As a child, Dante Villarreal traveled the country with his family as migrant farm workers. Courtesy Mia Jankowiak, Grand Rapids Chamber
Dante Villarreal said the phone call informing him he’d been chosen as this year’s 40 Under 40 Distinguished Alum came as quite a surprise.
It shouldn’t have.
Villarreal has had a hand in much of the local business growth for years.
“It’s been a gift not just to watch but to participate in,” he said.
As the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of business and talent development, Villarreal oversees all the leadership programs and the diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. He also leads advocacy for small businesses as they interact with larger companies, such as helping small contractors place successful bids.
Before moving to the chamber in 2017, he spent 15 years as regional director of the Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center, where he helped entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. He’s also had stints as regional manager for Telecomp Corp., accountant for the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce and adjunct instructor for courses in business and entrepreneurship at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business.
Villarreal’s work toward economic growth extends beyond just paid positions. He’s chair of the local SmartZone committee and the Grand Rapids Sister Cities International committee for Zapopan, Mexico. He’s a board member for the Downtown Market, Davenport University’s Maine College of Business, Metro Health Hospital Foundation and Family Business Alliance.
Another reason Villarreal was a good choice for the recognition is one he said he sometimes forgets: He has risen professionally to a level of success and influence despite the odds.
Villarreal was the first in his family to finish high school and the first to attend college. His mother stopped school after sixth grade; his father couldn’t read or write.
The family traveled the country as migrant farm workers, and the four children changed schools often, sometimes four times per year. It was a hard life that he didn’t want for himself or his future children.
“That’s when I knew I wanted more and learned that education was a ticket out,” he said.
They had traveled so much that Villarreal had to take night classes in Sparta to finish school, and then he enrolled at Grand Valley State University, eventually earning an MBA.
Each summer from age 5 to 18, Villarreal and his family harvested apples in West Michigan. They chose to settle here because they were treated with respect at every farm, which wasn’t always their experience elsewhere.
“It was the people we fell in love with,” he said. “There was promise for us here.”
He said he remains optimistic about the local business climate because people seem to “get” the importance of diversity and equity in the workforce as well as the companies they do business with. He said the addition of diversity and other initiatives at the chamber was in response to feedback from members, and it’s promising that leadership is beginning to better reflect the population.
And he would agree with other leaders who say the level of collaboration in West Michigan is unique, something else that has kept him here.
“Even competitors come together and collaborate,” he said. “That’s the foundation for growth.”