As a consultant who helps businesses solve staffing problems, Letty Velez has worked with several Fortune 500 companies, including Walmart, Macy’s, and Hyatt Hotels. But she’s frustrated: When those companies need to hire personnel, she can’t recommend the most talented people she knows. “I’m meeting incredible people, but I can’t bring them on because of their illegal status,” she says. “It really breaks my heart.” Not only do business owners lose the chance to hire good employees, but undocumented immigrants are also often forced to work for unscrupulous bosses wiling to hire them under the table. “Workers are so scared of getting caught, they won’t rock the boat and are being exploited,” says Velez, recalling the story of an undocumented couple who were constantly sick after working at a filthy dry cleaner, but who felt powerless to say anything.
Velez advocates for immigration reform that would provide a way for undocumented workers in the United States to get legal status. “By helping people get legalized, we can help them become business owners and help the economy,” she says. Velez wants to help hardworking immigrants attain a better life for personal reasons, as well. Her parents moved from Puerto Rico when they were young adults and faced ethnic discrimination in the United States. “Even though they were citizens, they felt like immigrants,” she says. When her father sustained damage to his eyesight in a worksite accident at a faucet factory, he lost his job and couldn’t get unemployment benefits.
There’s too much untapped potential and suffering out there. It’s time for the system to change now.
For two years, the family scrambled, accepting help from the Catholic Church. But even after Velez’s father went back to work, he was forced to take low-paying jobs. “I saw his pay stubs, and he was always making less than $10 an hour,” she says. “Who can survive on that with four kids?” Growing up poor motivated Velez to become a successful entrepreneur and celebrated speaker. In 2004, she started her own transportation company, Chicago Mini Bus Travel, with 10 buses. After a fire forced her to shut down the company, she reinvented herself as a consultant helping small businesses secure capital and grow. She once helped a nonprofit obtain $4.5 million in grant money from two large corporations.
Her experience as a Latina entrepreneur has motivated her to champion minority-owned businesses. “I never got over how surprised people were to see me own a business. I think they assumed that because I was Hispanic I would fail,” she says. Velez has served on several boards to represent the Latina point of view, and she founded IC Latinas, a nonprofit that helps Hispanic women succeed in business. “They’ve grown so much as a force, but we don’t hear about their contributions. I want to get those numbers up,” she says. “There’s too much untapped potential and suffering out there. It’s time for the system to change now.”