Transformando spring cohort shares lessons

Restaurant and small business owners lean on Hispanic chamber program for guidance, growth and expansion.
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After taking a break during the craziness that was 2020, Transformando West Michigan returned this year with a new round of classes for its participants.

The business training program founded and led by the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and underwritten this time around by Bank of America and Huntington Bank will graduate its spring 2021 cohort — which began meeting virtually on Feb. 1 — on April 26.

The Hispanic chamber’s Ana Jose, program manager, and Yesenia Bernal, business consultant, recently spoke to the Business Journal about this year’s iteration of the program, along with four of the 18 Latinx business participants: Paola Mendivil, co-owner of El Granjero Mexican Grill in Grand Rapids; Gricelda Mata, owner of Lindo Mexico Restaurant in Wyoming; Ismael Abreu, owner of Ismael Abreu Agency Inc. (a Farmers Insurance agency in Grand Rapids); and Jose Perez, co-owner of Kiko Studio Salon Unisex & Spa in Wyoming.

During a year in which many restaurants and small businesses were closing their doors due to the pandemic-induced economic recession, the chamber helped its members navigate 2020 with trainings on how to apply for Payroll Protection Program grants and other stimulus dollars and grant opportunities to help them stay afloat.

Then, the chamber in December secured a $100,000 grant from Bank of America to be able to hire “top-quality” instructors and mentors to lead Transformando classes free of charge in the spring, as well as provide them with assistance to restart their businesses, Jose said.

This particular cohort of Transformando was dubbed “Transformando Nuestras Metas,” or “transforming our goals.” The sessions helped participants get the tools they need to overcome the current economic challenges. The concepts explored during the three-month program included finances, digital marketing, sustainability, and mentorship through a lens of equity and inclusion.

The cohort included the following components:

  • A four-week “Colorism” workshop series from AQUME Consulting LLC
  • A four-week “Growing a Small Business” workshop series from Bank of America
  • An eight-week training program designed to teach restaurants concepts and systems that will make their businesses more efficient from Grand Rapids American Culinary Federation (GGRACF)
  • A 12-week training program designed to provide financial and strategic planning and one-on-one coaching to cohort participants from D’Oleo Analytica
  • A six-week marketing and sales training program designed to empower growth in sales, revenue and impact through education, connection, leadership and a digital audit from Grow Business Today
  • A five-week “Social Media Marketing” workshop series from the Michigan Small Business Development Center
  • A three-week “Sustainability” workshop series from U.S. Green Building Council West Michigan and West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum
  • A 25-hour pro bono services program to deliver tangible solutions in the areas of marketing, finance, social media development and more from LendGR of Grand Valley State University
  • Two months of personalized mentoring from BetterUp
  • A Paycheck Protection Program presentation from Northern Initiatives
  • A Better Business Bureau presentation

Mendivil, who co-owns El Granjero with her mother, Mercedes Lopez Duran, said she was drawn to Transformando back in 2018 because of its emphasis not only on educating entrepreneurs on how to run a better business, but ensuring they apply the lessons learned. This round of classes had her even more excited.

“This time around, this 2021 version, has been incredible,” she said. “The (program) name says it all — Transformando. We’re truly transforming our businesses into better places to work and better providers of goods and services. We’re just being enriched with all this information, but also (given) the opportunity to apply it and take action steps.”

She said Lopez Duran thought a workshop led by Chef Oscar Moreno from MeXo Tequila & Mezcal Bar and Restaurant in downtown Grand Rapids was especially eye-opening, as it taught her to review her menu item by item, evaluating where she was losing money, how to more competitively price the dishes and how to innovate with her food offerings. Lopez Duran also is passionate about implementing some of the environmentally sound practices she learned in the sustainability workshop series. Mendivil said she especially appreciated the webinars from virtual business mentor Jonathan D’Oleo, who is managing director at D’Oleo Analytica in Miami. His stories of businesses that have executed new processes inspired her, she said.

When the class graduates, Mendivil said she wants to keep in touch with the cohort members for accountability, especially the other restaurants, which she doesn’t view as competitors but as peers, supporters and fellow learners. She said it has been a difficult time for everyone in the business, from keeping staff to dealing with rising food prices, low revenue and finding PPE, but she is grateful to the chamber for its help.

Mata, owner of the 20-year-old restaurant Lindo Mexico, said she has always been a lifelong learner, and Transformando has positively impacted not only her business but her quality of life. She said the class on colorism — or discrimination based on skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group — opened her eyes to areas of bias and benefited her employees as well as her family. She said she also appreciated Moreno’s coaching on pricing and recipe revisions and D’Oleo’s insights on implementing new strategies.

“The best part of it is that (D’Oleo) is available outside of class, so we have a phone call with him, and we share things with him, and he gives us feedback. So what I’m working on right now is having more processes. I already had some, but now I’m doing more of the standard operating processes, which is going to take me awhile, but I’m already on it and starting it,” Mata said, adding she recently decided to close the restaurant two days a week so she could focus on improving her business.

She said if there’s any advice she could give other entrepreneurs, it would be to take advantage of any resources or classes offered, even if doing so feels like a risk.

“It might not work, but we don’t know unless we try,” she said.

Abreu, owner of the Ismael Abreu Agency Farmers Insurance branch, said this three-month session was his first experience with Transformando, and he has learned a lot. As one of the non-restaurant businesses in the program, he said COVID-19 was hard in a different way for him, as the business clients coming through his doors looking for insurance often said they had been deemed ineligible for PPP loans due to not having their ducks in a row with accounting and finances, and it made him sad. 

When Abreu joined Transformando, he wasn’t sure what to expect, but his “mind was blown” with all of the information the instructors provided — practical knowledge he never learned in college.

“Entrepreneurs, they don’t need to be motivated, because they already are, but discipline is what we do need,” he said. “To be able to take information and have the discipline to put it into place.”

Abreu said when he started his business, he was a one-man show, doing accounting, marketing, sales and service, but now that he has employees, he finds his role is to be a motivator and mentor to others. He believes Transformando gave him the tools to be that kind of leader, and the chamber provided it at no cost to him. Abreu said he is so grateful that he wants to invest in the program in the future to pay it forward to others.

Perez is co-owner of Kiko Studio Salon, which offers services including haircuts, styling and coloring; lashes; and acrylic nails. He spoke to the Business Journal through an interpreter who works with the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, Maria de los Angeles Munoz.

Although he has 32 years of experience as a barber, Perez was a first-time participant in Transformando this spring. He said the information he learned was too important to ignore, and he is already improving his business, including customer service, understanding and meeting expectations, and marketing and advertising his business on social media, which has resulted in a 20% increase in clients and plans in motion to open a new location in the near future.

He said he would recommend other entrepreneurs try to keep an open mind and continue learning and growing through opportunities such as Transformando.

Bernal said it’s worth noting all of the participating businesses threw themselves wholeheartedly into the work of improving and growing, and she would love for the community to take the time to get to know them (see list of business names in the pullout box).

“These businesses have overcome so many (barriers) just to be able to be on Zoom — it was an accomplishment just for them to be here. These 18 businesses are dedicated, and they’re here to serve people,” she said.

Jose said the chamber has a goal of doing several dozen more business assists this year, and she is looking for additional organizations to sponsor and support the chamber’s programs such as Transformando.

She said the chamber has not determined when the next Transformando cohort will be, as the staff need a breather, but some of her goals for the next round include securing more funding; doing better at closing the language gap with bilingual teachers and interpreters so nothing is lost in translation; repeating the cultural sensitivity and implicit bias training in the classes; and continuing to provide wraparound services after graduation.

“We want to make sure none of our small businesses close, and in order for us to do that, we need to continue to provide them the services that they need, the information that they need, and we also need to make sure that we provide that training, but most importantly, that wraparound service that can really change their lives,” she said.

More information about the Transformando West Michigan program is at westmihcc.org/transformando.

BREAKOUT BOX

Transformando spring 2021 cohort

ACCESO VIP, marketing firm, owner Yeli Romero

Amanda’s Beauty Salon, beauty salon, Amando Cuello

Caldos El Giro, restaurant, Marielena Cano

Cerva Imprints, screen-printing company, Jose and Maria Cervantes

El Globo Restaurant, restaurant, Oswaldo Cordova and Evangelina Abundis

El Granjero Mexican Grill, restaurant, Mercedes Lopez Duran and Paola Mendivil

El Jalapeno, restaurant, Loraneli Jimenez

El Toro Bravo, restaurant, Salvia Cano

Grandville Nutrition, retail, Tereasa Castro

Ismael Abreu Agency Inc., insurance, Ismael Abreu

Kiko Studio Salon Unisex & Spa, beauty salon, Daiana Rosario and Jose Perez

La Casa del Pollo Loco, restaurant, Idalia Tinoco

Lindo Mexico Restaurant, restaurant, Gricelda Mata

Maily’s Dominican Salon & Spa, beauty salon, Clara Guevara

Mireya’s Beauty and Grooming LLC, beauty salon, Mireya Correa

Restaurante & Pupuseria El Salvador C.A., restaurant, Dina Elizabeth Suarez

Tamales El Kora, restaurant, Hector Salazar and Martha Arias

Tamales Mary, restaurant, Mary Martinez

Source: West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

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