Grand Rapids native Jorge Gonzalez believes one of the smartest economic decisions West Michigan can make is to get involved with minority businesses. Photo by Jim Gebben
At one point in his career, Jorge Gonzalez was either a member of or leading at least 15 community organizations in West Michigan — all at once.
To call him a “community-minded” individual would probably be a bit of an understatement.
Gonzalez, who earlier this month was appointed executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, has spent his career heavily involved in aiding minority businesses and individuals. He’s also grown to become an important figure for local entrepreneurs, especially in the minority community.
“I have always corrected other people when they say, ‘Oh, Jorge, you’re a leader.’ No, I’m not a leader. I’m a servant. I serve my community. And I think that gives me pleasure, being able to serve through (so many) different capacities,” he said.
“I think that goes back to my upbringing. I was taught that we’re all equal and we all need to serve.”
A Grand Rapids native and the son of poor migrant workers who worked in a local tortilla factory, Gonzalez said he experienced a diverse community early on. That sense of belonging and watching others struggle led him to spend his career working to aid those with disadvantaged “situated-ness” owing to systems sometimes beyond their control, as he put it.
“I want this to be a vibrant, inclusive community — and what I mean by that is, I want all businesses, regardless of ethnicity, to be sustainable. You know the way people talk about the Wealthy Street business district and how vibrant it is? I want that for every single neighborhood in the city of Grand Rapids,” he said.
“And that means when we talk about equity work, it may mean extra effort from all of us in the city of Grand Rapids to really push for stuff to happen on (places like) Grandville Avenue, or Burton Street, or Hall Street, or Eastern Avenue.”
Gonzalez grew up on the southeast side of Grand Rapids and attended Union High School. His classmates and friends were African-Americans, Latinos and west-side white kids, he said, and he described his high school experience as a very diverse and inclusive kind of family.
In college, however, he said he had a different, rather “eye-opening” experience in which he experienced discrimination.
He attended Grand Valley State University and soon found himself living and studying with some people “who had really never seen people like me.”
Their behavior troubled Gonzalez and led him to become more involved with community organizations, both locally and at GVSU, he said.
During his freshman and sophomore years, he interned at the nonprofit Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, eventually becoming the summer youth coordinator there. Seeing the impact he could make in the lives of students he mentored instilled a passion for community work in Gonzalez.
“As I worked with their summer youth program … and then during (college) semesters, I would work there part time as a case worker … that’s when I really got to see some of the inequities, some of the issues affecting our community, whether it was language barriers, or employment barriers, or criminal justice, or just sometimes the fact that people were in limbo without access to resources.”
Gonzalez changed his major from business administration to public administration. But when he graduated in 1995, he put his community interests on hold and went into banking.
“Ironically, when I graduated, I had a friend who was in the banking world, and he’s like, ‘You know what? If you want to make money, this is where the money is: in the private corporations,’” he said.
He started as a teller and worked his way up to the position of mortgage lender at First Michigan Bank before it was bought out by Huntington Bank in 1998, he said.
During those years, he was somewhat involved in community organizations on the side, but it wasn’t until 2003 that his pivotal breakthrough came when he was recruited by his mentor, Vicki DenBoer, to join Macatawa Bank, where she was vice president and director of retail lending.
Working at Macatawa Bank enabled him to help a lot of families with financial literacy, to the point where his role was to “empower people who weren’t bankable to become bankable,” he said.
“Going to that bank really enabled me to get more involved in the community, and then I started doing so much, I eventually became (community development officer) at Macatawa, and that I think was also my big break. I got to be known in the community and was able to work with a lot of groups,” he said.
“In 2005, I became in charge of their Community Reinvestment Act. … There was one time when I sat down and we were working on a performance review. … I knew I was so involved, but I didn’t write down everything I was involved in and when I finally did, I was like, ‘Holy cow!’ But it was engaging and fulfilling.”
After nearly seven years with Macatawa, Gonzalez left in 2010 to become economic development director at nonprofit LINC Community Revitalization. While there, he started LINC’s economic development program, developed its incubator program and co-working space, and made sure commercial space was provided for developing neighborhoods.
Gonzalez became executive director of the WMHCC April 6. The chamber is currently doing well, he said, and now he wants to take it to the next level by growing membership, benefits and programming.
Much progress has been made toward creating diversity equity in Grand Rapids, he said, but there’s still plenty more to be done.
“Sometimes there are a lot of resources out there for everybody, but people that come here don’t know how to have access to those resources,” he said.
“The most important thing I have learned is, your access to resources makes a difference. It’s who you know.”
One of the smartest economic decisions West Michigan can make is to get involved with minority businesses, Gonzalez said. Financially, giving opportunity to everyone makes sense and benefits all, he said. It’s a holistic business plan — one that reaches beyond West Michigan and makes a positive impact for the whole state, he said.
“If we have a thriving business district on Grandville Avenue or Hall Street, it means more job opportunities for kids. It means they’re employed, they’re able to contribute back to the other businesses in the district, and therefore move that economic engine in that business district,” he said.
“So now you have thriving business districts that are able to operate without the need of systematic assistance — and it reduces crime.
“Stimulating that economic engine is going to help everybody.”
When asked what he finds most fulfilling about his work, Gonzalez spoke of occasionally running into kids he once mentored who have grown into successful adults. There was one girl in particular whose story stood out to him.
“She was in the system. Her family was in the system. Now I’m running into her in the community and seeing her being the head of HR at a larger company. She has pursued her education — she has even more degrees than I do,” he said.
“For her to come to me and say, ‘Thanks to you, I am who I am,’ that’s really like, ‘Wow!’ That’s the reason I do what I do.”