Dr. Erika Gonzalez joined the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2014 when she started her private practice and soon became involved in the group’s efforts related to health care and biosciences.
Starting in January, Gonzalez ascends to chairwoman of the board, a role she plans to use to amplify her voice on issues impacting the San Antonio business community, including health, and encourage others to do the same.
“I think it’s important for the Latino community to realize that our chamber was first started as the voice for the small-business community at a time where the Latino small businesses didn’t have a voice,” Gonzalez said. “I want to empower the community to realize that they have platforms and when we speak up, on whatever the issue may be, there’s a lot of power and a lot of change can happen with that.”
The daughter of immigrants – her dad was an Air Force veteran who served as a physician’s assistant and her mother was a dentist – Gonzalez grew up in San Antonio with two sisters and a brother. She attended Health Careers High School and St. Mary’s University before earning her medical degree at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston through the military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program.
Gonzalez’s career as a physician began at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, with a residency in pediatrics, then due to Hurricane Katrina, she went to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia. She returned to San Antonio for a fellowship in allergy and asthma at Wilford Hall Medical Center.
“The military obviously is a great kind of opportunity to grow into yourself and to grow in leadership skills and abilities,” she said. “You learn by fire. You’re a young captain coming out of med school and they [tell you] ‘You’re in charge of this division now’ [even though you’ve] never done it in your life.”
Her nine years in the military taught the 43-year-old Gonzalez leadership, but it also inspired a sense of service.
“When I came out [of the service], I wanted to be making a difference in my own community, especially the community that I grew up in,” she said.
Gonzalez spent two years in private practice before being recruited to lead the allergy, immunology, and rheumatology division at Children’s Hospital of San Antonio for four years.
Those post-military medicine experiences were eye-opening for her, she said, as she watched her patients struggle with access to health care and affordability of treatment. She began working with the South Texas Asthma Coalition and the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District to develop a program called SA Kids BREATHE.
“So that really started to get to me and that’s when I started to become a lot more civically engaged,” she said. “And I’ve been blessed to be in a situation where I do have [practice] partners that are extremely supportive.”
Since 2017, Gonzalez also has served on the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women.
As president and CEO of the South Texas Allergy & Asthma Medical Professionals (STAAMP) and its clinical research center, Gonzalez leads three clinic sites staffed with two other former military physicians. She sees patients in the clinic three days a week and uses the other two days for administrative work, chamber leadership, and community service.
Gonzalez sought guidance from the Hispanic Chamber when setting up the practice, and early on, she was asked to serve on a chamber panel discussion of health care disparities in the community. “I was impressed they were tackling that issue and that they were trying to raise awareness,” Gonzalez said of her decision to lead a chamber committee.
In January, she will succeed Chairman John Agather, who leads an investment company specializing in real estate, aviation, and the music business, and plays acoustic rhythm guitar in a rock band.
“Erika Gonzalez is a retired veteran and dedicated physician,” Agather said. “She has been a quick study as a chair-elect of the full range of activities that the Hispanic Chamber engages in.”
Melissa Aguillon, a board member and president of the public relations firm Aguillon & Associates, described Gonzalez as “extremely impressive.”
“She knows the business climate first-hand, supports economic growth and development, and will be able to advocate on behalf of Hispanics in business and Hispanic businesses,” Aguillon said.
Board member and chair advisor Hope Andrade believes young entrepreneurs will be able to relate to Gonzalez and she will serve as a role model for others.
“The community will certainly benefit from her leadership, and I think it’s only the beginning – I think she’s got a bright future,” said Andrade, who served as chairwoman 20 years ago. “I’m looking forward to being alongside her, watching her as she just goes from one position to another because she has those leadership qualities.”
But Gonzalez has her eyes fixed on the coming year, and said she believes the position will provide her a platform to be able to have a bigger, broader impact.
“I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity that was presented to try to use it to raise awareness with some of these issues that are kind of important, because health care contributes to workforce development,” she said.
However, the issue of a local paid sick leave ordinance is one that Gonzalez will have to negotiate carefully. She said that her professional and personal experience inclines her to be in favor of the ordinance, but the Hispanic Chamber has opposed it as a mandated benefit. Thus, as a chamber leader, she will represent members’ interests. The ordinance remains in limbo because of a lawsuit.
“That’s been one of the more conflicting things for me as a physician because I also understand the impact that can have financially [on businesses],” she said. “It’s hard when you look at some of these small businesses and realize that their profit margins can sometimes be so thin that you really want to set them up to succeed.
“Obviously we’re very pro small business and I think that the majority of our members feel that it’s not in the best interest of small businesses to have that put on them.”
In San Antonio, the Hispanic Chamber is one of multiple groups representing business interests, a fact some say splinters economic development efforts in the region.
“I would kind of argue that there might be a lot of chambers, but they all have a place and they all have a role and they’re all making a difference,” Gonzalez said.
In 2020, the Hispanic Chamber will be working to raise awareness about the census as well as encouraging members to vote in upcoming elections. But Gonzalez also wants to see the chamber take the lead on health matters.
“As a physician, if I don’t use this platform now to help further some health care initiative, then shame on me, [and] one topic that doesn’t get talked about a lot that I’m an advocate of is mental health awareness,” she said.
It’s a new era for the chamber. The board hired Diane Sanchez as president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber in early 2019 when Ramiro Cavazos left to head the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Gonzalez isn’t the first physician in the chamber’s 90-year history to lead the board. But she is the first female physician who is also a veteran to serve as chairwoman.
Taking time from her busy practice is a priority for Gonzalez, who is also a mother to two young sons. “I think now more than ever with all the issues that are going on … health care needs to be represented at a lot of these tables where policy decisions are being made,” Gonzalez said.
“Historically, we haven’t had physicians … and so I think that most of us are realizing we need to be at the table to voice our perspective because it really does bleed into all of these other things that are crucial in our community.”