Hispanic business owners thrive, find partnerships in GR

Now gaining greater traction with vocal community leaders and partners like the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Hispanic business owners are accessing increasing opportunities to work together and reach wider markets.
As the Hispanic population grows in Grand Rapids, so does the number of Hispanic-owned businesses. However, what most Grand Rapidians don't realize is that many of these businesses — retail shops, grocery stores and restaurants, to name a few — have been thriving in the city for decades. Now gaining greater traction with vocal community leaders and partners like the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (WMHCC), Hispanic business owners are accessing increasing opportunities to work together and reach wider markets.

However, despite this growth, these entrepreneurs face unique challenges and seek educational outlets especially tailored for them. The new executive leadership of the WMHCC, as well as one well-known business owner in the Hispanic community, discussed the ins and outs of being a Hispanic business owner in Grand Rapids.

As of January 1, 2016, the WMHCC, an organization formed in 2003, will be led by an entirely new executive committee.

"The Chamber is in growth mode, and the new executive team will bring new ideas and strategies to make the chamber the leading Hispanic business organization in West Michigan," Executive Director Jorge Gonzalez says in a press release about the leadership change.

The chamber itself has grown in part to meet the needs of the "huge, tremendous growth in these businesses in West Michigan," says Gonzalez. Since April of this year, the chamber has grown from 280 to 320 members, and is designed to serve the approximate 800 Latino businesses in Grand Rapids, according to the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University.

Among the new leadership team is President-elect Luis Avila, a labor and employment attorney at Varnum Law, who himself has led workshops in Spanish that cater to Hispanic business owners. Though many may be under the common misconception that these businesses are in the startup stage, Avila says, "they're already successful” and have “already put in the sweat equity." So, instead of explaining basic business principles, Avila presents on topics like the legal implications of various business structures, answering "sophisticated questions from sophisticated business owners," he says.

These workshops span a variety of topics and are usually industry-specific, such as a best practices in food-handling presentation for restaurant and bakery owners. In the future, Gonzalez and Avila hope to also educate the community on how to reach consumers outside of their ethnic and language groups.

"[Many] don't know how to break into the larger West Michigan market," says Avila, whose principal goal is "helping these Hispanic businesses grow outside of their markets."

In addition to seeking ways to break into the wider market, Hispanic business owners face other various challenges. One such obstacle is the language barrier. Many of these entrepreneurs are immigrants as well and though some have lived in the United States for some time and are proficient in English, they can require certain concepts and terminology defined in their native language. Another such challenge is more strict regulation in creating a legal businesses in the United States.

Javier Olvera, President and Owner of Supermercado Mexico, a successful collection of three supermarkets and, most recently, a bakery, notes Hispanics are accustomed to forming their own businesses. "It's part of our culture," he says. However, discovering strict American regulations, unlike those in Mexico and many Central and South American countries, can be challenging for Hispanic entrepreneurs.

"[We have to] do it the right way to help our community," says Olvera, stressing that education on the complexities of American business regulation could assist immigrant business owners in creating solid ventures.

Olvera himself benefited from education and networking as he transitioned from a nine-year career as a mechanical engineer at Steelcase before deciding to pursue his supermarkets. Connecting with local groups such as the Michigan Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Local First and the WMHCC has opened doors and provided community when he needed it most.

"All of those groups help us keep growing," says Olvera, who will begin serving on the board of directors of the chamber in January.

He also believes in personal mentorship. "I am currently working on mentoring a college student. I think it’s important to pass the knowledge to new entrepreneurs," says Olvera.

Passing on valuable business knowledge to the next generation is also a goal of Avila and Gonzalez, who seek to increase their student membership in the coming year. With more and more first generation Hispanic students poised to join the workforce upon graduation, the chamber aims to educate and prepare a diverse pool of applicants for the wide variety of West Michigan companies. Most of all, through all of these efforts, the chamber desires to remain focused on its mission of supporting the small business owner.

"We can't forget that's the reason we exist," says Gonzalez.

As the chamber looks forward to a new year, its leaders begin planning for a new season of growth and reinvestment in the West Michigan Hispanic business community. Offering networking, training and workshops catering to Hispanic business owners, the chamber strives to meet the needs of a growing and hungry population of entrepreneurs.

"There will be an explosion of new businesses coming, especially from the Hispanic community," says Olvera.

As new businesses are created and seasoned entrepreneurs make new connections, the Hispanic community makes headway in reaching a wider market and making a lasting impression on West Michigan.
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