Mansfield Matthewson, Carmen Villahermosa de Cox from ChoiceOne Bank and FSU’s Tony Baker, from left, participate in the program. Courtesy WMHCC
The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce launched an ambitious plan to transform the region’s economy by giving Latino entrepreneurs the tools they need to grow.
The chamber kicked off Transformando West Michigan last month, an initiative in the works since Guillermo Cisneros came on board as the organization’s executive director in March 2017.
Cisneros has said his greatest passion is helping connect Spanish-speaking professionals to the resources they need to succeed. He built Transformando with the idea that if the Latino community succeeds, West Michigan also will grow and thrive.
“The ultimate goal is to revitalize every Latino business in the greater Grand Rapids area,” Cisneros said. “We want to give them the basics: financials and tools for them to manage their business properly and help them be successful.”
The Wege Foundation provided a $167,000, three-year grant for Transformando. The program is expected to cost $247,000 over the next three years.
The grant is enabling the chamber to hire a bilingual and bicultural Transformando program manager, who is set to come on board soon.
Other partners supporting the initiative include Principal Financial, Culinary Cultivations, Gordon Food Service, Grand Valley State University and Varnum law firm. Varnum donated $35,000 in legal services through its MiSpringboard program.
Transformando’s first phase, “Feeding Minds, Mouths and Pockets,” is a six-session food industry-focused cohort that launched last month with 21 participants from 11 restaurants.
The restaurants include El Desayuno Loco, Tamales Mary, Taquería El Rincón Mexicano, Tacos El Cuñado Bridge St., El Toro Bravo, Lindo Mexico, Mi Casa Restaurante, El Granjero Mexican Grill, El Globo Restaurant, La Casa del Pollo Loco and El Jalapeño Food Truck.
Classes cost $300 per person and are held twice per month until August at a Gordon Food Service distribution center. Participants will learn financial management principles and the latest food safety requirements.
Most of the materials and the final exam to obtain certification will be in Spanish.
Cisneros said the sessions, which go from 8 a.m.-noon, begin with networking to help entrepreneurs get connected to “wraparound services” from banks, insurance companies, CPAs, attorneys and marketing professionals.
Those service providers then talk to the class for 30 minutes.
Next up, Principal Financial teaches the business owners about concepts such as cash flow, wealth creation, bookkeeping and accounting.
“It’s hard to get along if you don’t have a bank account,” Cisneros said. “Some of these small businesses don’t even have credit. We want them to develop those relationships.”
After the financial segment, Gordon Food Service provides breakfast. While attendees are eating, GFS presents information on systems such as inventory management and purchasing.
Culinary Cultivations teaches ServSafe food safety certification courses after breakfast.
“At the end of the program, the participants will get a certification of participation from the chamber and its partners, and the ServSafe certification, which is valid throughout the state of Michigan,” Cisneros said.
During the last hour of the class, GVSU students help the restaurant owners work on their business plans.
“Many of the businesses don’t have one,” Cisneros said. “But by the end of the three months, they will have it.”
Additionally, the Hispanic chamber will offer cohort members one-on-one mentoring geared toward each entrepreneur’s area of need.
The volunteer mentors are from Brewery Vivant, Terra GR, MeXo, Martha’s Vineyard and Restaurant Partners Inc., the restaurant group that owns Beltline Bar.
“That’s very exciting for me,” Cisneros said. “We want the participants of this program to develop relationships, and they get that support from local business owners in town.
“We believe if these restaurants are successful, the entire community and economy will be successful.”
The chamber currently is working on the second phase of the program, which will include training in technology, business management, customer experience, and creativity and innovation.
Cisneros said the chamber plans to open the program to other industries as it is able to acquire more partners and support.
One component of the revitalization the chamber aims to foster for Latino businesses is physical renovations to their buildings, he said.
“The goal would be that the businesses in the third or fourth phases will remodel once they have their financials in good shape, have systems in place, like accounting, and can get a loan to remodel,” Cisneros said.
While he doesn’t have an exact figure, he said there are hundreds of Hispanic-owned businesses in West Michigan, and they have been growing despite the barriers they face.
Hispanic-owned businesses generated $326.7 million in sales in 2012 in Kent County alone, he said.
According to U.S. Census data cited at the chamber’s annual awards gala in March, Hispanic businesses in West Michigan grew 85 percent between 2007 and 2013, the most recent year data was available.
The chamber hopes Transformando will restart growth for the businesses that have plateaued and inject life into the new ones.
Cisneros said Transformando will live on past the three-year grant from the Wege Foundation.
“The vision is a long-term vision, for the next 25, 30 years,” he said. “It’s a work in progress.”