Economic Development and Nonprofits

New energy fuels Hispanic Chamber’s growth

Changes in leadership and direction are paying dividends.

December 11, 2015
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It doesn’t make good business sense to ignore the impact of West Michigan’s Hispanic community, now and in the future.

That is the message the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is promoting to the community as it starts the New Year with a new executive staff.

The chamber, located at 1167 Madison Ave. SE, is in a state of growth and has an entirely new executive committee starting Jan. 1.

The new leadership lineup was largely coincidental, said Luis Avila, a labor and employment attorney at Varnum Law and the chamber’s president.

“What happened is we had — through circumstances of people moving out of town and just moving on — we had two interim executive committee members and two that were coming off, so it just so happened that all four came to an end this year,” Avila said.

“It’s not ideal for any organization to have your entire executive team move on, but that’s how it worked.”

Even in the midst of the leadership change, the chamber is rapidly growing its membership, increasing by about 70 new members in 2015, representing a 20 percent increase from last year, said Jorge Gonzalez, who was named the chamber’s executive director in April.

“When I got hired, I told them I was going to double membership, which when I first started was about 280, so I said, ‘We’ve got to be at 600 in two years,’” Gonzalez said.

“It’s pretty aggressive, but I would say that, realistically, I’m hoping we can grow by 120 per year, 10 per month.”

The chamber, which already is connected to a large network of startups and colleges, is meeting in January to discuss new program ideas for 2016. The programs, although currently undefined, will focus on mentoring and reaching broader demographics.

Although membership is open to all, there’s a misconception about needing to be Hispanic or speak Spanish to be part of the chamber, which isn’t true, Gonzalez said.

“We are a chamber that is inclusive, meaning we have corporations, we have manufacturing, we have lifestyle businesses, but it’s comprised of everybody,” he said.

“The growth is a combination of all those different sectors, but as far as Hispanic businesses — and I (heard) that in just this past week four new Hispanic businesses opened in Grand Rapids — so imagine, if that’s the rate, we’re looking at 16 businesses per month.”

The chamber’s growth has been a combination of new energy and a new mindset, Gonzalez said. The new staff has been working hard on changing perceptions on what the chamber offers, interviewing members and businesses in the community to find out what they need. Meeting relevant needs is what will keep the chamber growing, Gonzalez said.

“For example, one of the things we’ve implemented this year was our Spanish-speaking workshops that are geared toward the Latino/Hispanic business owner. So we get an average of 15 to 25 participants in each session, but we cover topics that they want to hear. We surveyed them. It’s things like marketing, human resources, customer service, legal representation,” he said.

“There’s a high entrepreneurial spirit in the Hispanic community. They’re good at the product or service but sometimes lacking the business and administration, or the information and access to resources, and that’s where I think the chamber needs to make sure that they’re aware of regulation, payroll, HR functions, legal stuff — because it doesn’t serve a purpose for West Michigan to see 16 new businesses every month, but then 10 months down the road, 10 of them fail because they didn’t know how to fill out forms properly.”

The growth of the Hispanic Chamber is in large part thanks to the efforts of Gonzalez, Avila said. It’s also because the chamber is adding a new perspective on the type of professional it’s serving. In a way, the chamber is mimicking the local Hispanic business community, he said. It’s not just early stage startups — it’s also larger companies looking to expand.

“A common misconception I run across is when people think of Hispanic businesses, they tend to think of startups and fairly early-stage companies. And that’s not necessarily the case,” Avila said.

“As a chamber we’re at the point where (we feel) our services can’t always be for startups and young entrepreneurs. They have to be for the sophisticated businessman that maybe doesn’t have the MBA. We need to be able to give them the tools because they’re no longer thinking, ‘Well, should I get the LLC or the partnership?’ They’re more thinking, ‘I’ve had a partnership for five years now. Should I get an S-Corp or a C-Corp?’ It’s a very different conversation.”

A perfect example of a Hispanic business leader who has passed the initial startup stages and is in growth mode is Javier Olvera, president of Supermercado Mexico and the owner of Latican Sports. Since Olvera joined the chamber, he’s been able to save thousands of dollars because of the classes and the contacts he’s made, he said.

“This is very important to us because many of us don’t have a business degree. Taking these classes helps us. We’re really busy during the day taking care of our businesses, and many of us would like to have classes where we can learn and improve,” he said.

When doing business with the Hispanic community becomes a priority, it’s not just good for diversity — something West Michigan sorely needs — but it’s also good for the area’s economic impact. It’s the fastest-growing demographic and its spending power is in the millions, Gonzalez said.

“The biggest goal is to make sure we take the next step as an organization, not only in quality of value that we’re providing; we want to move beyond being a diversity organization where all we are is a write-off on somebody’s diversity and inclusion budget to being a business necessity,” Avila said.

“(People should) want to do business with the (Hispanic) Chamber of Commerce because it makes business sense, not ‘We want to do business with the Hispanic Chamber because they’re Hispanic and we get to say we did something that’s diverse.’”

For whatever reason a company chooses to collaborate with the local Hispanic business community, the fact is it’s a growing community and it’s going to keep growing.

“It’s going to keep growing fast. It’s part of our culture, and where we come from, there’s not many jobs and we’re not afraid to start a new business and create our own,” he said.

“When we come here, we’re ready.”

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