Above Photo: Osvaldo “Ozzie” Gonzalez has joined LatinoBuilt as its new executive director. In his new role, Gonzalez will help the trade association in its mission to provide advocacy and support for Latino-owned companies in the building industry. – PMG PHOTO: STEPHANIE BASALYGA
Osvaldo “Ozzie” González has worn more than a few hats in his professional life. He started out in environmental science in California and then earned a master’s degree in architecture and made his way to Oregon.
From his early days as a kid salvaging cardboard and scraps of metal from dumpsters outside apartment buildings, which he brought to the recycling center in his neighborhood to earn candy bar money, he developed into an early advocate of sustainability and helped develop the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) industrial program. He has provided consulting to help small businesses green up their operations and assisted large construction companies in incorporating diversity, equity and inclusion in their cultures and on their project sites.
Now, González is stepping into a new role as executive director of both LatinoBuilt, a Portland-metro-based trade association that supports and empowers Latino-owned construction businesses in Oregon, and the nonprofit LatinoBuilt Foundation. The role, he says, offers the perfect place to bring together his wide range of skills and experience. He recently sat down with Opportunity Magazine to talk about his plans for helping move the organization and its members to the next level.
Opportunity: You have had an interesting career path. Was becoming an executive director of a nonprofit a deliberate part of that journey?
O.G.: I don’t really plan my life that way. I have a very clear purpose to leave this world better than I found it and to apply my skills to the greatest extent possible. That includes putting myself in a place where I can be impactful. Much of what I’ve found my way into has been out of that premise. I chase impact — not income, not title and not recognition.
Joining LatinoBuilt, it felt like the organization … needed to be able to take advantage of the opportunity that all the partners are asking LatinoBuilt to become. It needs to become this bridge builder and this asset to the small businesses. I saw an organization that was on the precipice of being there; it was starting to get that lens and I saw it really needed to start gelling fast.
For me, I saw myself staying engaged as an advocate for our industry, I saw myself being involved in trying to bring opportunities … but it wasn’t necessarily my plan to come and step into this role. It’s been my plan to help advance Oregon. I want to help this region continue to be wonderful despite the fact we’ve got growth pressures. I want … my neighborhood, my community, my Spanish-speaking community to step into the light of recognition because we are here, we’ve been here for decades and yet, we’re still explaining where we’re from.
We exist in all industries throughout the state in essential places and yet we’re so easily dismissed in the psyche of what’s going on and who’s who in this region. I always saw myself as trying to put myself in places where I can live out loud and represent my community — even though I might be the only brown face in the room, at least to be able to surprise some people and say, ‘Hey, we can also do this and speak on these matters.’
Right now, this job is about helping … bring the (Latino-owned) businesses that are here in Oregon into the light further.
I’ve jumped into that pool of light, I’ve seen it, I’ve been sunburned a little bit, and I’ve come back a little wiser. But I’ve been there, and I think I can bring some folks to it. The way I describe it to my colleagues … is, I say it’s time to dive into the deep end of the pool. We’ve been here swimming around the shallow end of the pool for a while. We’ve stepped into this country, we’re operating in all facets of society here, but just up to a point. It’s time we start letting ourselves live out loud, show our presence, show our contributions. We have so much to share, good food, good parties, good people, good attitudes, good households. … I think us being a part of society in a fuller way is part of what I’m trying to bring our members to do. I’m trying to do it by example.
Opportunity: You officially stepped into the Executive Director role on July 1. What are the top couple of items on your to-do list?
O.G.: I want to meet our partners. I want to really reinforce the partnerships we have in place, and I want to activate those partnerships beyond ‘you’re a member and your logo is on our website.’ I want to really start activating those partnerships with regards to how we bring value to the partner and to our members. It’s going to mean I’ll be talking to agencies and to general contractors and some developers.
The other side is going to be to stabilize the structure of the LatinoBuilt Foundation. Right now, we have a young foundation with a working board that has, by and large, been carrying the weight of just trying to keep the lights on. We now have a staff. …We have a board that’s a working board. Many of them are first-time participants on a board. That means there’s going to be some board development, helping them operate as a board, really leveraging the best use of their knowledge, their networks so that we can take on more of the day to day carrying of the water as bring up the capacity of staff. So, developing and diversifying the board … it’s important to stabilize that structural part of the organization.
The other part is what I call crystalizing what we want to be the best at, what our value proposition is to members, what our North Star is that will help us understand what we need to focus on, maybe allow us to understand what’s not in our purview. I want us all looking in the same direction. To me, it’s pretty straightforward. We exist to help the Latino businesses in Oregon to get more contracts and to benefit from those contracts. So, whatever we do inside of that is why we exist. Our partners are here because they want to give our members those contracts. Our members are here because they see the opportunity to grow their business and they see a support system. LatinoBuilt is committed to deliver on that.
LatinoBuilt holds a training class in its new office space in Beaverton. – COURTESY LATINOBUILT
LATINOBUILT Board of Directors:
• Rosa Martinez, PMG Abatement — President
• Hugo Zavala, Zavala Corp. — Vice President
• Berenice Lopez, H.E.L.P. Group — Treasurer
• Jennie Rodriguez, Twirl Advertising & Design — Secretary
• Gilberto Leon, Bridgeport Interiors
• Alejandro Guerra, My Oregon Painting Inc.
• Lina Garcia Seabold, GSI Builder Inc.
Opportunity: Describe the role LatinoBuilt fills in providing that support system to the Latino-owned companies, the minority business enterprises (MBEs) that make up its membership
O.G.: It’s set up to be a support system and an extension to the public agencies, as well as an advocate so that the agencies themselves can understand what they can be doing differently. It begins with the basics of having someone on the other end of a phone number or at a desk that can speak Spanish. Sometimes it comes in the form of putting some of (an agency’s) content or outreach materials in Spanish. Sometimes it’s having the ability to sit down and troubleshoot a project where one of our members is struggling with something and they don’t quite know how to navigate that request with the project manager – being able to just have that interface in a trusted space is something we help with.
Opportunity: And do you see part of your role with LatinoBuilt as helping the agencies figure out how to become more user-friendly?
O.G.: Absolutely. That’s the advocacy side. I’ve got a stack of policy notes in my briefcase about a (local public) project – a real world example (with one of our members). … There’s been an award. They’ve done the dance. They’ve agreed on the number and now they’re looking at a thick contract and they’re freaked out about whether it’s good or bad for their business to sign it. They have very real reasons to be concerned (about being able to comply with diversity and apprenticeship requirements inconsistent with what an MBE can provide). Part of this is (LatinoBuilt) working with them to make sure they understand the support systems they have, helping them build some level of comfort with it. But I can only give them as much comfort as I am able to have in the agencies themselves.
So, the other part is going to the agency and saying, ‘Here’s what’s holding them back. What do you have to say to an MBE with a minority staff that is concerned about their ability to comply with your workforce diversity requirements? Because as written, none of those minorities count in your system.’
This goes back to what I call institutional racism and the structural barriers we face. What the (MBE is) learning is not the thing we want them to learn — they’re learning (work with public agencies) isn’t worth it. I tell the agencies the most dangerous contract a subcontractor can have right now are the ones you guys are offering MBEs. They’re right between $95,000 to $150,000, they’re right on the cusp of the apprenticeship requirement threshold and some of them might straddle that line not knowing if they need them to comply.
Opportunity: So, LatinoBuilt helps public agencies understand the unique challenges that small businesses with just a handful of employees face and why a one-size-fits-all approach with requirements and contracts doesn’t work for MBEs. Are there any other main challenges facing your members?
O.G.: Cash flow. The basic one you hear all the time, the one you’re going to hear from all the nonprofits, the one that affects MBEs across the board is cash flow — access to capital. I need to be able to pay my workers and you’re taking 90 days to pay my invoice. I don’t have 90 days to float my entire operation.
Opportunity: With your addition to the staff, you now have five employees, a summer intern and 180 members. Do you see the organization expanding in the future?
O.G.: The organization is going to grow because it needs to. The main focus right now is on growth management — how to grow our folks knowing they’re probably going to have to grow some folks behind them.
Opportunity: Advocating for greater social sustainability in the building industry at large is clearly critical for the growth and success of LatinoBuilt members and their businesses. What roles does environmental sustainability play?
O.G.: That’s the magic sauce. To me, the magic sauce is not waiting to do one after we’ve done the other, not trying to diversity the workforce and then green the workforce. We’re going to bring a diverse green workforce to play, right away.
I’m seeing this as an opportunity to open the playing field of how you get career pathways made available. We have a chance to create new career pathways and they don’t have to start in English and then be made in Spanish five years later. We start making them, we start creating them. It really comes down to filling a need in the most lean, agile way possible and growing and scaling it.
We’re looking at the next of (Portland Clean Energy Fund) funding to start developing training programs for the green industry jobs. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, so part of this is translating what’s already out there in English into Spanish and making it more accessible to members and attracting those members into pipelines. The other part is rolling up our sleeves and trying to figure out what doesn’t exist that we can create, that we can plug LatinoBuilt members into right out of the gate.
Opportunity: Something people may not know about you is that you’re an artist. You write poetry and perform music. You’re also an accomplished actor.
O.G.: I’ve done a lot of things in my life, left brain, right brain. I’ve often said architecture and environmental science got me in the door, but it’s acting that pays my bills. … It’s one thing to have an idea, but to make it come to life, you have to rally groups, you have to inspire, you have to be able to communicate.
Opportunity: Where would you like to see LatinoBuilt five years from now?
O.G.: Five years from now, it will be larger. I’d like to see us expand our reach to collaborating beyond the state of Oregon. I would like to see LatinoBuilt engaged in the conversation about how we’re going to tap the workforce that’s in Oregon … (and) in the U.S. that’s undocumented, because this is not a state-by-state conversation. There are a lot of folks who are operating today, they have assets, they even have debts, they have offspring and they’re in the industry and yet they’re not allowed to participate. You can do everything (except) work on federal projects.
To me, it’s a big enough number that our industry should figure out a way. We have programs in our history books about what we’ve done when we’ve really needed workers in an area. We have an opportunity to write another chapter that looks very different in that storyline. I think there’s motivation on the side of our U.S. government to figure out how to really enable people that are willing to work, to work — especially if they are willing to contribute to society more fully.
Opportunity: And where would you like to see LatinoBuilt’s members five years from now?
O.G.: I would like to see some Latino-owned firms that are members today competing for prime contracts in the horizontal and in the vertical work on our state. I want to see general contractors and I know it’s a journey to get them there. They’ve got to be willing. I want to have at least one in each of the different market sectors that we’re building pipelines for: affordable housing, schools, libraries, courthouses and public office buildings.
I’d love to see the Latino contractors participating more fully. I’d love to see them doing their own events and outreach events for subcontractors.