Upward Mobility: Preparing West Michigan’s Latinx professionals for success and leadership

When Ferris State University launched its initiative in 2012 to connect with the growing Latinx population in West Michigan and to spur economic development, it had three goals in mind: to provide participants with a unique networking opportunity; offer valuable insight into cultural differences that impact workplace behaviors; and present the chance for participants to test newly developed cross-cultural skills in a safe learning environment. Now, seven cohorts later, the Latino Business and Economic Development Center’s executive director Carlos Sanchez says the success of the Latino Talent Initiative can be measured by the upward mobility of its graduates.

“I’ve been told that it was because of LEADeres that an individual decided to run for City Council in East Grand Rapids,” says Sanchez. “Another alumnus serves on the board of education for Godfrey Lee Public Schools, while many others have obtained promotions or have moved to jobs where they are recognized for their qualifications and are being rewarded.”

LEADeres is a non-credit leadership lab at Ferris State University’s Latino Business and Economic Development Center designed to support Latinx professionals as they pursue their individual career and life goals. Since its inception, the program has been committed to helping Latinx professionals develop the skills, resources, and confidence needed to become leaders at work and in the community.

Better professionals benefit the community

Yesica Duran is among LEADeres’ graduating class of 2020. She says the desire to learn more about becoming a better leader in the Latinx community is what inspired her to enroll in the program. “It was valuable to me while growing my own career to be able to learn and connect with other leaders who have the same goal of helping the Latino community,” says Duran. “LEADeres has been a great stepping stone in my life,” she continues, “It was eye opening to see different aspects of what leadership consists of – and ways to be a voice for those who at times, do not have a platform.”

Yesica Duran
Duran was born in Guatemala in the small town of Real Panorama. Her family moved to the United States in 1998 when she was just 7 years old and spoke only Spanish. Duran began her elementary education at Southwest Community Campus and graduated from Lee High School. She shares how as a young child, she and her late brother self-taught each other English using books her father had around. “After high school,” says Duran, “I wanted to attend college for a different dream, but started working in the financial industry; and noticed how much of a help I could be to people.”

Currently, she is employed as a retail personal banker at Fifth Third Bank’s Wyoming branch, where she works to build long-lasting relationships with customers while helping them to understand and address their financial needs. “I have been with the bank for over seven years and [am] fortunate to have its support to grow in my career and give back my time to help our community.”

Latinx individuals make up the second largest demographic in the City of Wyoming. Duran shares that she volunteers on community-based initiatives such as Fifth Third’s Young Bankers Club, a financial literacy program that teaches fifth-grade elementary school students about the importance of good education, finances, and personal responsibility. Duran is also a member of Fifth Third’s Latino Business Resource Group made up of employees and allies who are focused on among other things, employee attraction, retention and development – all to which Duran says is about “making sure peers succeed and give back to the community.”

One of the outcomes of the LEADeres program is that its graduates possess the skills, resources, and confidence necessary to support each other as leaders professionally and in their communities. Juan Rosario is a talent solutions manager at West Michigan Works and says LEADeres instilled in him confidence and a higher sense of awareness around the importance of cultural diversity. He shares how the program helped him to better understand how to leverage his own identity to lead and influence others.

“The knowledge gained on what it means to be culturally competent has helped me become a better listener to my team, as well as to the community West Michigan Works serves,” says Rosario. “LEADeres has reinforced my commitment to help move the community forward – and the importance of civic engagement."

West Michigan Works is a workforce development agency that partners with community stakeholders to create a qualified workforce in the region.

Juan Rosario, LEADeres graduate.Identity and cultural awareness – elevating diverse voices

Before Carlos Sanchez accepted the position of executive director of Ferris State University’s Latino Business and Economic Development Center, he was known for his advocacy for the development of economic opportunities for the Latinx community in Greater Grand Rapids. Sanchez’s passion for helping to develop others is fueled in part by his own personal story and journey as a Latino businessman residing in West Michigan. When asked how much his lived experiences weigh on how he leads in the community and directs LEADeres, Sanchez says, “A lot.”

“Twenty years ago, when I arrived in Grand Rapids, there were about six of us Latinx professionals who were called for every single board, committee meeting, etc. ... I didn't know many other Latinx professionals to look up to for mentoring or advice,” he continues. “We want to change that.”

In creating the change meant to expand opportunities to Latinx business professionals through LEADeres, Sanchez is also focused on ensuring there is adequate representation of the diversity of culture and heritage within the Latinx community.

“Although we have always strived for a diverse group of individuals representative of the Latino community’s diversity, in the first years of the program we had a majority of participants who were descendants of Mexican immigrants,” says Sanchez. “However, in the past three years we have seen an increment in participants whose heritage is other than Mexican.” “We have Dominicans, Guatemalans, Chileans, Colombians, etc.,” Sanchez continues. “This is because of our intentional effort to recruit a more diverse cohort – and because alumni refer friends and family to the program.”

Sanchez went on to share that he has witnessed an increase of participants who identify as bicultural and attributes the incline to signs that West Michigan is also becoming more bicultural – and/or individuals have more agency to self-identify and honor their cultural roots.

Upward mobility – choosing West Michigan

While LEADeres aims to guide individuals that make up West Michigan’s Latinx community toward upward mobility, it also exists to help non-Latinx owned businesses effectively target the Latinx market. Hispanics and Latinx represent the third largest demographic in both the State of Michigan and in the City of Grand Rapids. In the past, Sanchez has commented publicly on what he described as a missed opportunity on the part of non-Hispanic business owners. In a prior interview, Sanchez was quoted as saying,

“Businesses not owned by Hispanics miss opportunities to reach Hispanic consumers often because they fail to bridge language and cultural differences between that ethnic group and the majority culture.”

As the Hispanic and Latinx population continues to grow throughout Greater Grand Rapids, so does the need to develop and prepare more Latinx individuals to assume professional and leadership roles in the community. West Michigan is considered a highly collaborative region where — in recent years — those charged with overseeing its economic development have placed a high priority on attracting and retaining top, culturally diverse talent.

The LEADeres program is uniquely designed to help Latinx professionals be equipped and better positioned to take advantage of opportunities that may enable them to participate in all facets of West Michigan’s growing economy.

“I have been very lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” Sanchez says of his own professional journey. “But that is because of the network I developed thanks to individuals who brought me along, opened doors, and connected me to others,” he adds. “We want to create that.”

Ready to LEAD
Clarissa Mata, the youngest LEADeres graduate.

LEADeres is designed to support Latinx professionals as they pursue their individual career and life goals. A major part of that support is the opportunity program participants will have to tap into a dynamic network of Latinx professionals made up of LEADeres alumni who are actively carrying out the mission of the program to leverage their acquired knowledge and skills to develop others and build up the Latinx community.

"It has been invaluable to network and learn from other Latinx professionals,” says Rosario. “LEADeres provided a platform for me to be vulnerable and honest; and it motivated me to strive for more.” Rosario went on to share how the program’s guest presenters, regardless of profession or status, created a lasting impression on him by reaching out and encouraging the cohort to view them as allies along their journey.

Whether it be through an executive role in the business and economic development space, or leading a grassroots effort around social, economic, and environmental injustice to ensure more equitable outcomes for West Michigan’s Hispanic and Latinx communities; LEADeres alumni continue to make evident the success of the program through active leadership – and are committed to ensuring other aspiring Latinx professionals are well equipped and ready to lead.

Photos courtesy Bird+Bird Studio.

In the spirit of celebrating diverse leadership in Grand Rapids, Rapid Growth Media presents the LEADeres class of 2020.

Yadira Alcantar, Grand Rapids Foam Technologies
Humberto Alvarez, Tacos El Cuñado Bridge St.
Maria Barreiro, Michigan Department of Corrections
Angel Barreto-Cruz, Entrepreneur and YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids
Rolando Bocanegra, Mixed Staffing & Recruiting
Vanessa Cervantes, Grandville Avenue for Arts and Humanities
Claudia Covarrubias, Marvin Law Office
Lydia Cruz, Grand Rapids Community College
Gabriella De La Vega, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan
Yesica Duran, Fifth Third Bank
Sarai Gamez, Kent School Services Network
Esmeralda Gavina, Kent County 63rd District Court
Rene Guzman, Guzman Real Estate
Alexandria Hamilton, Meijer
Gricelda Mata, Lindo Mexico
Clarissa Mata, Lindo Mexico
Julio Nuñez, Amway
Tomas Perez-Gan, Amway/ICON
Sebastian Ramirez, Roskam Baking Company
Alyson Ramirez, Kids' Food Basket
Angela Reyna Perez, Affinity Mentoring
Adriana Rodriguez Vazquez, Immigrant Connection at City Life Church
Alex Romero, Spanish Interpreter
Juan Rosario, West Michigan Works
Jennifer Traveras, Fifth Third Bank
Zaira Vicario de Zapata, Kent School Services Network
Maribel Villasenor, Pridgeon & Clay


Written by Kendra R. McNeil, Innovation News Editor at Rapid Growth Media and owner of We Are LIT Grand Rapids

LEADeres is made possible in part by its presenting sponsor, Steelcase, and by Independent Bank, sponsor of the program’s graduation ceremony.
Clarissa Mata, LEADeres' youngest graduate
Clarissa Mata, LEADeres' youngest graduate
Clarissa Mata is a first-generation college student of Mexican descent. To date, she is the youngest participant of the LEADeres program. Mata graduated from Jenison High School in May 2019 and is currently attending GRCC with plans to transfer to MSU next fall, where she will major in political science pre-law. Although Mata is already known among peers as being a leader — having led two clubs in high school: the Multicultural Advancement Scholars and the Gender Sexuality Alliance — she is always looking for new ways to be involved in the community, and is grateful for the connections LEADeres has provided her.

Rapid Growth Media: What key concepts did you learn while going through LEADeres that will be useful as you navigate your higher education?

Clarissa Mata: Creativity and innovation for sure! During our first session, we had a few activities and tasks to do and were given three to five rules. We would ask, “Can we do this or that?” And Carlos would say, “The rules are just the rules on the board!” 

Basically, “interpret as you will!”

After seeing other groups being creative and finding new ways to win while still following the rules, my group would also adjust and find ways to beat the other teams. Since then, I have found new ways to finish my projects and assignments at school. I still follow the instructions given and respect the deadline, but I find myself creating more complex and creative essay papers – and since we’ve moved online, discussion board posts.

Rapid Growth: You shared plans to transfer from GRCC to MSU to study political science – prelaw; what led you to this path?

Mata: There was a SNL skit that my favorite artist Halsey was a part of. It was a political skit called “Women of Congress.” In it, Alec Baldwin playing Donald Trump, says in a voicemail to a group of congresswomen, “Congratulations, women of congress. You know, since I have been President, we have more women serving in congress than ever before.”

Rashida Tlaib, played by Halsey then interjects, “It is not because of you, it is in spite of you!”

Since the 2016 election, I have seen a lot of hate filling this country. There is definitely a lot of good, but I’ve never seen so much anger and fear before. I have always loved politics. I remember watching the election results back in 2008 and 2012 when I was only 7 and 11 years old! I have always wanted to help people; so, with all of this energy inside me, I thought, “What better way to help others than to run for office and make sure there are laws that will help people?”

Rapid Growth: As a first-generation college student, what hopes do you have to leverage your experiences and opportunities to give back to your community?

Mata: I really hope I set a good example for others. I’m so fortunate to have a family, friends, and work family who support and help me any way they can. Since I’ve been so privileged with these opportunities, I am hoping to achieve three main things:
First, I hope to show others that young people are full of potential and energy! We are the future. Just because we are young does not mean we should not be taken seriously. Second, I hope to inspire other young people to get more involved in the community. Third, I hope to use my opportunities and connections to give a voice to those who feel they do not have one.

I am so fortunate to be in a position where I can use and raise my voice to bring attention to something. Many others do not have the same privilege. So, I believe it is my duty to use my voice to help.

Rapid Growth: What are your political aspirations? Do you plan to practice law locally?

Mata: I plan on running for office after graduating law school. I believe in order to change, create, and pass laws, I must know the ins and outs of how law works and how it will impact the people of this country.

I live in Michigan’s 2nd District. That is where I will be running for district representative in 2028. If Bryan Berghoef wins the election this November, I may have to change my plans a bit since I really like him as a candidate. If Bill Huizenga wins this November and in 2024, I am more than happy to run against him in 2028.

After serving time as a district representative, I plan to become a Michigan Senator. Of course, depending on where I best believe I can help this country, my plans may change.

In 2018, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss called me the next mayor of Grand Rapids; so, we will see!