When Maria Monreal-Cameron was hired in 1989 to lead the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin, the organization had very little money, made little impact on the community and had very few members.

Today, the Hispanic chamber has 700 members and operates in a $2.1 million headquarters at 1021 W. National Ave. on Milwaukee’s south side.

The turnaround and development of the Hispanic chamber has been a long and committed process for Monreal-Cameron.

Along the way, she has provided guidance to countless Hispanic business people in Wisconsin. Those business leaders are comforted by her congenial personality – she seldom gets through a conversation without calling her subject “sweetie” or “hon.”

Monreal-Cameron’s engaging style also has been a weapon to open doors for Wisconsin’s Latino community.

“I do not want anyone to think that this road has been an easy one for me,” she said. “I worked many long days, but it has been so rewarding, and I am so grateful that I have been able to give back to my community.”

Monreal-Cameron was the ninth of 13 children born to Mexican immigrants who came to Milwaukee from Enis, Texas.

“That ranking in my family is significant,” Monreal-Cameron said. “Being the first girl after so many brothers, I had to be tough and stand up for myself. I learned how to help my mother and maternal grandmother with the cooking and the cleaning at a very young age. It instilled in us a very hard work ethic and our never-quit attitude.”

According to Monreal-Cameron, her mother also made sure all of her children applied themselves diligently in language, history and government classes at their schools.

“She made sure that we never forgot where we came from, but while we were in school, we spoke English and learned the history of this country – of our country,” Monreal-Cameron said.

After high school, Monreal-Cameron worked as a payroll clerk and helped out with her family’s restaurant. She later married attorney Edward Cameron, and for the next 17 years, she raised six children as a stay-at-home mom.

“Our children are by far our greatest accomplishment; we have two sons who are physicians, two daughters with nursing degrees, a daughter with a law degree and a son who is with the U.S. Department of Defense,” she said.

Once the children were grown up, Monreal-Cameron was hired to lead the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin.

Monreal-Cameron has dedicated her energy to providing Wisconsin’s Hispanic community with expanded opportunities in commerce, education and employment. The HCCW provides educational and technical resources for startup and Hispanic-owned businesses, and also promotes a network for political issues and community affairs.

Since Monreal-Cameron has been at the helm, the chamber has been recognized as the Regional Large Hispanic Chamber of the Year every year for the past 13 years. The chamber also earned recognition as the 2005 National Large Hispanic Chamber of Commerce from the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The national organization also named Cameron its Region IV Executive of the Year in 2008.

Under her leadership, the Wisconsin chamber secured funding to build its headquarters, and the organization also formed the HCCW Education Fund/Philip Arreola Scholarship Program, which has invested nearly $500,000 for area adults entering or completing undergraduate studies.

“Certainly providing an anchor in this community was very important to me,” Monreal-Cameron said. “Year after year, we have been able to assist the future generations of college-bound Hispanics, and that is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I have always believed that education is the great equalizer, the key to being able to unlock that next opportunity.”

Along the way, Monreal-Cameron has earned the respect of her peers.

Nancy Hernandez, president of Abrazo multicultural marketing & communication in Milwaukee, has served on the chamber board for seven years.

“Maria has done wonders to elevate the issue of Hispanic-owned businesses in this community. The chamber itself is what it is today because of her passion and her perseverance. It has benefited from her smarts, her expertise and her political savvy. She does it because of her love for that neighborhood, and her love for the people. She just has an incredible passion and desire to help the community,” Hernandez said.

Ruta Bastos, who recently moved to Milwaukee to serve as senior vice president retail director for the central region at Associated Bank, immediately reached out to Monreal-Cameron.

“I have been involved in the Hispanic chamber in other parts of the country. Maria and this chamber are really renowned in other parts of the country because of her work. She has really done some amazing things. Her membership is higher than a lot of other major cities across the country. I was very fortunate, I reached out to Maria, and she took the time to welcome me and was very inviting, and I knew right away this was an organization that I wanted to be a part of,” said Bastos, who is now a member of the Wisconsin chamber’s board.

“We have been afforded the good fortune to stand on the shoulders of giants,” Monreal-Cameron said. “This is not a one-woman show. I’ve been assisted, encouraged and blessed with outstanding support. Our slogan, Adelente Juntos (Forward Together), reflects that support. I am grateful for the past, proud of the present and optimistic for the future.”

BizTimes recently interviewed Monreal-Cameron to reflect on her journey as a pionera (pioneer) for Wisconsin’s Hispanic business community. The following are excerpts from that interview.

BizTimes: When you started, did you have any inkling that the chamber would grow to be so successful?

Monreal-Cameron: “If somebody would have said to me, ‘Fast forward 19 years, and you are going to be strong on everybody’s radar screen; you are going to be sitting in your own $2.1 million facility; your membership is going to be at 700; your organization is going to be highly regarded, and highly sought after; and you are going to be at the top of your game;’ I would have laughed at them, because in 1989, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together. It’s amazing to me. It’s like a dream. It’s surreal to recognize that this chamber has attained the measure of success that it has. There were some lean, lean years there to start off with. We weren’t financially sound, we had one public subsidy of $20,000 and membership was very, very low.”

BizTimes: What have been the driving factors behind the chamber’s growth?

Monreal-Cameron: “I have been guided by a few principles. First, dedication, discipline and determination have been instilled in me from my loving parents, maternal grandmother, and the family I grew up in. There are things in my life that I have always tried to adhere to, which I think every good leader should have. Those things for me include: character, which to me encompasses honesty and integrity and being a good all-around moral person; competence, certainly not only intelligence but a healthy dose of good common sense; compassion, I think that a leader should never lose the humility and the sincerity within them; and they must have a community-minded approach to everything. To me, those are very important and encompass a heck of a lot, and being guided by those principles has absolutely contributed to our success. I believe that success has nothing to do with luck. I think that success is earned. It should never be viewed as an entitlement.”

BizTimes: As you look back, what are you most proud of?

Monreal-Cameron: “Certainly the reputation of this organization is something that we work daily to maintain. We have many accomplishments under our belt. We have won the respect and the regard of people in our community and have earned our reputation. One of my greatest accomplishments certainly is being awarded an honorary doctrine from Cardinal Stritch University, but for the organization, a great accomplishment would be getting the opportunity to host the national convention in 2005 and thrusting the spotlight on Milwaukee, Wis. To date, the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce National Convention and Business Expo that we hosted here is the most profitable, the best-attended and had the most exhibitors in its history. To us, it was an incredible opportunity to highlight Milwaukee, Wis., and put to rest the misconception that there is no Mexican-American population here. It was our opportunity to say, ‘Yes we are here, and we are an integral part of the state’s economy, and we are succeeding in many, many areas.’ Constructing this anchor in the Spanish community is an incredible accomplishment for us.”

BizTimes: You had plans to retire relatively soon. Those plans have been put on hold now. Why is that?

Monreal-Cameron: “Those plans have been put on hold mainly because of the economic crisis. My financial advisor has advised me, and I have lost money in my 401(k) and my annuities. It has everything to do with the financial aspects of my life. However, it is certainly still on the burner, in the not-too-distant future. I do intend to retire, not from the community and not from the workforce, but certainly from the demanding schedule I have kept for the last 19 years. I am anxious to hand the torch off to another. I always think that sitting at the helm of a nonprofit organization for too long is a mistake. I think that we all have a responsibility to hand the torch over to somebody who can run faster, who can hold it higher – somebody with more energy and greater vision that can take the organization to the next level.”

BizTimes: What are some of the qualities that you would choose for your successor?

Monreal-Cameron: “Everybody is guided by a different set of traits, but I think certainly never forgetting the mission of this organization is very important. A true leader is unselfish and earns respect. A true leader knows the way, goes the way and shows the way. To become a leader does not require exceptional intelligence, but it does require exceptional commitment. A leader never really takes credit, but somehow that credit never leaves them. I would expect him or her to be driven, to be a visionary, to have enough guts to create and shape the future, to be passionate and to take that passion when challenges confront them. Leaders have a special ability to make others think listen and act.”

BizTimes: When the time does come for you to step down, will you be involved in the selection of your successor?

Monreal-Cameron: “I hope to take an active role in the selection process. To me, that is very, very important. However, when the time comes for me to step aside, I hope that my style at the helm, my passion and my commitment to the upward mobility of my community are things that will be remembered. I will pass the torch with my head held high and with immense pride of the legacy that I leave behind.”

BizTimes: For awhile, you were one of the few Mexican-American women to lead a Milwaukee organization. Tell me about your perception of local Latinas needing to step up and take more leadership roles.

Monreal-Cameron: “This community needs a strong emergence of Latina leadership, high-profile Latinas who dare to come out of their comfort zones in order to be a high-profile face of an organization or of a movement. To me, it’s very, very important. There aren’t enough of us. The female leadership of any urban community is very important to me. I take it as a personal campaign, if nothing else. There needs to be more Latinas that dare to take risks, that want to act courageously, that are going to be motivated, encouraged and inspired to take leadership roles in our community. As I speak to you, those Latina leaders have just recently received degrees, they are in college.”

BizTimes: Where do you stand personally on the issue of illegal immigration?

Monreal-Cameron: “I think that there should be a well-thought-out reform. I truly think that both of the parties should come together and discuss it so that there is a comprehensive reform. It is absurd to think that Hispanic Americans want the borders open. We don’t. We know that there has to be guidelines and restrictions. We understand that. To think that we are going to deport millions of undocumented is also absurd. There has to be a way for there to be a guest worker program, because we owe the undocumented a lot. People say they take away jobs, but no, they do the jobs that nobody else wants to do. Their hard work ethic precedes them. To me, I think that the undocumented person should be treated with dignity and respect. I truly believe that the influential reformers have to take it piece-by-piece and make sure we come up with very sound humane approaches to the problem. When I look at it and I see the mean spiritedness that is so evident when talking about this issue, I have to say, ‘Ok, let’s look at it with a common sense approach; let’s talk about it and get more people involved.’ You have to understand what the issue is thoroughly before you can enact and enforce a law. Hopefully it will be resolved in the next five years, so that we have some guidelines to adhere to.”

BizTimes: What is the single largest obstacle to Latinos starting and growing their own business in Wisconsin? Has the recession impacted them differently?

Monreal-Cameron: “It’s always been access to capital, and although we have worked very hard with numerous financial institutions to help secure that capital, that still seems to be the pressing issue. In order to educate our members, we have orientation classes on an ongoing basis where we show them what exactly is needed in order to start a successful business enterprise. The economy is hurting all of us, and so of course you are going to see an impact here as well. Certainly the smaller companies are more in jeopardy than the larger ones. There are going to be difficult times ahead, and the turnaround is not going to come quickly. But as always, this community is always optimistic and has always been very resourceful in keeping afloat.”

BizTimes: What are you member companies saying about the recession?

Monreal-Cameron: “Well, my contractors are trying very hard to pursue opportunities in public and private projects, and they are trying very hard to keep their companies afloat. But construction has taken a hit. Many projects are on hold, and the picture certainly looks grim. But again, my Hispanic business owners have always been resourceful and certainly determined, disciplined and dedicated to hanging on. With those three guiding principles, they will survive. Because of our culture, that entrepreneurial spirit is never going to die. It’s always going to be alive.”

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