‘Building Bridges’ to Economic Prosperity for Virginia’s Hispanic Community

Interview with Virginia Hispanic Chamber CEO and Founder Michel Zajur

“Building economic bridges” is the main goal of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Hispanic Foundation, according to Michel Zajur, founder and CEO of both organizations.

“We build bridges, not only for the Hispanic community but to and from the community. We serve businesses that want to reach this market. We help a lot of corporations develop their workforces — a Latino workforce,” Zajur said in an interview with the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. “We help them with language and cultural barriers, reaching back and forth with this community. We help them with procurement, and we help them with community engagement by reaching out and making those connections.”

Founded in 2000, the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (VAHCC) works with the state’s Hispanic businesses and the community at large to create, promote, and enhance business opportunities for its members and partners. Through its network, the Chamber serves as the voice for over 30,000 Hispanic-owned Virginia businesses.

“The Chamber provides a great opportunity for people to learn the culture of, and to support Latino-owned businesses,” Zajur said. “The Latino businesses provide many contributions to our society, to our economy — and to our country.”

National Hispanic Heritage Month

To celebrate National Hispanic Heritage month, the Chamber hosts many events and activities, culminating with an annual Hispanic Gala on November 3 to showcase the culture.

“It’s about making that connection and really getting people to understand the rich Latino culture and the opportunities that we have here in Northern Virginia,” Zajur explained. “The Hispanic community in the Greater Washington area is one of the largest, and it’s probably one of the most affluent, not only in the United States–but in the world.”

Currently, the Chamber is hosting Restaurante Week, through October 18. Restaurante Week is a celebration of Latin Cuisine where people can try the many different types of flavors that make up the diverse world of Latin Cuisine. Click here to see the participating restaurants in Northern Virginia and throughout the state.

Focus on collaboration

With offices in Fairfax County, Virginia Beach and Richmond, the VAHCC works with the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as agencies and organizations across the state.

“But I think nowhere else have we had a better relationship than with Fairfax County,” Zajur said. “We work really closely with Fairfax, specifically the Fairfax Economic Development Authority.”

The VAHCC is a member of the Multi-Cultural Chamber Alliance, along with the Asian American Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce.

Co-located in the same office suite in Tysons, the three Chambers have long histories of mutual commitments to encouraging and sustaining minority-owned businesses in Fairfax County.

Their collaboration was officially reaffirmed in 2018 when the three Chambers signed a Memorandum of Understanding to demonstrate their commitment to the growth and development of diversely-owned businesses in the region. The ceremony, attended by more than 40 officials and representatives of the area business community, took place at Fairfax County Economic Development Authority headquarters in Tysons. The signing went beyond commitments in an earlier MOU, creating the Multi-Cultural Chambers Alliance with additional levels of cooperation and collaboration agreed to by all parties.

“With the Multicultural Chamber Alliance, we share and we work together. We have a lot of things in common, yet differences in terms of culture and language. But we have a lot of similarities. So we work together and we put on several events together,” Zajur said. “It’s a very unique partnership. And it’s because of Fairfax County EDA that we formed this partnership.”

Virginia Hispanic Foundation

Working in tandem with Chamber, the Virginia Hispanic Chamber Foundation (VAHF) focuses on some of the issues facing the Hispanic population in Virginia. As the 501(c)(3) non-profit affiliate of the Chamber, the VAHF was established in 2003 to provide the Hispanic community with education and information to successfully integrate themselves into the Commonwealth of Virginia, Zajur said. Together, the Chamber and Foundation play a role in over 150 events and workshops throughout the year to promote growth, visibility, and credibility for its members, Hispanic businesses, and the community at large.

The Foundation’s core programs include:

  • ​The Pasaporte A La Educación Initiative prepares Hispanic students to become leaders through mentoring, bilingual leadership lessons, pathways to higher education, and other resources.
  • The Business Center provides bilingual counseling/educational workshops to individuals interested in starting/growing their business.
  • TrabajaVA helps match regional employers with Hispanic job seekers.
  • Legal Aid Clinics helping low-income individuals with Immigration and Civil issues.

The Foundation works with Fairfax County Public Schools with a program to help address the dropout rate within the community. “Fairfax County has a large dropout rate among Latino students and really across the country,” Zajur noted. “And this is the future workforce. So we have a program because what we try to do through the Chamber in the foundation is solve problems.”

Referring to both the Chamber and Foundation, Zajur commented: “I think as organizations, we pull members and partners together to solve problems, to build this community. And I think that we are real catalysts at that.”

Roots to founding the Chamber 

The genesis of the idea for launching the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the first ethnic Chamber of this type in the Commonwealth of Virginia, began more than 50 years ago, according to Zajur. Originally from Mexico, Zajur’s family moved here when he was very young. His parents didn’t speak English at that time, Zajur explained, so he and his siblings were their translators.

“I specifically remember one person that helped my father and my mother start their first business,” Zajur recalled. “If it wasn’t for him then they would not have been able to start their first business. I think this is what I kind of modeled this Chamber after.

But it was by running a restaurant in Richmond for 30 years that led him to launch the Chamber.

“The restaurant, La Siesta, became an institution. It was a gathering place where Latinos would come for information. Back in that time, there weren’t many resources there to help this community. And so the restaurant became a sort-of hub for the Latino community,” Zajur said.

At the restaurant, Zajur started a program at the restaurant for children to learn Spanish language and Hispanic culture. More than 100,000 children visited the restaurants on field trips, he said.

“We did the first Cinco de Mayo event in the parking lot – and nobody even at that time knew what Cinco de Mayo was,” Zajur said. “And someone came to me and said: ‘you ought to start a Chamber.’ I gathered with a group and in turn started the Chamber. And now it’s statewide. We have been doing this for more than 22 years.”

In 2000, Zajur and his wife Lisa decided to devote 100 percent of their time to the community and starting the Virginia Hispanic Chamber and subsequently the Virginia Hispanic Foundation.

“I think the whole idea of starting the Chamber was a way to Pay it Forward, to help people come up the ladder of success — and to give back,” Zajur said.