Orchestrating a change

Latino Chamber’s first-ever executive director composes a new career in Madison.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Jessica Cavazos, 43, the new executive director at the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County, was born in McAllen, Texas, “where the V meets Mexico,” she notes, and just five minutes from the U.S.–Mexico border.

Although she was raised “a Milwaukee girl,” she may never have ventured north had it not been for the bravery of her undocumented mother who took a risk on the promise of a better paying manufacturing job. “Back then, there were always people in Texas looking for workers for the northern states,” Cavazos explains.

Anxious to create a better life for her daughter, Cavazos’ mom, a teenage nanny with a six-month-old baby, faced a tough decision. She agreed to move for the job opportunity but left her baby behind with family members in Mexico.

“Imagine leaving a six-month-old and trying to figure out what you’ll do with yourself,” Cavazos says of her mother’s decision, “but she was afraid to go back to Mexico because of her status.” In fact, her mother found a job at General Electric in Milwaukee and eventually married a U.S. citizen, which allowed mother and daughter to be reunited for good in 1977. Cavazos was four years old.

Since then, Cavazos has earned an associate degree in broadcasting, a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and worked in radio broadcasting and sales for several years before being introduced to politics, which she says changed everything. We spoke recently about that change and her subsequent move to Madison where she works alongside Chamber President Mayra Medrano.

IB: How did you become exposed to politics?
My friend, Pedro Colón, was running for the state Legislature and asked me to help with fundraising. It was a success. He became the first Latino elected to the Wisconsin Legislature. Then he suggested I work for Tom Barrett, who was running against Jim Doyle for governor. We lost, but that’s when my life changed.

IB: How so?
I entered politics and went through the Democratic Leadership Institute at a time when Latinos weren’t really on the map politically. I learned how to increase Latino votership. I realized the impact one person could have on society, and that voting matters, and suddenly radio wasn’t my passion anymore. I’ve learned a lot about leadership, communities, disparities, and the difference between the parties all because I was in that realm, and it helped open doors for me.

IB: How did you get to Madison?
When I took this position I was looking for a life change. I had run my own consulting firm for two years but it was difficult with a family.

IB: What are your immediate challenges?
Getting  the Emerging Business Development Center incubator started* an incubator started and planning our Gala, which is coming up Feb. 25. We’re expecting 500 people at the Marriott Madison West, up from about 350 last year.

*The incubator opened in December 2016 and is located at 802 W. Broadway



IB: What other initiatives are you involved in at the Latino Chamber?
We’re involved with the city of Madison on a Healthy Retail Access Program to help deliver healthy food choices to food desert areas. A current obstacle is getting vendors (grocery stores) to sign up. [Low-income] households could order foods online and we’d have 24 hours to deliver it. It’s a beautiful concept but it needs a lot of community and business support. We’re looking for vendors that have the capacity to make these food runs and service these specific communities with a very minimal delivery charge. It’s a very complex project with a lot
of moving parts.

IB: What’s your biggest personal challenge thus far?
Cavazos: Time management. I’m a mom first and foremost. I have an 11-year-old, a five-year-old, and a six-month-old child. Despite that, I really believe this is my year. I’m on top of the world. I feel like everything is part of a symphony right now and blending together to create
the masterpiece. I love Madison!

IB: Is politics in your future?
Maybe. After I get the Latino Chamber to be one of the most impressive in the nation!

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