Hispanic entrepreneurs are driven to start businesses

March 30, 2009
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West Michigan prides itself on having a healthy portion of entrepreneurs, but what is often overlooked is the entrepreneurial spirit and strength of the region’s Hispanic business population.

“We come from a culture where many of our parents and grandparents are business owners,” said Juan Carlos Muñoz, assistant vice president of National City’s Wyoming branch, and treasurer of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “It’s very common in Mexico that they have their own business; everybody at one point or another wants to be a business owner.”

The way business is conducted, however, varies greatly from Mexico to the United States. Mayra Martinez, member coordinator at the WMHCC, pointed to some of those differences.

“In Mexico and other parts of other countries, (entrepreneurs) aren’t used to credit. Everything is cash,” she said.

Melissa Rincones, executive director of the WMHCC, added, “You make arrangements, you shake hands, and you say, ‘Come next week and I’ll give you $50.”

Jorge Gonzalez, vice president, community development officer with Macatawa Bank and president of WMHCC, said that while many Hispanic people have the urge to start a business, some of those businesses will plateau before they reach their full potential.

“(Hispanics) have passion and the guts to start up a business, where most of us who are from here don’t have that drive,” said Gonzalez. “They’re entrepreneurs, but they don’t have the skills necessary to make it in the mainstream.

“They might be content with making enough money to support their immediate family and the few employees they might have. But they might have a wonderful thing, and if they had the resources or the marketing plan to grow, they would make it big.”

One of WMHCC’s many roles is to help entrepreneurs bridge that gap by providing education in business strategies.

“Our Hispanic businesses also want to reach another market. That’s why we have workshops on how to bid on jobs for the city, how to do accounting. That way they can have the opportunity,” said Martinez. “There are no other organizations that have put some of these things in place as far as workshops, educating on taxes, and everything that goes with starting a business.”

The chamber also helps business owners understand the importance of technology and how to use it. WMHCC recently urged Wyoming-based La Loma Mexican Restaurant to go online. Now, customers can place orders online and have the food delivered. Taking a business online is one way WMHCC believes a small Hispanic company can break into the mainstream market.

Neither the Hispanic or mainstream business community quite understands how to integrate with each other. Language barriers have led to many Hispanic business owners signing malevolent contracts, which can cause distrust. Meanwhile, mainstream businesses may have the tendency to mistake being bilingual for understanding the culture, and don’t know how to reach the Hispanic community.

“A lot of times, (companies) hire people who are bilingual. It’s one thing to speak Spanish. It’s another thing to understand the culture — two entirely different things,” said Rincones. “Understanding the culture is key.”

Martinez added, “We have (companies) that come to us and say, ‘We’re looking for bilingual employees, but aren’t successful in reaching them,’” she said, adding that most companies automatically turn to the Grand Rapids Press or MLive.com. “It’s not that we don’t use that, but a typical Hispanic family doesn’t wake up in the morning, cook their breakfast, read The Grand Rapids Press — they don’t do that.”

In the Hispanic community, bilingual newspapers are quite common, and Rincones and Martinez said those are much better avenues for reaching the Hispanic population, along with the few Hispanic radio stations in the area.

The desire for the Hispanic and mainstream business communities to connect comes together at WHMCC and has spurred tremendous and continued growth for the chamber — a trend they believe will continue.

In 2002, Michigan ranked 16th among the states in the highest number of Hispanic-owned businesses — more than 9,000. Grand Rapids has the largest percentage of Hispanics when compared to Lansing and Detroit. In Kent County alone, the Hispanic population was 54,238, according to the 2006 U.S. Census.

Throughout the U.S., the purchasing power of the Hispanic community is close to $700 billion and expected to hit $1 trillion by 2010.

In 2002, there were 1,400 West Michigan Hispanic-owned businesses that generated sales of more than $163 million. Many were started from first- or second-generation immigrants without the aid and education of WHMCC.

The Hispanic children who are growing up in the U.S. are more likely to get an education and more likely to understand technology and the U.S. business culture. Many of them work for their parents after school and on weekends, according to Rincones. The combination of these attributes, the chamber believes, will lead to the growth and success of Hispanic-owned businesses as new generations take over for their parents or start their own ventures.

“There is a crucial part to second and third generations,” said Muñoz. “When a kid grows up already submerged in the culture, it’s that much easier for that child to learn from the beginning what it is to be in the U.S. The biggest challenge we have is with first generations, because they came to work in the fields, they came to work and do the labor. Second and third generations have a better advantage over first generations that had to really open the way.”

Gonzalez, who is the second generation of his family in the U.S., used himself as an example.

“We, the offspring of those migrant workers, do have a college education,” he said. “The newcomers are the ones that we are trying to help, because they lack the English skills, resources or the education — but their kids are definitely going to school. Their kids are definitely going to be entrepreneurs.”

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