As executive director of Canal Alliance, a nonprofit in San Rafael, California, Omar Carrera leads work that helps some 5,000 new Americans a year successfully integrate into their new country. “We can save lives because we can break the cycle of poverty, one family at a time,” says Carrera. who oversees a staff of 50 and a $6 million annual budget. “My role here is to build that capacity, find resources, and help our donors understand the people they are investing in.”
I think when all individuals recognize the potential of investment in immigrants, great things happen.
Carrera is from Ecuador, where he worked as a senior account executive for Mitsubishi, ran a consulting business, and managed several restaurants and clubs. In the late 1990s, however, the country fell into political and economic turmoil, and Carrera fled to the United States with his wife and young daughter. “The banks disappeared money from millions of people, and called it ‘a financial holiday,’ ” he recalls.
Once in America, Carrera found it harder than he had expected to restart his professional life, particularly given his lack of English proficiency. “I thought I would learn English and be back in the workforce in no time, since I had a college degree and significant work experience,” he says. Instead, Carrera spent almost four years working in a pet store in San Francisco, where he cleaned the bathrooms. “My ego disappeared,” he says. “If I had one, that job took care of it.”
While searching for English classes, Carrera found Canal Alliance. “I was interested in who is paying for this, and how it could be made affordable for people,” he says. “The Canal Alliance doesn’t receive money from the federal government, only from individuals and foundations. That really inspired me. So I enrolled as a volunteer.”
Carrera enrolled in a one-year nonprofit management program at San Francisco State University, and earned two certificates from the Harvard Kennedy School. Gradually he was promoted at Canal Alliance, eventually to executive director. “The work that we are doing at the Canal Alliance is important,” Carrera says. “It’s giving people the skills to create opportunities for themselves. And they do.” In 2017, California Assembly Member Marc Levine chose it as the state’s nonprofit of the year.
Many of those served by Canal Alliance go on to become entrepreneurs. “Latin America has a long history of entrepreneurship, because when you’re living in a broken economy, you have to figure out a way to feed your kids,” Carrera says. “You start businesses. It’s part of who we are. Our hardworking nature comes to light and we can capitalize on opportunities. I think when all individuals recognize the potential of investment in immigrants, great things happen.” In California’s Second Congressional District, which encompasses the northwest corner of the state where Carrera lives, immigrants comprise 13.7 percent of the population; 8,470 immigrants in the district are entrepreneurs.
“Many immigrants have already acted like citizens by paying taxes, building homes, and supporting their communities,” Carrera says. “We need to get the government to allow them to actually fulfill their responsibilities and commitments by legalizing their status. Immigration reform is an opportunity for the country. This isn’t just a political conversation. This is an economic conversation.”