Published in Small Business
Pictured, from left: Transformando West Michigan Program Manager Ana Jose and El Globo Restaurant owners Oswaldo Cordova and Evangelina Abundis Pictured, from left: Transformando West Michigan Program Manager Ana Jose and El Globo Restaurant owners Oswaldo Cordova and Evangelina Abundis PHOTO: KATY BATDORFF

TRANSFORMING A GENERATION: West Michigan Hispanic Chamber looks to uplift Latino business community

BY Sunday, November 24, 2019 05:05pm

Oswaldo Cordova and Evangelina Abundis opened El Globo Restaurant LLC 14 years ago.

They moved the restaurant to South Division Avenue in Grand Rapids three years ago and have since expanded into catering. Now the couple wants to open a banquet hall and produce packaged foods, as well as spend more time thinking about the future and growing their business.

The willingness to expand and the confidence in those plans stems from lessons Cordova learned from Transformando West Michigan, a program the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce launched a year and a half ago to support and train Hispanic small business owners in the skills they need to grow their companies.

Cordova credits Transformando West Michigan with helping him to look differently at his business.

“It actually opened my mind to start thinking things over and to think higher,” he said. “The classes give you tools on what you can do better for your life and your business.”

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That’s precisely what the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber seeks to accomplish with Transformando West Michigan, which has a broad, long-term goal over the next three decades to revitalize and uplift the Hispanic business community in West Michigan — from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo and Holland to Muskegon.

“This is going to take an entire generation,” said Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber.

The Hispanic business community across the region has been largely stagnant for years, Cisneros said. To change that status, the Hispanic Chamber crafted Transformando West Michigan to provide business training in Spanish for business owners who don’t speak English or are more comfortable with Spanish.

Creating foundations

Many Hispanic business owners are immigrants or children of immigrants who came to West Michigan to work in manufacturing or agriculture. They later formed their own companies around a particular skill or trade and “have amazing services,” Cisneros said. However, they often lack business acumen or an understanding of the processes and systems they need to put in place to better organize, manage and grow their companies and create jobs, he said. 

“We have an opportunity to develop these business owners,” said Cisneros, who joined the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber in March 2017.

“If we bring the resources and the necessary tools, the knowledge and the education to all of them, they want to be productive and successful and efficient, and if that happens, they will hire more people, their businesses will grow, and they will spend locally and the entire economy will benefit,” he said. “If we don’t do anything to support them and to build an infrastructure where they can learn different things in their own language, we’re going to be missing out on a huge segment of the population that we’re going to have here.”

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Hispanics and Latinos accounted for 15.3 percent of the population in Grand Rapids in 2018, and 24 percent in the City of Holland. Hispanics and Latinos also made up an estimated 10 percent of Kalamazoo’s population in 2018, according to the Census Bureau.

Even if the business owners are able to succeed and make a living, many lack the internal processes and systems to put their companies in a position to qualify for bank financing if they want to expand, said Ana Jose, program manager and a business consultant for Transformando West Michigan.

One of the program’s goals is to help businesses “create a good foundation to be able to move forward and to be bankable,” Jose said.

“Our goal is to make sure we change that narrative so they are actually prepared,” she said. “I want our clients to run good businesses and I just want them to do well and be looked at like any other business in Grand Rapids.”

Jose cites one Hispanic-owned business that has doubled revenue to $200,000 after going through the program.

Closing gaps

The first cohort of 11 business owners, mostly restaurants, grocery stores and salons, went through the program’s “Feeding Minds, Mouths, and Buckets” session in 2018. The organization brought in experts and consultants for courses in areas such as human resources, financial planning, accounting and customer service, plus a class in food safety certification. 

Oftentimes, those kinds of courses were available locally from organizations, but they didn’t have an instructor who spoke Spanish, Cisneros said. In one instance, a class was held with an interpreter, but “a lot of things got lost in translation,” he said.

So the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber reached out and was able to form partnerships with companies that could provide the classes in Spanish.

For example, the Grand Rapids office of Principal Financial Group flew in an adviser from Arizona who spoke Spanish to teach a five-week finance course, Cisneros said.

Other support for Transformando West Michigan has come from Gordon Food Service Inc., which contributed lessons in inventory management and ordering, and a group of business students at Grand Valley State University who assisted business owners in writing executive summaries for business plans.

The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber has been working to identify other skills gaps among members and create training to address those needs. Additional cohorts held this year and consisting of 12 to 15 business owners each focused on customer service, which was taught by Experience Grand Rapids, and human resources.

For 2020, the Hispanic Chamber plans to offer courses on customer service, business safety and security, bookkeeping, and accounting software, as well as repeat past cohorts, Cisneros said.

Developing networks

An added benefit from Transformando West Michigan has been the professional networking for the business owners, who keep in touch, offer advice or help out one another.

“They’re coming together, they are learning together, and they are developing their networks within the business community. That’s helping them to build confidence and build trust between each other so they are not isolated,” Cisneros said.

Transformando West Michigan has been backed financially with a $167,000 three-year grant from the Grand Rapids-based Wege Foundation, and about $94,000 from the Grand Rapids Economic Development Corp.

The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber is working to identify additional funding sources to maintain the program, Jose said. 

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