Luis Vasquez-Ajmac's successes decorate his small D.C. office, creations that were decades in the making. From movie posters featuring modern Latino stars to simple drawings illustrating in Spanish the importance of saving energy, Maya Advertising and Communications seeks to connect corporate America to Latinos, a mission that recently earned the firm a Small Business of the Year Award from the Greater Washington Ibero American Chamber of Commerce.
"People think it's so hard to sell to Latinos, but it's because they think we're invisible," Vasquez-Ajmac said, pointing to television as an example of a medium that portrays few Latinos in a positive light.
The small business award reflects years of financial woes and the perseverance of Vasquez-Ajmac, the president and founder.
In 1990, with little more than a vision and $5,000, Vasquez-Ajmac started Maya out of his Adams-Morgan apartment. Since then, the firm has landed dozens of large contracts and has helped dispel media stereotypes of Latinos.
Maya's business strategy is to link mainstream corporations -- such as Geico Corp., Bell Atlantic Corp. and Duracell Inc. -- to Latinos. Many of the advertisements are written in Spanish, though the majority of them are in English with Latino actors, with whom the community can better identify, Vasquez-Ajmac said.
Vasquez-Ajmac, 38, came to the District from Guatemala when he was 6 years old. At 18, he realized he had a calling to advertising. "I felt a sense of destiny, really," he said. "I realized the importance and the power of the written word."
Vasquez-Ajmac worked in radio news and then as vice president of special events with North America Network, a radio promotions firm in Bethesda. After leaving that job, he struggled to get his new company off the ground. His family often insisted that he find another part-time job, but Vasquez-Ajmac never wavered.
His break finally came when he won a $5,000 contract to develop a fund-raising campaign for Bell Multicultural High School, a then-private District school with a predominantly Latino student body.
"That was the most difficult sale to make, but it was my first one. It helped me see that I could do it," Vasquez-Ajmac said. Ultimately, the campaign raised $25,000 for the school.
Despite the ad campaign's accomplishments, Vasquez-Ajmac was not an overnight success. It took three years before he nabbed Pepco as one of his first major clients. The company still uses Maya to market to Latinos.
"When Maya first came to us, we were just using mainstream ads, but we realized the large number of Hispanics in the D.C. and Maryland area," said Tom Welle, advertising manager for Pepco. "It's really important to reach out to all customers with a message that rings true to them."
While he doesn't have any recent figures available, Welle said several focus groups have shown that Maya's marketing package has effectively reached the area's Latino community.
Juan Albert, vice president of the Ibero American Chamber, said Maya received the group's honor for getting major corporations to run ads that appeal directly to Latino consumers.
"What Maya is trying to demonstrate is that there is a strong Hispanic community with strong buying power," Albert said. "It's important to educate mainstream corporations about that power."
The Washington-area Latino community has grown to 400,000 residents in 1997 from 90,000 in 1980, Albert said. Roughly 15,000 Hispanic-owned businesses operate in the Washington area, making the region the 18th-largest Hispanic market and the third-wealthiest.
Maya employs only seven people, but Vasquez-Ajmac said he and his staff still manage to attract clients.
"I'm here because it's a positive environment to be in," said Rikki George, senior communications specialist. "Everyone here really likes what they're doing."
Maya generated $500,000 in revenue last year, and expects to exceed $1 million in 1999. Vasquez-Ajmac said the firm plans to open an office next year in Miami, which has a huge Latino population.
As an entrepreneur, Vasquez-Ajmac says he lives by the advice that he often gives others who want to start their own business. "Determine your niche and most of all, believe in yourself. If you don't, no one else will."
CAPTION: Luis Vasquez-Ajmac, president and founder of Maya Advertising and Communications, has some common-sense advice for those who would start their own businesses: "Determine your niche and most of all, believe in yourself. If you don't, no one else will."