San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Diane Sanchez.
Diane Sanchez has resigned as the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's president and CEO. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Her first day on the job was a glittering gala, an annual event of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce this time celebrating the group’s 9oth anniversary. There, the chamber’s newly named president and CEO delivered what she termed a wakeup call.

“Whether we’re going to have a mega community [with Austin and San Antonio] or a binational region, it will happen. It’s going to happen with us or without us,” Diane Sánchez said, recalling the Feb. 2 speech. “So our challenge as the Hispanic business community is, what is our role in that?”

The 1,200-member Hispanic Chamber announced the selection of Sánchez Jan. 24 following the September departure of longtime CEO Ramiro Cavazos, who took the helm of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber, an umbrella organization for more than 200 local chambers.

More than 100 people applied for the job of Hispanic Chamber CEO, board Chairman John Agather said, many of them strong contenders. But Sánchez’s corporate experience stood out for the selection committee, headed by Erika Prosper, former Hispanic Chamber chairwoman and wife of Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

“I liked her résumé very much because it contained a fair amount of corporate experience and her financial literacy is very high, which is unique in the not-for-profit world, and for us, the next leap we need to make as a chamber,” said Agather, an investor and musician. “I’m not sure any business-driven organization here has had that before, someone with an investment banking background who understands high finances at the Wall Street level. And that’s great for us because that’s where we’re going next.”

Sánchez, 64, was born in Kingsville and grew up in the South Texas town of Bishop, one of five children born to two nurses with deep roots in the state. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in international business and shortly after started her career in San Francisco.

“I was there at the inception of the Silicon Valley and then went on to start a lot of the operations for most of the Fortune 500 companies that were there in the ’90s and early 2000s,” said Sánchez, who helped set up divisions in Latin America for technology, media, and telecom companies like AT&T, Alcatel-Lucent, and Telefónica.

“It was one of those things. … You just kept jumping from company to company because it was launching something different, and that’s really what’s been exciting – the transformation, literally, of countries … with technology and innovation.”

Sánchez returned to Texas via Miami and has resided in San Antonio since 2011. Before being named CEO of the Hispanic Chamber, Sánchez served as a senior advisor for TriCap Partners, an independent merchant banking and alternative asset management firm based in New York.

While in Miami, Sánchez saw the city become a metroplex of three counties through a major transportation system upgrade and the creation of “centers of excellence” in several key sectors, and she believes the same will happen in San Antonio.

“In Miami, nobody works in Miami. Everybody lives in Miami and they work throughout the region,” she said. “It’s funny, Miami’s already there. So, what you’ve got now is a lot of people that really value that lifestyle, that creativity, that whole thing. So they’ve learned how to make it a really great way to live. And I think we’ve got to do this for this region of the country and figure out how to make that happen.”

While studying in Austin, Sánchez saw the city transform into a tech hub more like Silicon Valley – “sort of a country unto themselves,” she said – but one in which the Hispanic community was left behind. She wants San Antonio to get “ahead of the curve and make sure we do it right.”

So Sánchez isn’t wasting any time addressing various issues on behalf of chamber members. By her second official day at the chamber, she was on a plane to Washington, D.C., for another yearly tradition: a chamber-led trip during which local business leaders meet with elected representatives in the nation’s capital.

“We met with the right people, we addressed the right issues that were relevant to San Antonio,” Sánchez said, adding that some of those issues included workforce training, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and the North American Development Bank. “[Legislators] really didn’t realize the strength of San Antonio … that we’re doing advanced manufacturing, and what the impact of the border trade is going be. They’re more focused on Dallas and Houston. All of those are things that I think we need to do a better job of letting people know the economic strength that we represent.”

In her first full week at the Hispanic Chamber offices in the Pearl, Sánchez represented the organization at an airport service launch event, then began laying out plans to meet with former board chairs and members to get their input on the role the chamber should be playing in the local economy. Until that’s complete, Sánchez isn’t ready to announce specific goals, she said, though she made it clear she’s been giving it thought.

“What I like to do, and I think I do it pretty well, is collaboration – trying to bring people together,” she said. “Because I’ve been fortunate to work outside of San Antonio in markets that actually tap a lot of resources and corporations. I’m tapping into those people to help us create what we’re trying to create.”

Sánchez also is focused on education, she said, and aligning the private sector with community efforts. But to move ahead, San Antonio must begin to think more globally.

“I think [our] biggest hurdle is accepting the fact that it doesn’t have to come from here,” she said. “In other words, we’ve tapped out on the same companies over and over and over. A lot of the skills or the resources that we need are not going to come from here. But there are companies or institutions that have an interest in our base, in our customers, but they don’t necessarily operate here, and that’s the mentality that people don’t realize.”

The city, in those respects, is about 10 years behind other markets where she has worked, Sánchez said, and that means the future is exciting. The challenge will be in retaining a leadership role as the city evolves and creates more opportunity for Hispanic-led businesses here.

“I always say, ‘We don’t wanna fatten frogs for snakes,’” she said. “We’ve got this great culture, this great city, and everything else, and then all of a sudden, big corporations or investors come in and take over. And we’re not just the workers, right? I’d hope that we get the investment, but we do it on our terms and we do it creating the community that we want.”

This fall, the Hispanic Chamber will play a key role in hosting the XXIV U.S. Spain Council Forum, a meeting of American and Spanish top corporate executives, high-level government officials, and leaders in education and culture. The council works to stimulate bilateral trade and investment, bringing companies together around business opportunities. In January, it named U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) as its seventh honorary chair.

“I worked with [Spain] on a lot of smart-city initiatives,” Sánchez said. “They’re really into leading-edge things … and if you look at what they’ve been involved with across the U.S. and the world, they are leaders. The ‘smartest city’ in the world is Barcelona. So as a Hispanic community, can we attract Spanish companies to do business here in our community?”

But before that, of course, Fiesta looms large on the San Antonio social and business calendar. There, too, Sánchez plans for the Hispanic Chamber to take part. Plans are in the works for the chamber to host an official Fiesta event of its own in 2019.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.