Growing up in South Brooklyn, Cesar R. Hernandez had been arrested six times on wrongful charges by age 21, and encountered police brutality firsthand. He was a poster child for the systemic injustice we have become too accustomed to in 2020, with the horrific murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Unfortunately, systemic racism never went away. It evolved.
But today, Hernandez, 35, has worked hard in helping diversify Florida’s entrepreneurial sector through his role as president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce and advisory positions with Synapse Florida and tech incubator Tampa Bay Wave.
Hernandez represents some of the largest tech companies in the world through his public affairs firm, Omni Public. He has worked with companies like Tesla, Ford, Hyperloop TT, Bird, Scoot, and most recently, public officials including Tampa Mayor Jane Castor.
CREATING A DEMOGRAPHICALLY DIVERSE REGION FOR BIPOC BUSINESSES
For 10 years, Hernandez has focused his efforts on evolving Tampa’s future infrastructure with help from the Latino talent and investment community. Back in 2019, he began meeting with Latino-owned businesses, local investors, and startup founders on how to expand innovation throughout the Tampa Bay region.
And in February of this year, Hernandez found his answer: the Latin Chamber of Commerce. “We found a gap that other Hispanic organizations aren’t following—capturing the future growth of markets in Tampa Bay and beyond,” he shared in an interview with Tampa Bay Times.
CSQ spoke with Hernandez about the spark that encouraged him to launch the chamber and the valuable insight he has learned as a BIPOC CEO, as he continues to inspire growth and innovation throughout Tampa.
“Diversity is a glaring issue with our lead entrepreneurial tech hubs across the United States,” he says. He emphasizes that “it’s even more severe with double minorities. For example, less than 3% of all venture capital in the United States goes toward Latina founders, and less than .0006% of funding has gone toward Black women founders.”
Using these statistics has inspired Hernandez to help launch the Latin Chamber of Commerce, which he believes will illuminate and reveal an economy of the future that “is not only entrepreneurially diverse, but also demographically diverse, which leaves room for growth.”
INVESTING IN THE PERSON, NOT THE BUSINESS
Many founders, like Hernandez, are connected to their heritage abroad, and who, in Hernandez’s opinion, can introduce their tech at scale across the world with lower barriers to entry. “The regions around the world that get this right will position themselves as global economic hallmarks,” he says.
He referenced Jason Calacanis, a reporter turned angel investor, who through his Open Angel Forum has invested in the likes of Uber, Robinhood, and Trello. The Open Angel Forum is an event that connects early-stage startups with angel investors. However, Hernandez highlights Calacanis’ public statement that he looks to the founders of companies as a determining factor for what he chooses to invest in.
Diversity is a glaring issue with our lead entrepreneurial tech hubs across the United States.
So how does the Tampa CEO apply Calacanis’ teachings? “I say that investors like [Calacanis] should take a deeper dive into the BIPOC founders who have overcome adversity with grit and determination, giving them an astounding work ethic and unique capability to weather the pitfalls of business ownership,” Hernandez says. “Providing an equal playing field would change the game forever.”
Throughout his career, Hernandez, via Omni Public, has represented and worked with some of the largest tech companies in the world, including Tesla, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Bird. But what lessons can today’s upcoming generation take from Hernandez’s experience? He has three critical ones:
1. Set Expectations and Value Their Time
Working with these companies and their representatives, according to the CEO, has been a blessing. “First, it’s crucial you value their time. Every company and its representative works at a different pace, so be clear about expectations and how the project is going to move along. If you can meet their expectations and pace, then game on! If you cannot, and are not ready, be clear about this from the beginning.”
2. Respect the Protocol
Every company has a different way of managing workflow. Do not attempt to disrupt their workflow by imposing how you manage a project. “Instead, I found it effective to adjust to how they manage their workflow, tasks, etc. In the case of an elected official, such as Mayor Castor, this is super important, as they usually have laws that govern how they interact with advisors and the overall flow of information.”
3. No Professional Relationship Should Become “Too Casual”
Lastly, no amount of time or camaraderie formed with a CEO or founder (or elected official) should ever become too casual. It’s important to always respect their time, their office, and their role—especially among their subordinates and in public.
THE 2020 U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OPENED DOORS FOR BIPOC. NOW WHAT?
The 2020 U.S. presidential election season has been many things. But what it has revealed to the BIPOC community is hope. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is the embodiment of Black and Brown America in a country where the majority of its population will be people of color by 2045. Harris, who comes from Jamaican ancestry and Indian heritage, was born into segregation and spoke emphatically about her parents’ involvement with the civil rights movement.
“She represents a variety of social identities that have been marginalized for centuries,” says Lakesha Butler, PharmD, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and clinical professor at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Pharmacy. Butler is a member of the same Black sorority as Harris: Alpha Kappa Alpha.
“To see someone who looks like me in the second-highest office in this country not only motivates and gives me hope, but it also makes me extremely hopeful for my daughter, my students, and all the females who thought this was not attainable,” Butler said. “Kamala Harris has shattered a ceiling that has existed for more than 600 years.”
Following Harris’ victory, Hernandez shared excitement and hopefulness for what’s to come in 2021.
“It’s just amazing to see a woman of color come to hold the second-most powerful position in the world in the same lifetime that we had President Obama,” he says. “This shows that it is just as Dr. Martin Luther King stated, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ It’s just as fascinating to see that the same country that elected Kamala Harris vice president vastly under-supports women of color in their entrepreneurial endeavors.”
Hernandez continues: “There are many policy challenges that the Biden-Harris transition will have to assuage, but I am hopeful that the same fervor utilized to win an election will translate into leveling the playing field for our BIPOC entrepreneurs as they look for the necessary resources to launch and grow their companies. In Florida, I hope that there is serious consideration into legislation that would bridge the gap between Latin American tech and the introduction of accelerator programs that would draw the best companies from across Latin America and Africa to participate in the Florida entrepreneurial landscape. Florida has the opportunity to be the gateway to the world and that is very powerful.”
Despite the victory of the Biden-Harris campaign, Hernandez acknowledges that there are still challenges ahead for fellow BIPOC CEOs and entrepreneurs.
“The biggest challenge as a BIPOC founder is recognition,” he says. “I am constantly being lowballed by potential clients and asked to give them a ‘deal,’ and then see them pay top price to mainstream firms. This idea that by them working with a BIPOC founder is ‘charity’ or a ‘privilege’ is a defunct way of thinking and severely archaic. I am as good or even better than my competitors at any level, which my current clients know and appreciate. By working on issues and advocating for tech that will transform society, my team and I are building the firm of the future. If this sounds like your company, we are the firm that will help you get across the finish line.”
Hernandez generates clear success for his clients.
“The best key performance indicator is results, so that’s the metric from which I measure my engagements,” he says. “Did I deliver or not? If I did not, I ask myself how I can deliver in the future and adopt whatever necessary emergent strategies are needed to get better and continue competing.”
As we approach 2021, Hernandez says one thing still needs to be addressed: “This defunct idea that somehow mainstream companies are doing charity or deserve a deal just because they are working with women or people of color is baffling,” he says. “Hire us because we are better and because we deserve it. If it’s not a fit, don’t force it and move on.”
Hernandez is working on a series of projects for clients around the world. One of the most exciting involves the introduction of a potential Hyperloop mass-transit system across Florida.
“I truly believe that transportation is freedom and if you are able to connect people to resources, employment, and commerce, it will drastically advance a region,” he says.
As for the Latino community, he is “keenly interested in the prospect of building a Latin tech accelerator program that would recruit the best and brightest tech entrepreneurs from across Florida, Latin America, West Africa, and Southern Europe to participate in a cohort in Florida.”
Hernandez hopes these entrepreneurs would grow and potentially “move their operations to the state in coordination with the Tampa Bay Wave.”
And for the current legislative session in Florida, the CEO says he will be fighting against the pharmacy benefit manager machine and advocating for housing for Florida’s most disenfranchised communities, and hoping to deliver a much-needed appropriations win for those communities by continuing to represent his clients.