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Latino entrepreneurs think outside the box

Updated: May 22, 2011 12:25AM

You probably have used one of Juventino Cano’s cardboard boxes. His company, Cano Container Corp., based in Aurora, makes corrugated shipping cartons for top businesses such as General Mills, PepsiCo and Kraft.

Cano’s annual sales are $22 million worth of cardboard products in any conceivable size and style. As an entrepreneur, Cano wants to keep expanding his company. He already owns a subsidiary in Toronto, Calif.

Cano still remembers his father’s advice that no one would give him anything for free.

He does not forget, either, that as a child he had to wake up at the crack of dawn to milk cows in his native town of Estapilla, Colima, about three hours south of Guadalajara, Mexico.

Cano embodies the American Dream. In the midst of the heated national debate on immigration reform, here’s the kind of story we should hear more about.

Cano’s rags-to-riches tale is no different from that of many other immigrants — from Europe and other places — who built our country.

In 1974, when he was 17, Cano came to the United States and settled in Aurora, following in his brothers’ footsteps. His first job was in a cardboard box factory and he studied English at night.

In a few years, he moved up from laborer to plant manager. In 1986, opportunity came knocking again — this time in a big way. McDonald’s was looking to do business with a minority supplier in Aurora.

Cano jumped at the chance. He partnered with his former boss and became a small business owner, soon selling cardboard boxes to big companies.

In 25 years, his company has grown to 36 employees and recently inaugurated a 177,000-square-foot facility. It is among the top 500 Hispanic-owned businesses in the country.

Cano is not alone. According to the U.S. Census, Latinos opened businesses at more than twice the national rate between 2002 and 2007. The number of Latino-owned businesses increased 43.7 percent, compared with a national rate of 18 percent.

In 2007, there were 56,552 Latino-owned businesses in Illinois, of which 22,256 were in Chicago. Nationally, Latino-owned businesses generated $345.2 billion in sales in 2007 — up 55.5 percent compared with 2002.

Cano attributes his successes to working hard and seizing opportunities. He says that Latinos are not ashamed or afraid to start a small business selling fruit or clothing. This entrepreneurial spirit should be encouraged in towns all over Illinois where the Latino population has exploded in recent years.

“Latinos take risks when starting a business — no matter how small,” Cano said.

Cano bristles when people accuse Latino immigrants of taking away jobs from Americans.

“Latinos don’t take jobs away from anybody. They earn those jobs,” he told me. “They come to this country to work hard. Business owners will hire people who work best for them.”

Cano considers the demographic explosion of Latinos in the United States as a positive for the country, but he also is aware of the particular challenges facing the Latino community.

He thinks Latinos should continue to work hard and get more involved in the civic and political life of the towns that are now their new home.

And he cites the high school dropout rate of Latinos as a major challenge Latino parents need to address.

“In many cases, both parents work and that makes it difficult, but more Latino kids need to finish college,” he said. “That is the only way our community will get more political and corporate representation.”

To that end, Cano supports the federal Dream Act as a way to make it possible for young and talented Latinos who came to the United States as kids — not as adults — to earn a college degree.

Like millions of American immigrants before him, Cano is contributing with his business savvy and sense of community to make this country great. And we all are better for it.

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