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Q&A: Jose Luis Rodriguez, Founder and CEO, HITN

If José Luis Rodriguez and the non-profit TV network he leads have their way, more U.S. Hispanics will be trained and qualified to join the marketplace and quickly move up the professional ladder. Brooklyn-based Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network (HITN) is joining forces with Lehman College and a group of community based organizations (CBOs) in New York state to launch Career Fast Track, a free, interactive distance-learning course that uses HD videoconferencing, face-to-face classes (via teacher assistants) and online support, to train and certify students in areas of high demand such as health care, energy and technology. Hispanic TV Update spoke to Rodriguez about his quest to have more Latinos access the labor force and how a small, thriving television network can help:

MCN: How did the idea of Career Fast Track come about?

José Luis Rodriguez: Career Fast Track is part of a bigger program called CBOs Connect that launched a couple of years ago. Helped in part by a state legislator, the idea was to connect community based organizations through telecommunications and technology in order to create a virtual learning environment. We installed computers, satellite and video conferencing equipment; and once that was in place, we developed an instructional program to provide students in remote locations (Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Albany) with educational content. Career Fast Track is just the most recent of several programa we have started.

MCN: How is this financed?
We received a grant from the Department of Labor, but we also partnered with Lehman College. We trained one of their teachers who imparts the course in pharmacy technology assistance and we taught them to use our educational approach and technology. The beauty of this is you have only one teacher, in one location, using technology to reach people in remote locations that wouldn't usually have access to education.

MCN: How many students were you able to reach?
We trained 56 students in four cities throughout three months, and over 80% passed the test, which is a tremendous accomplishment. We celebrated their graduation last week. We are reaching the Latino community and giving them for the first time an opportunity to take such courses, which otherwise would have never had access to.

MCN: Who is the target of these programs?
Mostly Latinos, ages 18 to 55, many of whom are unemployed or changing careers. After they complete their course, we want to help them get a job, while others might decide to continue to study.

MCN: How does your actual TV network come into play?
HITN's mission is is to advance the socio-economic and cultural aspirations of latinos, and one way to do that is through our television network. But now we are creating an additional tool, a complementary technology network that helps achieve that. Some of the programs that we do live (in our studios) are now broadcast throughout thre region and people can go to their own community-based organization and take part in round tables, ask questions, etc. This is what I call a real local presence; what differenciates us from any other Latino network. We can get local input, local information about our viewers. The equipment that we give these CBOs can provide four or five different IP-related services, including the HITN signal. They are able to watch our signal via satellite, but they can also watch us on the computer, take an online course, participate live through videoconferencing, interact with professors in Manhattan, etc. All these can be done with the infraestructure we place there. Eventually these centers will be able to do more than that.

MCN: What do all this means to a potential advertiser?
Suppose we have a program on expecting moms, then we have people actually go to these CBOs and interact with others, with a doctor, etc..We can provide a very unique experience for an advertiser. If an advertiser wants to get deep into the community and have experiences with real audiences, we can bring hundreds of people and interact with live audiences. It's almos like having town-hall capabilities in these CBOs.

MCN: Have you signed any advertisers yet?
We had a number of financial institutions that came to us and showed interest in our [teaching] programs. They spend money trying to educate Latinos in areas like financial management; they also know that the 30-second spot does not work for them. They found out that the most effective way to reach them is to go to CBOs and offer courses, sometimes of several hours, or days. I have been talking to some financial institutions and I can tell you they have a vested interested in these programs. They see they do not have to be limited to doing it in only one, but several locations at once -and hundreds of people, the cost-effectiveness to them is tremendous. We are also providing an e-learning environment for a university or college that wants ro reach Latinos; these are people who have an interest in upgrading themselves, spending time to educate themselves and going to these places to learn, to get an education. Any school that is interested in getting proper prospective college applicants are already talking to us.

MCN: What is the current penetration of HITN?
We are reaching 36 million households via cable, satellite, video on demand and online, and we're in the process of getting information about how many of those are Hispanic households. But the data we've been given by Nielsen this month has been very encouraging, despite the fact that we are not a heavily advertised network.