GRAND RAPIDS — Citing concerns over widespread inequality, economic development stakeholders want to improve their outreach to the growing Latino population in the greater Grand Rapids area.
Ferris State University’s Latino Business & Economic Development Center (LBEDC) expects to kick off its Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative in the coming weeks. The initiative hopes to spur the creation of more Latino-owned “lifestyle businesses,” largely by exploring opportunities in new retail, restaurant and service-oriented ventures, said Carlos Sanchez, director of the LBEDC.
“The Latino community is launching businesses no matter what,” said Sanchez, who will lead the two initial 12-week cohorts. “Whether they have the knowledge or not, they’re going to launch it. They don’t really need us to launch a business. However, it’s always better if you launch a business with a little more knowledge of how to do it. So the mission for me is to limit the barriers.”
Hispanics and Latinos account for 15.6 percent of the Grand Rapids population, according to the most recent census information.
The way that Sanchez and other stakeholders see it, Latinos around West Michigan possess many business-related skills in diverse sectors ranging from design to food preparation. However, he contends significant gaps still exist in translating those skills into sustainable businesses.
“From making enchiladas to having a restaurant, there’s a lot of stuff in between,” Sanchez said. “It may take $20,000 or $40,000 to open a restaurant. But they can start selling enchiladas for $500. Our intention is to launch businesses.”
Early goals for the initiative include getting a couple of businesses off the ground by the end of the first two cohorts, he said.
Additionally, the Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative hopes to deliver the curriculum in Spanish as much as possible, which Sanchez contends will help would-be entrepreneurs clear a significant barrier to entry to launching a company.
“What I think this initiative is going to be able to do is eliminate barriers to the resources,” said Dante Villarreal, regional director for the Michigan Small Business Development Center (SBDC) that’s housed within Grand Valley State University. “It’s bringing the resources to them in their own language. By it being in Spanish, it eliminates any barrier at all, any confusion, and it allows them to really focus on the business model, as opposed to translating it.”
Villarreal will serve as a business coach for the Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative.
The funding for the new initiative, which is set to launch on March 7, comes from a variety of sources, including up to $20,000 from the city of Grand Rapids’ Economic Development department.
Ferris State University will contribute up to $40,650 for the Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative, according to public records.
Neither Ferris State nor Grand Rapids officials responded to requests for comment as this report went to press.
The cohorts will be based on curriculum established by The Company Lab, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based nonprofit startup accelerator.
The news that Ferris State and other partners will expand their engagement with would-be Latino entrepreneurs comes on the heels of other entrepreneurial service organizations reaching out to minority communities.
As MiBiz reported in early February, Grand Rapids-based SmartZone administrator Start Garden LLC brought on Darel Ross of LINC UP and Jorge Gonzalez of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to help further expand its economic development initiatives to “marginalized” communities.
“In historically marginalized communities, there always has been this area of mistrust. It’s about who you know and who you trust,” Gonzalez said for a previous report, adding that the work can help localize economic development efforts down to the neighborhood level.
Although it launched as a $15 million venture capital fund, Start Garden recently spun off its investment arm as Wakestream Ventures as it focuses on the “entrepreneur ecosystem” in Grand Rapids, as well as the city’s SmartZone tax incremental financing mechanism.
Sanchez said he’s not concerned about overlap between Start Garden and Ferris State’s Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative, despite them having similar missions.
The different groups working to address Latino and Hispanic entrepreneurship meet every two weeks at the Start Garden office in downtown Grand Rapids to talk about how they can best serve people who are infrequently the target of economic development efforts.
“(S)ometimes overlap is good because there’s got to be an easy way for an entrepreneur to move between different stages,” Sanchez said. “If there’s no intentional overlap, that’s where we start seeing cracks and where people fall through the cracks. So overlap sometimes is good. But we’re also trying to figure out if we have overlap, if it’s sucking resources in a way that is not efficient.”
Villarreal at the SBDC agrees with that sentiment, noting that there’s plenty of work to be done in West Michigan’s minority communities.
“It’s definitely the need to make sure that all communities progress and move forward,” Villarreal said. “It’s hard to have social prosperity without having economic prosperity. So we talk about making sure the schools are good and the communities are good. But at the end of the day, it also comes down to making sure we have strong, good businesses in these communities to help the community move forward.”