Building momentum in careers and community: Latinx leadership program looks ahead

West Michigan is actively transforming because of the work being done in a single leadership program over the last decade.

Latinx professionals who have come out of the LEADeres program in the Latino Business and Economic Development Center at Ferris State University are now business leaders, educators, judges and role models in their Greater Grand Rapids and Lakeshore communities.

As these leaders take on new roles in their careers and neighborhoods, they eventually find new challenges to overcome.

Just like communities, good leaders adapt.

"Those that went through the program three to five years ago, they are in a different place right now professionally than those who went through the program two years ago," says Carlos Sanchez, director of the Latino Business and Economic Development Center.

This summer, the LEADeres program will enter the next phase in its growth — what Sanchez calls, "LEADeres 2.0."

This idea is still in its infancy, guided by the results of alumni polls and surveys aimed at identifying their professional needs and wants. 
“We are doing this throughout the summer as well as at the 10th anniversary celebration on June 16,” Sanchez says.
This new program could potentially serve alumni who may now have different needs than they did when they first went through the program. This is a critical step in the evolution of LEADeres, as participants continue to take on new opportunities.

Courtesy of Autumn Johnson, Bird + Bird Studio

The Latinx population in Grand Rapids has grown steadily for the past few decades. The latest census shows that Latinx people make up 16% of Grand Rapids population. Representing the largest non-white racial demographic group in the city, the population is expected to continue growing, particularly in area neighborhoods and Latinx business corridors.

Despite this growth, there remains a disparity in equity, as Data Commons shows the 2020 median household income for Latinx families is $49,860 in Kent County and $61,325 in Ottawa County, while that for whites is $70,361 in Kent County and $73,373 for Ottawa County.

As such, resources for cultivating Latinx leaders are important to Kent and Ottawa counties, where in 2019 more than 10% of residents, over 100,000 people, were Hispanic. That was also the year Rafael Castañon learned about the LEADeres program.

"It was pretty significant in my career," he says.

Castañon was working in project management in the medical industry, often focused on acquisitions. He would be called in to visit different factories overseas, learn about their machines and bring them back to operationalize in Michigan.

Through a Latinx leadership program event, Castañon became friends with  two men who were also going through the 2018 LEADeres cohort in Grand Rapids.

“I go fishing with them and we hang out, doing fun stuff, but then I started asking about the program,” Castañon says.

It was Bo Torres who invited Castañon to his upcoming graduation. There, Castañon saw his friends, LEADeres alumni and many others who had previously attended the graduation. 

“I thought, this is something. I see a lot of folks who I connect with, folks that I admire, who all have done this program, who all speak very highly of it," Castañon says. 

"... I've seen the enthusiasm and the passion that the program brought out," he says. “I thought, I’ve got to be a part of this.” “I wanted to be in the next cohort.”

Castañon reached out to Sanchez and asked when the next application would be available and talked to his employer about working through the program. 

Castañon had just recently gotten involved in a Latinx affinity group for men, the West Michigan Latino Network. That was driving his personal passion, while working in project management 9-to-5 kept the bills paid.  

“In my off time I was getting a lot of Latinx community engagement, connecting with folks that I just didn't have in my work life,” he says.

“The LEADeres program really helped me define this stuff on the fringes of my work life, my personal life,” he adds. “Why would I not try to bring that community and make that a part of my 9 to 5?”

Raised in a blue collar family, Castañon’s insight and dedication led him to better and better professional opportunities, but he still found he lacked a strategy in terms of applying his passions to those areas. 

He recalls the second session where the cohort took a personal inventory and found their passions and strongest skills. He soon found a new perspective through the LEADeres program.

“LEADeres has really helped me get laser focused on understanding what I want to do with the skills that I have,” Castañon says. “That's when I got an opportunity through one of the folks in the Latinx network who told me about an opportunity with Health Net of West Michigan, an organization that is about patient advocacy and health equity.” 

Castañon found “a real alignment” with his skills and passion through Health Net. 

“It was the start of me really thinking about my career in a different way,” he says. “I don't think that would have happened without LEADeres.”

Castañon says he looks forward to an email from Sanchez when enrollment for the new cohorts opens up.

"I share that with my friends in the Latinx network and also friends that I just know in my personal network," Castañon says.

He says LEADeres is ideal for “emerging leaders who have a certain amount of momentum and are looking to take that next step.” 

“I believe that is a great conduit to connect with folks that can help supercharge the idea that you have or help provide guidance when you have a certain momentum in your career, but you're not sure what that next step is going to take. There's usually someone who's been going through the same exact moment you are or has had that experience and can tell you about how to approach it.”

Castañon still talks to people from his cohort, especially when opportunities come up.

“Those relationships that develop in LEADeres really are something that builds community,” he says. “It also propels us forward. We all have ambitions, either a specific project or a specific career ambition. We're all pushing together.”

Claudia Pohlen completed the LEADeres program in the most recent Grand Rapids cohort, graduating in the spring of 2022, six years after earning her master’s degree in nonprofit/public/organizational management from Grand Valley State University. She says getting back into a classroom, especially one geared towards helping Latinx professionals, was an important step for her personal development.

On her graduation day, Pohlen remembers being moved by the many group presentations showcasing the impact thatLatinx people have had in the greater West Michigan community.

“I really enjoyed seeing that community there, as well as young kids,” Pohlen says. “They were the kids of my classmates and I think it's really important to show them that learning is a lifelong thing.”

Photo by Tommy Allen

Pohlen came to West Michigan when she was 26 years old, with experience from several jobs already behind her.

"I feel like [LEADeres] was very catered to our culture and very sensitive to our different backgrounds and understanding that not everyone was the same,” Pohlen says. “It gave me a lot of hope for what I can accomplish in my career here in West Michigan.”

Pohlen is currently campaign coordinator for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, where she works in fundraising and coordinates the foundation’s Centennial Campaign. She has a passion for development and fundraising work — a field that she says has historically lacked diversity. 

“I am looking forward to staying in development,” Pohlen says. “There are not many people of color, or women of color, in the fundraising field, and I think this is something important that we should do. We should definitely be in those spaces."

Pohlen is also an advocate for the LEADeres program. Like Castañon, she promotes the opportunity to her friends and close colleagues.

“I have been really cheering them on to go through the program,” she says. "It's a great opportunity to network with people that have very similar backgrounds and that understand your path. You are also able to listen to professionals in their careers that have achieved a certain level of success in the community, and those experiences are invaluable."

The next cohort of LEADeres has not been announced yet, but Sanchez says the focus for returning students could involve deeper instruction on leadership or a broadened focus on its application, depending on what participants need most.

"We're going to survey the graduates to figure out what we've done, what they need and what we can do to support them," he says.

For previous cohorts and for those upcoming, Steelcase has provided financial support, hosted some of the sessions on-site and provided meals to participants. Amway and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce also host LEADeres group sessions.
For the Lakeshore cohorts, Independent Bank provides financial support for the program, while the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce, Haworth, Herman Miller and Gentex provide the venues and support in other ways.

If given the opportunity, Pohlen says she would be very interested in returning to the LEADeres program to further her leadership skills, especially in the area of cultural intelligence.

“I would definitely sign up for that,” she says.

This solutions journalism story is part of a three-part LEADeres series on its past, present, and future impact on the West Michigan region. Underwriting for this editorially independent series was made possible through Ferris State University.

Matthew Russell is a writer and maker living in West Michigan. Matthew has over 20 years of experience as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in two books about Grand Rapids history, and is currently improving his skills as an amateur apiarist while building a sustainable microfarm.
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