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Norwalk Realtor unites Hispanic professionals in business group

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Mariella Castagnet lived in Norwalk for 24 years, but never recognized her lack of connection to the city’s business community until she changed careers in 2014.

“I sold cars in Greenwich,” she said. “I became a Realtor three years ago and I realized that I never had a chance to interact locally — I didn’t have any connections.”

The Uruguayan-born Castagnet discovered that she was not alone when it came to local entrepreneurs of Hispanic heritage having few connections with the Norwalk business community and with other Hispanic professionals. Seeking to fill that void for herself and many of her peers, Castagnet spearheaded an effort to create the Greater Norwalk Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GNHCC), which officially launched on March 31, 2015. 

Castagnet, who took on the role of president, was heartened by the rapid growth of this new organization.

“In our first meeting, we had 50 people,” she recalled. “Now we have over 400 members. We have lawyers, insurance agents, dentists, medical professionals, mortgage brokers, financial planners, construction company owners — a full gamut.”

The GNHCC membership includes an introductory free one-year Entrepreneur Level for freelancers with no employees and either a home or virtual office; the annual membership fee for this level is $175 at the end of the first year. The chamber also offers companies and professionals a Business Basic membership at a $300 annual fee and a Business Plus level with a $420 annual fee. Both levels provide various discounts for advertising and promotional opportunities on the chamber’s website and at its special events.

Despite its name, Castagnet positioned the group as welcoming businesspersons and professionals of all ethnic backgrounds. “My idea was to build a bridge between non-Hispanics and Hispanics,” she said, noting that member companies in the GNHCC include First County Bank, the Center for Vein Restoration and AFC Urgent Care. “One of our biggest fans is Mayor Harry Rilling. He always attends our events.”

Castagnet coordinates the chamber’s events, which primarily focus on the challenges of starting and maintaining a business. Guest speakers range from retired volunteers from the SCORE program to attorneys and financial experts who detail the legal and tax considerations connected to being a business owner. 

Castagnet was happily surprised at the level of entrepreneurship within the local Hispanic community, particularly among immigrants who never considered that career option when they first arrived in this country. But she also realized that many would-be entrepreneurs might mistakenly believe that their occupational skill set can automatically elevate them to becoming their own boss.

“A lot of people may think they can run a restaurant just because they know how to cook,” she said. “Just because you are a chef doesn’t mean that you have a business mentality.”

Castagnet also uses the GNHCC to emphasize the importance of proficiency in English when it comes to filling out permits and filing legal documents. The organization teams with the South Norwalk Community Center to hold classes for current and potential business professionals to strengthen their language skills. And Castagnet also points to English fluency as a core requirement for any noncitizen seeking to take the step toward becoming a U.S. citizen.

President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and enforcement orders are a major concern for many in the Hispanic community, and the GNHCC has connected its members with immigration lawyers. Castagnet lamented that today’s political environment has been extremely stressful on the Hispanic population, and she has been busy listening to concerns and trying to find solutions.

“We talk and we try to help in any way that we can,” she said. “We try to have people legalize their situation as fast as they can.”

Although Castagnet expressed personal admiration for the recent Day Without Immigrants national protest, she is not eager to use the GNHCC as a political vehicle. “When we started the chamber, we wanted it to be an informational source center but not political,” she said. “Our job here is the business part of it.”

Looking ahead, Castagnet plans to host joint events with the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce and to see the GNHCC expand further. But this part of her life is not the one that ultimately pays the bills, she noted.

“This is all volunteer work — I don’t get paid,” she said with a gentle laugh. “If I could, I would do this full time. But I am a Realtor and I have to take care of my business too.”

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