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On Leadership: Latino community’s importance to Iowa’s economic future highlighted in recent report


As Iowa businesses confront a shrinking workforce, many leaders are wondering where to turn for talent. One particular population in Iowa may provide an answer for the future: the Latino community. 


Since Latino Heritage Month begins on Sept. 15, it is an ideal time for business leaders to increase awareness of this community. A recently released report called Nuestro Iowa (Our Iowa) compiled by a nascent group called the Iowa Latinx Project provides an opportunity for learning about how the Latino community can play a vital role in our state’s workforce and economic future. 


“The future of Iowa becomes more and more dependent on Latinos every day,” said Rob Barron, one of the project’s founders. Last year Barron, executive director of Iowa and Minnesota Campus Compact and founder of the Latino Political Network, teamed up with Al Éxito executive director Dawn Martinez Oropeza, Alejandro Hernandez, dean of the College of Business and Public Administration at Drake University, and Erica Johnson, executive director of Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, to explore how they could compile data and information to highlight and advocate for the collective impact of Latino communities. 


Latinx Project working group formed. Barron, Martinez Oropeza, Hernandez and Johnson assembled a small working group of Latino individuals of various ages from a wide range of industries and professions. With funding support from the Community Foundation of Des Moines, United Way of Central Iowa, the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation and Delta Dental of Iowa, the group commissioned a study to examine the statistics and personal experiences of Latinos in Central Iowa. The research looked at seven counties: six in the Des Moines metropolitan region (Dallas, Guthrie, Jasper, Madison, Polk and Warren counties) and adjacent Marshall County, added because of its large Latino population and proximity to the metro. The resulting statistics and quotes informed the Nuestro Iowa report, which offers a comprehensive picture of the Latino experience in Central Iowa.  


Economic data key to the business community. Hernandez said gathering economic data to inform the business community was a priority from the beginning. “Advancing the business community’s understanding of the issues surrounding Iowa’s largest ethnic group — with the goal of improving the conditions of our community — has significant implications for our region’s economic prosperity,” he said.


Several findings of the Nuestro Iowa report are particularly notable to the business community:

  • The Latinx community in the metro has grown 13-fold since 1969. In the next 25 years, the community is estimated to grow over 128%, making up 13.4% of the metro, versus an anticipated 17% growth rate for the rest of the metro population. 
  • The approximately 22,000 Latino workers in the region collectively earn roughly $1 billion in annual income. 
  • There are more than 1,500 Latino businesses in Des Moines generating nearly $160 million in annual revenue. 
  • While significant disparities exist in income, poverty, homeownership, education and health, closing these gaps would mean an additional billion dollars earned annually, 6,800 fewer residents in poverty and 3,100 more homeowners.
  • These and other Nuestro Iowa data make the case that Latinos contribute significantly to our economy and will by far be the predominant driver of population growth in the overall metro. 

The report also highlights how the younger Latinx population can play a pivotal role in our future. “The Latino population in Iowa is now more than 200,000 for the first time ever, and employers should take note of the fact that the median age of the Latino population is 15 years younger than the rest of the state,” said Barron, adding that across the state there are decidedly more Latina and Latino youths in Iowa’s schools than in our workforce. Baron emphasizes, “Their future is Iowa’s future and we need to pay special attention to what they need to thrive.”


Project team member Kenia Calderon Ceron, vice president and bilingual business development director at Green State Credit Union, agrees. “Iowa has an ambitious and innovative emerging Latino generation,” said Calderon Ceron, who points out that the Latino community represents an untapped pool of business professionals. She notes that young Latino folks who are growing up in Iowa need access to financial services and education to become established if they are to stay here.  


Next steps for the Latinx Project. The Nuestro Iowa report was an important first step in a larger strategy that is now being formed. The small team who worked on the study is now in the process of initial outreach to stakeholders to gain feedback, and a statewide study is being explored to provide more comprehensive data. The longer-term goal is to expand the team to include statewide leaders from across industries and walks of life to develop a comprehensive plan to strengthen the Latinx community for the future. 


“The Iowa Latinx Project’s mission is to accelerate Latinx collective impact by advancing representation, nurturing community development, and fostering intercultural understanding through research and collaborations,” Martinez Oropeza said. She says it will take time to bring the right people to the table, including younger leaders, and that the group is committed to working collaboratively with other groups committed to diversity, equity and inclusivity.


“It is crucial that influential Latino leaders are empowered and elevated in the project and integrated more into the greater community,” she said. “Leveraging our network of empowered leaders will amplify Latino success, vital to true inclusive businesses and community.”


Members of the initial team are enthusiastic about the potential for the report to springboard into a comprehensive strategy to advance the Latino community. “As the biggest and fastest growing minority group in the metro, this is just the beginning of what’s possible,” said Latinx project member Jorge “Junior” Ibarra, team leader and co-founder of the Ibarra Realty Group at Keller Williams.


An invitation. Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of participating on the Latinx Project team. Not only have I met new and younger Latinx leaders from our area, I’ve been struck by the powerful potential of our community to the future of Iowa’s economy. During Latino Heritage Month, I invite you to read the Nuestro Iowa report, and to explore the rich tapestry of cultural offerings our state has to offer.

Des Moines Area Latino Heritage Month Highlights

Lifting up Latino entrepreneurs: Business leaders to talk about opportunities, barriers

Sept. 20, noon – 1 p.m. 

Hola Iowa and the Business Record are partnering to produce a panel discussion with Des Moines-area Latino business owners. In the discussion, we will hear their stories about entrepreneurship as they talk about the opportunities and barriers they’ve come across. Attendees can both learn entrepreneurial lessons from the leaders and have a better understanding of how to lend support specific to the needs of the Latino community. bit.ly/3Dke5me 


Iowa’s Latino Heritage Festival

Sept. 24-25, Western Gateway Park

Iowa’s Latino Heritage Festival is the only two-day Latino Heritage festival in the state. There is something for everyone during the action-packed weekend in #DesMoines. www.latinoheritagefestival.org


Iowa Latino Hall of Fame

Oct. 15 at 5:30 pm, Des Moines Art Center

The Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs and the Iowa Department of Human Rights will induct six Iowans into the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame. bit.ly/3RDtNgF 

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