(As seen on WZZM TV 13) The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has taken its diversity, equity and inclusion goals to the next level by creating three minority business councils.
The Grand Rapids Chamber hosted a virtual town hall last month introducing the Hispanic/Latino, Asian American and Black Minority Business Councils that will guide the chamber’s efforts to listen and deliver programming for minority business communities and foster minority business leadership, growth and belonging within the greater Grand Rapids area.
The Hispanic/Latino Business Council chair is Ruben Ramos, managing partner at R&R Mechanical Services in Grand Rapids; the Asian American Business Council chair is Floriza Genautis, principal and founder of Management Business Solutions in Wyoming; and the Black Business Council chair is James Byl, founder and owner of Multi-Automatic Tool & Supply Co. in Walker.
According to Dante Villarreal, VP of talent and business development at the chamber, all three of the chairs were participants in a cohort-based, three-year chamber program called Elevate Minority Business. The three individuals showed strong leadership in helping to develop the foundation of the councils and were seen as the logical choice to lead each group.
“We picked strong leaders that were employers here in town and showed a strong desire to impact their community,” Villarreal said.
The councils were formed in response to needs that became apparent during the pandemic, the chamber said.
In June 2020, Kent County formed the Kent County Small Business Recovery Program. The program worked to distribute short-term financial support to businesses dealing with barriers such as language, general business knowledge and being part of underserved communities. The county partnered with the Grand Rapids Chamber to administer the program. The chamber’s work with the program provided primary research on the state of small business in West Michigan, and it also illuminated gaps that, if left unfilled, would greatly reduce the ability of minority-owned businesses to survive the pandemic and resulting economic downturn.
As a result, the chamber decided to create the minority business councils, which Villarreal said will take a global view of who the chamber is serving and how they are connecting, and its activities will be driven by a goal of achieving equitable outcomes through partnerships.
“Everyone plays a role in equitable economic development — the private sector, the banks, chambers of commerce, educational institutions,” Villarreal said during the town hall. “The equity gap is so large that no one gets a pass in serving our communities of color. And it’s not just about making a referral to another entity or having a staff person that maybe is bilingual. It’s about really investing in our communities of color and having the right people in the right seats.”
During implementation of the Kent County Small Business Recovery Program, Villarreal said the chamber heard from businesses that “feel they’re alone, no one knocks on their doors and asks them, how are you doing, how can we help?” and as a result, many of the businesses struggled to be ready with the proper documentation to apply for the COVID-19 relief loans and grants available.
Villarreal said the minority business council chairs will help guide the work of the chamber as it serves underrepresented communities; create peer-to-peer networks that strengthen individual businesses and foster a sense of belonging for all; create a framework that activates minority business owners as community trustees in the areas of economic development, advocacy and leadership; and ensure the voices of the minority business communities they represent are being heard. Although the councils will be limited to about 10 business owners each, Villarreal said there will be opportunities for any minority-owned business to get involved at some level.
Ramos said the peer groups will alleviate the problem expressed in the old adage, “It’s lonely at the top.”
“I believe that having a sounding board, having a group of peers who share the same set of goals (and) stories of success and failures is probably one of the most powerful things that entrepreneurs can do,” Ramos said. “(A forum) where you’re able to share and discuss, whether it be wins or losses related to the many hats that we wear as business owners, whether it be human resources, talent attraction and retention, or whether it be creating policies and procedures. … I believe that when one is alone and leading a business, tremendous opportunities can be lost because we don’t have that group sounding board.”
Byl said inviting business leaders of color to corporate, nonprofit and school boards; CEO roundtables; city councils; industry-specific trade organizations; and other leadership spaces is an important step in changing the pattern of disinvestment in communities of color.
“To have some representation is extremely important, because if you notice, a lot of the policies we have now were created two or three generations ago when there wasn’t any representation,” he said. One of the goals of the minority business councils will be to invite leaders of color into those spaces where decisions are being made, he said.
Villarreal said it’s a documented fact that minority-owned businesses hire more minorities. Additionally, 90% of all job creation happens through second-stage businesses, which have $1 million in sales or more and 10 or more employees, he said. However, a study of the greater Grand Rapids area revealed it only has about 30 minority-owned second stage businesses, which Villarreal said is “unacceptable.” The chamber created the Elevate Minority Business program in 2017 with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a goal of creating more second-stage minority businesses. But more needs to be done, he said, adding the new minority business councils will each work to set their own job creation and business creation and growth goals for the communities they serve.
Ramos said he would like more minority business owners to feel comfortable asking for assistance and resources, whether it be through joining the chamber or via other opportunities. Genautis echoed that, saying, “If you never ask the question or never raise your hand, the answer is always no.”
Byl added business owners such as himself want to hear from other minority business owners and see more of them get involved in leadership. Right now, it feels to him like only about 20% of business owners are involved in the community outside of running their business.
Genautis encouraged entrepreneurs not to be afraid to try and fail, because everyone does.
“This council will be great for us to really take a look at … all those failures that we have, share those experiences (and) make us a stronger, better community, especially these minority businesses, to really elevate our growth to that next step.”
In addition to creating the minority business councils, the Grand Rapids Chamber also has designated two staff members to serve as minority business liaisons: Yadira Garza-Malone as the Latinx business liaison, and Nate Phillips as the Black business liaison. Both are membership engagement managers at the chamber. Villarreal said the chamber has a third staff member from its business services team in mind to serve as the Asian American business liaison, as soon as the individual wraps up projects she is currently working on.
Bios for each of the minority business council chairs and the business liaisons are available at bit.ly/chamberbios.