gone in another five or 10 years. Where are we going to get them? I see this huge population of Hispanics, if we could just get them educated and plugged into the system."