GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has launched Black, Asian and Latinx business councils within its organization to better serve businesses owned by people of color.
The move comes after the Grand Rapids Chamber partnered with Kent County to administer the Kent County Small Business Recovery Program in June 2020, which awarded $33.1 million in federal CARES Act funding to nearly 4,000 businesses.
Of the businesses awarded funding, 37 percent were women-owned and 47 percent were minority-owned, said Dante Villarreal, vice president of business and talent development at the Grand Rapids Chamber.
The program achieved an equitable outcome because officials were intentional about partnering with community groups and programs in communities of color, Villarreal said during virtual town hall this afternoon.
Leading the program also gave the Grand Rapids Chamber a chance to “look behind the scenes” and get a better understanding of the additional obstacles minority-owned businesses face, which were amplified by the pandemic, Villarreal said.
Still, the Grand Rapids Chamber faced initial backlash from minority-owned business groups that felt they were in a better position to administer the funding, as MiBiz previously reported.
“We do have minority owned businesses that are up to par and as strong as any within their industry, but the reality is many are without resources,” Villarreal said. “Minority businesses are not accessing all the different programs and opportunities and resources that are available.”
Many minority-owned businesses weren’t prepared or equipped to apply for various COVID-19 relief programs because of language and cultural barriers as well as difficulties with gathering necessary documentation in a timely matter, Villarreal said.
The three new business councils aim to connect minority-owned businesses with necessary knowledge and tools. The Black Business Council is chaired by James Byl, founder and owner of Multi-Automatic Tool & Supply Co.; the Asian American Business Council is chaired by Floriza Genautis, principal and founder of Management Business Solutions; and the Latinx Business Council is chaired by Ruben Famos, managing partner at R&R Mechanical Services.
“We’re so fortunate in West Michigan and Grand Rapids to have so many resources available to us, but there are certainly a lot of challenges for minority owned businesses,” Genautis said during the town hall. “As a minority owned business myself, there is always a challenge with language barriers, there is a challenge when it comes to cultural differences as well as traditions. And access to capital for us is a lot different.”
The new business councils also plan to facilitate peer-to-peer networks that strengthen individual businesses, foster a sense of belonging, and provide a voice for the minority business communities they represent, Villarreal said.
“It’s about really investing in our communities of color and having the right people in the right seats,” Villarreal said.