Minority Business Group Blends Experience With Expertise

October 15, 2007
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Members of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s Minority Business Council come from a wide array of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, but they are united in their common goal of increasing opportunities for their membership.

That goal is being accomplished through networking, meetings and an increased awareness of the quality of service and products those companies provide, according to council member Richard Ortega, president of Alternative Mechanical LLC.

“I think by sharing resources from different diverse groups, we are able to share our thoughts and concerns and to discuss ways of how we can help our respective communities,” said Ortega, who has been a Minority Business Council member for two years. “It’s a real nice, diverse group of people. As minorities, we share many of the same experiences and how we try to cope in the majority world, so to speak.

“By blending the groups together, we are able to share our feelings and have a better understanding of each other.”

Only 5 percent of West Michigan businesses are minority owned, according to statistics compiled by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. That percentage includes 1,227 businesses owned by African-Americans, 1,271 Hispanic companies, 653 businesses owned by American Indian and Alaska natives, and 47 owned by Asian and Pacific Islanders. Much of that demographic is represented on the Minority Business Council’s board of directors.

“It has come a long way over a number of years, and there have been some folks on that council for a long time providing consistency and a historical data base,” chamber president Jeanne Engelhart said. “We have people on the council representing banks, major corporations, community service groups, the city of Grand Rapids and various businesses across the board, whether it is service or manufacturing. We have a large cross-section of businesses sitting on the council to represent their particular sector of the economy.”

The Minority Business Council was established through the chamber in 1981 to advocate for — and foster learning between — minority businesses and the business community at large.

“It complements the chamber’s mission of creating business opportunities by creating, networking and growing businesses through advocacy, diversity and mentorship,” Engelhart said. “The chamber’s mission is to welcome all to the community and to be a city where people want to come and want to stay.”

The chamber is holding its 26th annual Minority Business Celebration on Oct. 23 at Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

“The Minority Business Council wants to increase the awareness of ethnic and minority-owned businesses,” Engelhart said. “The Minority Business Council are the people we look to tell us what we should be doing to encourage this.”

Networking has always been one of the council’s greatest assets, according to Ortega.

“There have been some great networking events,” Ortega said. “By putting minorities in a group setting with very diverse groups, it’s helpful for us to get to know each other. People like to do business with people they know. Networking is very big and very helpful.

“When you get to shake someone’s hand and get to know them and tell them what you do, it makes a big difference. I employ a lot of minorities, and there are a lot of majority-owned companies that want to help me and help my mission.”

The Minority Business Council meets once a month to discuss issues ranging from building businesses to being good community stewards.

“The members are appointed to represent the interests across a wide variety of minority business initiatives throughout the community,” Engelhart said. “They are all proactively involved and promote economic success for those businesses.”

The West Michigan Chamber Association publishes a directory every two years listing the resources and contacts of minority- and women-owned businesses in each of the communities involved.

“It helps provide resources for suppliers and buyers who are looking to do business with minority- and women-owned businesses by providing them a directory,” Engelhart said. “It encourages them to provide opportunities in the bid process and also provides them with information for those companies who want to diversify their vendor base.

“Larger corporations are more and more working with minority contractors, and people want to know about those companies. The directory is a way to help them access diversity. So it not only increases the value to minority businesses, but is also a valuable resource to the larger corporations that are looking to expand their minority vendor base.”

The council’s membership and influence continues to grow to most sectors of the West Michigan economy, according to Eric Brown, executive director of the West Michigan Minority Contractors Association and a member of the Minority Business Council.

“We have common goals and general goals we identify with,” Brown said. “Ours are more specific into construction, but we work closely, and my involvement with the chamber has grown.

“I see a bright future with that council expanding its own influence to the whole minority business community, as well as the greater business community. We don’t want to be seen as a separate part of the industry but a smaller part of the overall industry to be more inclusive with more diversity.

“The chamber has been a good partner in many ways with what we’re trying to do with the Minority Business Association.”

Ortega also serves on the board of directors for the West Michigan Minority Contractors Association.

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