When he moved to Washington 40 years ago, Ernest Aguilar could count the number of Latinos he knew on one hand. Today he knows that the...

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When he moved to Washington 40 years ago, Ernest Aguilar could count the number of Latinos he knew on one hand. Today he knows that the more than half a million Latinos living in Washington make up the largest minority population in the state.

The 85-year-old businessman also knows that Latinos have the fewest numbers among racial groups in master’s-of-business programs nationwide, with about 5,000 enrolling annually. He said it is something that must change soon, for the sake of the economy and a people.

It could change as soon as next year, said Michael Verchot, director of University of Washington’s Business and Economic Development Program (BEDP). On Monday, the UW Business School is set to announce the creation of its first race-based endowment fund, one of the few in the nation.

Starting in the 2006-07 school year, the $150,000 fund will go toward scholarships named in honor of Aguilar, founder of the state Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The idea is to help three to four Latinos work toward MBA degrees with grants of about $7,500 a year.

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“It seemed as though the MBA program, which is highly regarded nationwide, was nearly invisible to the Hispanic community,” said Dan Gandara, chairman of the scholarship’s fund-raising committee.

Washington’s public schools are not allowed to recruit or admit students on the basis of race, and the ability to maintain diversity that represents the state population has been a constant challenge. There are three Latino students in the newest class of 100 in the UW MBA program, a number that has been the same for the past six years. The Latino population has more than doubled since 1990, and the state Office of Financial Management projects continued growth throughout the decade.

The Ernest I. J. Aguilar Endowed Scholarship is a hodgepodge of contributions, with the biggest donor contributing $5,000, Verchot said. Aguilar, a native of Mexico, is a charter member of the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs, served 24 years in the Army and worked in numerous organizations helping to foster an educated Hispanic community. He still works as vice president of Approach Management Services in Fremont.

To receive the endowment, students must work with the BEDP in helping with the development of Hispanic businesses. “I feel the American dream should be for everyone. And it is, provided you have the means to continue making it an American dream,” Aguilar said.

Christina Siderius: 206-515-5066