Gaby Ortigoni, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando, has always had a passion for public service — even in her first job as a gift wrapper and greeter at a gift shop in Puerto Rico, where, as she describes it, she was able to play a small part in the experience of someone receiving a gift. Born in Mexico and raised in Puerto Rico, Ortigoni moved to Orlando more than 25 years ago. After attending school for hospitality management, she carved her own path through volunteer work and a talent for recognizing opportunities. Ortigoni served as an administrative assistant with the Florida Legislature, where she found herself suddenly taking on the responsibility of traveling with a freshman legislator. She went on to work for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration and as director of crime prevention in Central Florida for Florida International University. These last two roles allowed her some time to return to her roots in volunteer work, leading to her first experiences with the HCCMO and its affiliates. Here Ortigoni delves into the power that comes from giving of your time, talents and knowledge, and from remaining open to the ideas, perspectives and challenges of others.
How would you describe the path that led you to your current field?
As with many people, I started in something that doesn’t really have a lot to do with what I’m doing right now. I studied hospitality management, and I went into that field because my mom used to take me with her to business conferences when I was a little girl. Since then, I was always attracted to that environment. After I completed school, I was doing a lot of work in different places. I said, “Well, I’m going to start doing some volunteer work just to learn other things.” One of my first volunteer jobs was at one of the first Hispanic radio stations here in Orlando. And from there, after I volunteered for around six months, the manager of the radio station, who happened to be good friends with a freshman legislator, recommended me for a job he had in the legislative office. He said, “I have someone here who is coming every week. She works for free and she’s really good — and if she’s good working for free, I imagine she would be even better if you paid her.”
What led you to your current role with the chamber?
I knew there was something about the chamber that I really liked, and I wanted to be part of this department. So I applied when they had an opening for an administrative assistant because that was the only position they had open at that moment. But then I was able to become the director of marketing and sales. My background wasn’t really that strong there, but I learned many skills and I had an excellent teacher in the first paid president of the chamber, Ramon Ojeda. He taught me a lot and gave me a strong foundation for the role I have today. After being here for five years, I was invited to work at OUC — Orlando Utilities Commission — as manager of community relations. From there I went to Prospera, an organization that helps Hispanic entrepreneurs. … And now I have the opportunity to lead the chamber. … So you see how everything has been very connected.
Throughout that journey, what have you learned?
It opened the doors for me to understand how powerful it is when you volunteer your time and you do it because you really love what you’re doing and you really want to serve. People notice your talents, and you’re able to discover talents you didn’t know you had. If it weren’t for that volunteer work, maybe I wouldn’t be here today. After my first volunteer job at the radio station and then the opportunity to work in the Florida Legislature, every single job I’ve had has been connected, one to the other. Of course, I have applied and gone through the process of interviewing, but in reality, one door has led to the other one. I think that gave me a good background. My learning has come more from experiencing and interacting with people in the different volunteer work I’ve done. So I always like to share that with people. It hasn’t been the conventional path. One of the greatest lessons I’ve received is to make sure to meet expectations before you exceed them. A lot of times we’re so focused on trying to exceed the expectation, or to do more for people to be impressed with our work, that we forget to pay attention to whatever the real purpose or requirement was for that particular task or job. I learned this the hard way, and that is something I always share with my team everywhere I go. I will say, “Let’s pay attention and let’s make sure we understand what the expectation is, and then we work on exceeding that.”
What was it like coming on board as president just a few months after the chamber celebrated its 25th anniversary?
What would you describe as your top priorities for the chamber moving forward?
We are looking very closely at our different programs to make sure our members get the best value and opportunities that will help their businesses grow. Making sure our events and programs meet the demands of the 21st Century and attract the new generations. The essence of a chamber, while it offers many different benefits, is helping people connect. When you’re in an environment where technology is connecting people in so many ways we never even thought possible, we have to be creative and think outside the box to stay relevant. Another priority is helping with the efforts to rebuild Puerto Rico’s economy by supporting the business owners who are coming from the island to expand their businesses to our region.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, what are some of the measures and programs the chamber has implemented to help Puerto Ricans who have had to relocate and rebuild in a new city?
We’re working very closely with the government in Puerto Rico to assist business owners from the Island who are expanding their businesses to Central Florida. We want to support the efforts of the government of Puerto Rico to support business owners so they can keep their businesses open over there and help them expand to Central Florida. We are also working with other organizations such as Prospera to help these entrepreneurs get access to business tools and resources that will help their business develop a strong foundation, to be able to grow here instead of just closing there and coming here. In June, we went to Puerto Rico with Prospera and other local officials, to offer specific training for business owners — not only to tell them about the great things we offer here in Central Florida, but mainly to give them a very realistic understanding of the things they need to evaluate and prepare for when they expand their business in Florida. More than 300 entrepreneurs attended this event. Working in partnership with Puerto Rican agencies is very important because this allows us to get to more people and help them evaluate their options so they can make a well-educated decision.
How has the chamber helped initiate and encourage dialogue in the community regarding current events and issues, such as immigration reform?
We have a government affairs committee and a civic advocacy program that offers our members the opportunity to learn and connect with our elected officials about these topics impacting us at the local, state and federal level. Opening direct dialogue between our members and elected officials is critical to make sure the voice of our Hispanic business community is heard. Through the Civic Advocacy Program, we give the opportunity to different elected officials, in a non-partisan way, to sit down with our members, our community and learn about the issues impacting us.