Chambers Busily Promoting MBEs

October 11, 2004
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WEST MICHIGAN — The region’s three major chambers of commerce are pooling efforts to encourage minority business development.

“It’s an effort to combine forces and combine efforts and resources,” said Valencia Cooper, assistant regional director of the Michigan Minority Business Development Council, who sits on the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s Minority Business Council. “Getting information out on the different activities and organizations available to them, while supporting each others efforts in terms of promoting and advocacy of minority and women owned businesses.”

The most substantive product of that relationship is the Minority and Women-Owned Business Directory.

“This is the first joint project where we really came out with a product or a resource for members,” said Cindy Larsen, Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce president. “This was such a priority issue for all of the community, together we could accomplish more than we could separately.”

The directory features chamber member and non-member firms in the region and responds to continuous requests from companies looking to diversify their vendor base.

“With being involved in this type of advocacy for a number of years, the greatest laments I’ve heard from corporate buyers were, ‘We can’t find any MBEs — how do we contact MBEs? How many of them are there and what areas are they in? What products and service do they offer?’” said H&H Metals International President Brian Harris, a past chairman of the Grand Rapids chamber and president of the Minority Business Council.

“There was an identity problem, so we created the directory.”

Developed from insights revealed at the 2003 Supplier Diversity Forum, the directory is free to entrants and users, members and nonmembers, and serves as a marketing tool for MBEs and as a resource for corporate buyers.

“There are something like 100,000 different lists going around,” Cooper said. “Everyone seems to have a different database of businesses and we saw a need to combine all of those efforts.”

The directory is now in its second edition, with an online version being developed to allow for new entries to be immediately added.

While the directory is the largest and most visible of the chambers’ efforts for minority businesses, each chamber conducts an array of its own programs.

Like its Holland and Muskegon counterparts, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce operates many initiatives through its Minority Business Council, which was responsible for the Grand Rapids portion of the directory.

The council provides advocacy, education and networking for minority companies.

Cooper’s involvement portrays a reciprocal relationship between the chamber and the nonprofit MMBDC, a third-party entity that certifies MBEs, with a mission to link those MBEs with large companies and corporations, while helping to establish corporate supplier diversity programs.

“Our involvement with the council is a complement to our mission,” Cooper said.

For Harris, whose company by design has a narrow supplier and buyer list, the value of the council is quite different.

“The chamber has given us the opportunity for networking and exposure,” Harris said. “But our company is a bit different in the sense that our customers are limited, we don’t seek value from a sales growth standpoint. It’s a way of advocating, to be involved and help advocate for MBEs. The council is an extension of that — we can focus on communication and promoting diversity in the business sector.”

The Grand Rapids chamber and the Employer Coalition for Healing Racism established the Institute for Healing Racism in 1997. In addition to that 10-week program, a two-day Facing Racism educational experience also is available.

This month, the chamber announced a new diversity and inclusion training system to help members implement new programs.

On Oct. 19, the chamber will re-launch its Multiracial Association of Professionals (MAP) established in 2000. MAP is designed to create a West Michigan network to help firms retain, welcome and orient professionals of color and their families.

In Holland, the majority of the chamber’s work is done through its Business Connection Committee.

“This committee was formed to help minority businesses blend in and become involved and prosper,” explained co-chair Joe Silva, recruitment specialist for the Holland Sentinel.

The committee offers bilingual counseling and business planning services in partnership with the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center and West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. It also facilitates Holland First, a program to promote cultural awareness and community service, along with a local Institute of Healing Racism.

Although open to all new businesses, nearly 50 percent of the committee’s participants are minority-owned firms. With Holland boasting a population that is now 30 percent Hispanic, a large number of new businesses launching in the Holland area are likely to be minority-owned.

“All of a sudden we started seeing all theses restaurants and tortilla factories and car shops popping up that were owned by Hispanics,” Silva said. “We figured it was time to put something together to make them feel welcome.”

“We’ve had two new Hispanic members in only the last week,” Holland Area Chamber of Commerce President Jane Clark said. “We’re definitely seeing more minority owners in the area. We’ve been offering programs that address the concerns of Hispanic business owners, we believe that it’s important to be inclusive in our community.”

The Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce is gearing up for its largest event of this nature to date.

The Diversity Business Showcase on Oct. 20 at the Muskegon Harbor Holiday Inn will celebrate Muskegon’s minority business community. Twenty-five businesses have been selected to be highlighted at the event. South American-born Mario Longhi of Howmet an Alcoa Business will be the keynote speaker.

Howmet funded the chamber’s Enterprise Diversity program. In partnership with the Urban League of Greater Muskegon, the program provides networking and social opportunities, supports minority business development and recruits minority executives to the community.

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