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UIX: Mercedes Barragan helps local professionals blend talents, goals

Mercedes Barragan

As president of the BL²END Executive Board, Mercedes Barragan looks for new partnerships and immerses herself in the community to advance the careers of young professionals of color.
Five years ago, Grand Rapids just wasn't the place Mercedes Barragan wanted it to be.
 
“No job opportunities, not enough diversity, and just not a place I thought I could ever call home,” Barragan says.
 
After graduating from Grand Valley State University she began looking for work at advertising firms in Detroit to be closer to her family in Imlay City. It was during this time, while working as a bartender at Romano’s Macaroni Grill, that Barragan met her future mentors Milinda Ysasi Castañon and Maxine Gray.
 
The women gave Barragan a business card from BL²END (Business Leaders Linked to Encourage New Directions), a group that celebrates professional diversity in Grand Rapids, and where Castañon and Gray serve as Advisory Council Members. They invited her to an event the following week. While Barragan was unable to attend, she did make it to a different event – A New Conversation (ANC) – at DeVos Place where BL²END had an information table.
 
“I was overwhelmed by how genuine the young people on the BL²END board were,” Barragan says. “I felt like I could really belong in this community because of this group.”
 
Founded in 2006 by Janean Couch, of GVSU; Jamon Alexander, from WMCAT; and Erayna Gamble-Sargent, from Nestlé; BL²END was established for young professionals who find themselves living and working in the Grand Rapids area upon graduation. The transition from college to the professional world brings challenges, including building new personal and professional networks. In BL²END, members can make connections within the community to add value to their careers.
 
Barragan's entry into BL²END in January 2011 worked much more swiftly than the post-college job application doldrums she had been used to.
 
“As fate would have it, BL²END had a position open on the board for a marketing communications co-chair and that’s when my professional career took off,” she says. “I was welcomed with open arms to the board and the outgoing president, Couch, welcomed me with a hug and said, ‘I’m so happy you’re on the board! We are going to get you a job!’”
 
Castañon was working in the human resources department at Cascade Engineering at the time and helped Barragan put her resume together.
 
“She put in a good word and took a chance on me when she didn't have to. Almost five years later, I still can’t seem to thank her enough,” Barragan says. “To this day, Janean, Mindy (Castañon) and Maxine are my mentors and some of my best friends. They are the kind of friends that help you grow professionally and are there to celebrate successes and pray for you during hardship. I can’t imagine I’d be where I am today without them.”
 
Today, along with being a Marketing Communications Associate at Cascade Engineering and possessing a number of other prestigious degrees and titles, Barragan is president of BL²END. And while GVSU helped prepare her for the workplace with technical skills, critical thinking, and strategy building, she learned real world applications at BL²END and Cascade Engineering at the same time.
 
“With BL²END I learned how to plan events, be an effective communicator and grow professionally. At Cascade I learned how to manage projects and process, I built up my graphic design skills, and developed an eye for photography,” she says. “Between both jobs I learned to be good at a lot of different things.”
 
Barragan’s job at BL²END begins when many call it a day, at 5 p.m. She’s charged with promoting BL²END’s values of education, collaboration, community, integrity, and professionalism.
 
“I look for new partnerships, stay up-to-date with what’s going on in my community and inspire our awesome board,” she says. “I believe this community is progressive and moving towards becoming a truly inclusive and diverse place, but there’s still a lot of work to do. BL²END is a part of that progression and most of my job is figuring out how I can make this a community a place myself and others can truly call home.”
 
According to the organization’s values, BL²END concentrates on the need of young professionals of color to have consistent networking opportunities allowing them to build relationships, while being actively engaged in the community. It aims to enhance the Grand Rapids social experience after business hours, all while sharpening the skills of young professionals to thrive in the workplace.
 
BL²END maintains three event chairs, one for each of its initiatives: social networking, professional development, and community outreach.
 
“They are the legs we stand on in the organization,” Barragan says. “Based on our strategic vision, they plan events, seek out partners and make our events flawless.”

Current Social Networking chair Graci Harkema helps develop and schedule the organization's events, usually called BL²ENDers. At these events, participants are provided with the opportunity to build networks and develop relationships with other young professionals of color. BL²ENDers range in theme from after hours networking socials to more casual events like bowling. At each event, participants are introduced to local businesses and get a chance to enhance their social networks while enjoying a night out.
 
The marketing, digital media, and participant engagement chairs handle promotion and conversation on BL²END’s social media outlets and engage participants by volunteering at events. Treasurer William Jackson keeps the books in order, and the secretary keeps the group organized so that it can function efficiently. Vice President Gregory Peacock coordinates the chairs, ensures that events line up with BL²END strategy, and helps with any partnerships or logistics. Peacock and Barragan work closely to ensure the vision set out is aligned with the organization’s events.
 
“As president, it’s important for me to inspire our volunteer board and serve the young professionals of color in our community,” Barragan says. “Our organization was created because the young professionals who started it found themselves living and working in Grand Rapids but not feeling connected to their community. Instead of complaining about the lack of opportunities available in our community at the time, they did something about it.”
 
In the spirit of those who came before her, Barragan is committed to making Grand Rapids a place where other such young professionals can live, work, and play. There are just under 2,000 young professionals on BL²END’s growing email list at this point, while the organization is working with Young Non Profit Professionals Network (YNPN) and Grand Rapids Young Professionals (GRYP) to retain young talent in West Michigan.

“My job is to help connect young professionals of color, help them grow professionally and encourage them to give back to our community,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like it can be daunting, but our board of directors and advisory board are committed to our mission. I am so proud to serve the young professionals in this community and do not take that responsibility lightly.”
Mercedes Barragan - Linc Up Soul Food Cafe

To learn more about Barragan and BL²END, visit http://www.grblend.org/
 
Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com. 

Photography by Steph Harding 
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