As a consultant who connects Chattanooga businesses to the Latino community, Angela Garcia serves as a bridge between strangers. However, Garcia does more than facilitate the conveyance of goods and services to a specific market; she also nurtures intention, trust and relationships that transcend commerce to benefit the city in other ways.
A native of Columbia and a 21-year resident of Chattanooga, Garcia is the founder, owner and sole heartbeat of CulturAlly, a business consulting firm she launched in 2021 after doing similar work for her employers for two decades. As the name of her endeavor suggests, she creates allies from distinct cultural entities, such as a local business and a particular group of Latinos.
“Chattanooga’s Latino community has grown tremendously in the last six years,” Garcia says. “We came here for different reasons, though, whether it was a business opportunity, a job opportunity or an educational opportunity, so, we have different needs.”
Unaware of the diversity of the local Latino community, well-intentioned businesses and nonprofits often reach out to Garcia with what they might believe is a simple ask: “Connect us to the Latino community.”
This has been a frequent request during the month leading up to National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15) – a time of year when companies tend to host annual panels or events, or erect vendor booths, in an effort to connect with Latinos.
However, accessing the Latino community is easier said than done, Garcia says, because it’s not a one-size fits all marketing opportunity but an amalgam of distinct cultures from 21 Latin American countries, all of which have their own history, traditions and preferences.
“An organization will say, ‘We need to put together an event for the Latino community, and we need everyone to be there.’ But you need a more specific target because every Latino is not going to come to every event,” Garcia explains. “Even though most Latinos speak the same language, their cultures, their values, the words they use to express things – even their accents – are different depending on their country (of origin). As such, their expectations vary.”
A lack of knowledge about the Latino community does not warrant a scolding, Garcia says, but rather is an opportunity to educate a client about the diversity of interests of the Latino community, which she delivers through training sessions designed to foster cultural competency.
“Most of my clients believe they’re ready to reach the Latino community because they translated a few fliers,” Garcia says. “But they need to understand what the market expects from them once they reach out to it. When the people you’re targeting come to you with questions, are you ready to provide additional support?”
Once Garcia believes her client has achieved this watermark, she moves forward with tailoring the services the business or nonprofit wishes to provide.
Her goal, she says, is to develop programs that are the best fit for her client and will produce optimum engagement with the Latino community. However, instead of reaching wide, she often advises a client to be more precise.
“I ask, ‘Are you reaching out to college students? Business owners? Single mothers?’” Garcia explains. “In this respect, the Latino market is like any other market. It’s not made up of one group of people who are looking for the same service.”
While Garcia is pleased when an organization expresses an interest in connecting with Latinos, she encourages clients to extend their efforts beyond annual events surrounding Hispanic Heritage Month and develop long-term processes, as that is the only way to build the trust, she says.
“It can be hurtful rather than helpful when you reach out to people only once a year. They’ll think, ‘Here they are again, with their yearly message, along with a dozen others who are saying the same thing. Do they want me the rest of the year? Do they need me the rest of the year? Am I a customer the rest of the year?’”
Garcia didn’t ask these questions when she first lived in Chattanooga, she says, because the Latino community was too small to be of consequence to local businesses. It was so diminutive, she adds, that she and her husband had to travel to Atlanta to purchase the groceries they needed to prepare homemade dishes.
However, as the number of local Latinos grew, doors that enabled Garcia to connect Chattanooga businesses to the people who were arriving from Columbia, Argentina, Peru and elsewhere began to open.
The first door opened unexpectedly when the owner of a travel agency met Garcia at the restaurant where she was working as a waitress, learned about her background and then hired her to reach out to local Latinos.
After the agency began advertising in a Spanish newspaper based in Dalton, Garcia developed a relationship with the publication’s sales representative and eventually offered to deliver the paper to local businesses to help it establish ties with the Latino community.
“I became a papergirl,” Garcia, a journalism graduate from Universidad de La Sabana in Columbia, laughs.
Garcia did more than drop off bundles of the latest issue at local businesses; she spoke with the owners, developed a rapport with them and suggested they advertise. Impressed with her enterprising nature and the resulting boost in sales, the publication hired Garcia as a sales representative.
Four years later, the Times Free Press pilfered Garcia from the Dalton publication as it struggled to launch a Spanish newspaper. She says her background and years of interacting with local Latino businesses provided the publication with the key to its success: trust.
“The Times Free Press was not immersed in the Latino community, so there was no trust. There’s apprehension and hesitancy when someone you don’t know comes in. Hiring me gave the paper what it needed.”
Garcia had not obtained the trust of local Latinos overnight; like the Dalton publication and the Times Free Press, she was a newcomer when she first began introducing herself to business owners and other organizations. However, her consistent efforts and willingness to embrace the different cultures that make up the Latino community opened arms that welcomed her.
“Immersing myself in the Mexican community in Dalton was not easy,” Garcia offers as an example. “Even though Columbians and Mexicans speak the same language, I had to learn about their culture and adapt.”
The arrival of Volkswagen in Chattanooga led to significant growth in the number of local Latinos, Garcia says, and the Times Free Press publication, Noticias Libres, flourished.
Meanwhile, Garcia formed countless additional partnerships as she reached out to businesses for content. One of these affiliations was with Coca-Cola UNITED. As Garcia had done in the past, she worked with the leadership at the company to develop strategies for accessing the Latino market. She says they “built something beautiful” together.
“I would visit stores with the marketing director to help the company establish trust with the businesses. Then Coca-Cola would follow up and a relationship would form. Seeing both communities make an effort to learn about and understand each others culture, even though they didn’t speak the same language, was amazing.”
In a familiar turn of events, Coca-Cola hired Garcia to serve as its account manager for the Latino market in Chattanooga. She worked for the company from 2016-2019, when she resigned and joined La Paz to spearhead the nonprofit’s business development branch, Compañía.
Searching for more flexibility in her schedule – she and her husband have three children – she resigned from her position at La Paz in 2021 and formed CulturAlly.
“I was going to clean my closets and drawers, but then the partners I’d acquired over the years started to call. I knew what my passion was, but I’d always worked for someone else. I asked myself, ‘Am I ready to do this on my own?’”
Garcia was. She’s currently working out of an office on Dayton Boulevard, where she continues to help local businesses form ties with what many Chattanoogans refer to as the Latino community, but what she’s learned is an amalgam of distinct cultures from 21 countries, all of which have their own history, traditions and preferences.
As Garcia looks ahead to Spanish Heritage Month, she urges local business to be intentional in their outreach.
“Learn about the diversity of the Latino community and the different needs and expectations. Create programming that reaches out to the community all year. And built trust. Only then will you see the incredible value of the Latino community in Chattanooga and how it can help to build a more inclusive city.”