Successful Hispanic Chamber Launch

October 11, 2004
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While three of the area’s chambers of commerce have begun concentrating efforts both jointly and individually on the business community emerging out of the region’s rapidly growing Hispanic population, an organization has formed from within it with parallel goals.

Formed in the wake of last fall’s Hispanic Business Expo, the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce officially launched this past summer with the intent to promote, advocate for, and provide networking opportunities within the West Michigan Hispanic business community.

“There has been an interest in this for years,” said chamber president Dina Gonzales, a Holland-based agent for insurance provider Delago & Associates. “But we wanted to see what we could do without recreating the wheel. There was already the Holland, Grand Rapids, and Muskegon chambers, and there is a Michigan Hispanic Chamber based in Detroit. But there hasn’t been much momentum in West Michigan for Hispanics.”

Through forums held by the Garfield Park Neighborhood Association last year, it was first determined that the Hispanic community needed a showcase for its business efforts.

“It started out as just a group of people meeting to talk about their problems,” said Bank One Vice President of Community Affairs Armando Hernandez. “We were invited in and we sat down and decided that we needed an organization that speaks for the Hispanic community.”

Those initial efforts produced last year’s expo, which sold out its 71 booths through only three weeks of organization.

With so many businesses taking part in the untested program, the demand for an organization advocating those enterprises became evident.

The chamber is currently gearing up for its 2004 Hispanic Business Expo to be held at the DeltaPlex in Walker on Nov. 13.

With booth spaces first made available to the founding companies that had taken the risk in exhibiting last year, then current chamber members, spaces for the general public are limited.

“They put their businesses out there with us when we weren’t even an organization yet,” Gonzales said of the founding members’ faith in the organization.

Currently, the all-volunteer chamber’s efforts have been focused on education and uniting the efforts of the pre-existing chambers toward the Hispanic community.

“We’re putting together workshops for the Hispanic community,” said chamber Vice President Frank Coronado of Davenport University. “Education is going to be big; we want to pass on any information that we can to the Hispanic community.

“The Hispanic community is a very close-knit community,” he added. “They know they need to know more about what’s going on out there, but they don’t know where to go for it. We want them to know that there are people out there to help them.”

The chamber is bringing those educational opportunities about through partnerships with Davenport University, the Holland Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center and the Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Other barriers to be addressed are those that have prevented Hispanic businesses from becoming integrated into the region’s mainstream economy, including a reluctance of many American-born Hispanics to learn and practice English and a lack of advertising and promotion.

“There are a lot of good businesses out there in this community,” Coronado said. “But there is a lack of promotion outside the Hispanic community, so no one knows they’re there.”

Gonzales emphasized that she does not want to duplicate efforts by the other chambers, so they will take part in programs like an education partnership with the Holland chamber. She hopes that her organization will serve as a link between those entities and the Hispanic community.

“We want to move forward and provide more benefits and be a very strong chamber,” she explained. “But we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We want to be a middle ground for all the other chambers, and help them see what works in each city.”

Efforts have been made to include all of West Michigan, with the chamber currently branching into Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.

One of the chamber’s strongest allies has recently become even stronger.

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