Carlos Sanchez bridges the cultural divide
The 2010 census revealed that Hispanics are 4 percent of Michigan’s total population — but in Kent County, it’s almost 10 percent and growing.
It’s a market segment not to be ignored.
“There is no other business organization in West Michigan that can help businesses reach out to the Hispanic market better than the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber,” said Carlos Sanchez, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“There are other institutions out there that can connect people to the Hispanic community, but as far as business — we are pretty much it,” he added.
Evidently, some members of the local business community know this and are very interested in the Hispanic market, because 45 percent of the 209 members of the Hispanic Chamber are not Hispanic at all, according to Sanchez.
Sanchez has been executive director of the chamber for two years now, and it has been a period of building bridges and blazing trails. After it was founded in 2003, the Hispanic Chamber did not have much interaction with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, he said, but that is changing now.
Sanchez said the two chambers recently signed an agreement that they would collaborate on certain types of activities that require sponsorship funding, so as to avoid competing against each other in duplicate efforts.
“We are also going to develop a partnership with Hispanic business organizations in Lansing and Saginaw, and the Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce,” said Sanchez.
In his first year as head of the Hispanic Chamber, Sanchez’s leadership resulted in a 25 percent increase in membership. Event revenue increased by 50 percent and event attendance by 25 percent during that same time period.
Sanchez was instrumental in developing partnerships with other business organizations such as the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce and Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW). He helped establish the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Foundation, as well.
Sanchez was born in Mexico City; his parents still live there and are retired. His father was an electrical contractor with his own business and his mother was an elementary school teacher.
Sanchez attended Ibero-American University (Universidad Iberoamericana) in Mexico City, where he studied hotel management. As a senior, he applied for and landed what was supposed to be a paid internship at a Club Med in Mexico.
“That was supposed to last for six months, but it lasted four years,” he said.
Club Med liked his work. After a year and a half, he was transferred to a series of Club Meds in the Caribbean and then one in Tunisia, in North Africa. Eventually, he wound up back in Mexico, where he decided to go to work for another resort in Cancun.
“That’s where I met Lynne,” he said. Lynne Pope is a native of Grand Rapids and a graduate of Thomas Cooley Law School.
Pope and Sanchez were married a year later, and, after living and working in Cancun for four years, the couple decided to move to West Michigan in 1998.
In Grand Rapids, Sanchez worked for Sharpe Buick in sales, eventually moving up to sales manager. Then he decided to enroll in the international business program at Davenport University, earning a bachelor’s degree.
While in school, he also worked for Voices For Health as a medical interpreter, and then at WOOD TV8 translating the 6 p.m. news in Spanish. The television job finally ended after three years when the Spanish language channel lost its sponsorship.
From 2004 through 2007, Sanchez was the diversity programs coordinator at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. It was a turning point in his professional career.
“It was very interesting because it was a newly created position,” he said. He also learned a lot working with Sonya Hughes, who is vice president of diversity initiatives and programs at the GRACC.
In 2007, Sanchez was recruited to be a diversity specialist at Spectrum Health, where he worked for two years before joining the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber.
His business background is particularly useful in helping non-Hispanics understand the culture of Hispanics, and vice versa.
Language is an issue with some Mexicans who move here with money to invest in a business but who lack sufficient expertise in English. Others may arrive with sufficient language skills, but the differences between the Anglo and Mexican cultures can still make doing business difficult.
For instance, Americans tend to be much more abrupt and to the point than Mexicans, said Sanchez. A Hispanic business owner typically wants to first get to know the American he or she may end up doing business with, so a Mexican-style business lunch normally will take much longer than an hour.
The Hispanic style of doing business “is more fun,” Sanchez said, but it takes longer, which isn’t to say that one or the other is better: It just requires both sides to adapt a little.
On the other hand, Americans are more likely to pay attention to the rules of law when doing business here, which means there is less wheeling and dealing than in some Latin American countries, he said.
The Great Recession was as hard on the Hispanic business community as any other in West Michigan. Sanchez said the Hispanic Chamber sees a positive outlook among its members, although the visible signs of economic recovery aren’t too evident yet.
There is a fairly high high-school dropout rate among Hispanic teenagers, which hurts the general community as well as the business sector. Those dropouts become part of the labor pool, and also part of the consumer market, so a lack of education has long-term impacts.
“There are people working hard, trying to minimize that (dropout rate),” said Sanchez. “But it is hard, even for a group of well-intentioned individuals, to change the system. It needs to be fixed.”
Hispanics in West Michigan have long occupied the restaurant niche in business circles, with establishments such as Little Mexico and Maggie’s Kitchen.
“Salsa sells more than ketchup!” Sanchez quipped.
Other Hispanic businesses that are holding their own include Alternative Mechanical on the south side of Grand Rapids, which is “growing like gangbusters — doing really good.”