Transformando participants roll past obstacles


Oswaldo Cordova and Evangelina Abundis co-own a restaurant in Burton Heights and participate in the Transformando program. Courtesy Oliverio Covarrubias/West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce recently shared a one-year progress report on its Transformando West Michigan program, revealing the need to give Hispanic entrepreneurs additional help removing barriers to their success.

The Business Journal on July 24 spoke with Ana Jose, Transformando program manager, and Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the Hispanic chamber, along with three program participants from area Mexican restaurants, about the initiative’s outcomes since it was launched in May 2018.

The participants who shared their experiences were Evangelina Abundis and Oswaldo Cordova, husband-and-wife co-owners of El Globo Restaurant, 2019 S. Division Ave., next door to the Hispanic chamber; and Idalia Tinoco, owner of the two Wyoming restaurants La Casa Del Pollo Loco, 2747 Clyde Park Ave. SW, and El Desayuno Loco, 244 28th St. SW.

After moving from the Madison Square neighborhood to 2007 South Division in Grand Rapids’ Burton Heights business district last July, the Hispanic chamber hired Jose to oversee and develop the Transformando program, which had been in the works since Cisneros came on board as executive director in March 2017.

Transformando was designed to connect Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs to the resources they need to succeed through mentoring, cosmetic improvements to their businesses, marketing, employee training, access to capital and strategic planning.

The Wege Foundation provided a $167,000, three-year grant for Transformando, launching the program in May 2018. In August, the initiative became fully funded thanks to a three-year, $94,628 grant from the city of Grand Rapids’ Economic Development Corp.

The latter is a reimbursement grant, meaning the EDC provides the funds to the chamber after it incurs expenses to ensure the chamber is incentivized to meet stated goals.

One of the requirements the EDC imposed was that the chamber would submit a progress report to the EDC after certain intervals, outlining the services and outcomes of Transformando.

Initially, the terms called for a biannual report, but the chamber submitted its first update to the EDC after just over a year, on July 24.

Transformando was originally meant to have phases. The first phase, “Feeding Minds, Mouths and Pockets,” was to be a six-session, food industry-focused cohort that taught participants financial management principles and food safety requirements, in addition to connecting them to “wraparound services” from banks, insurance companies, CPAs, attorneys and marketing professionals.

But as the cohort drew to a close, a large number of participants didn’t pass the certification test.

“There were literacy issues, even in Spanish,” Cisneros said. “It’s not that they are not smart. It’s that they don’t know how to read, even in their own language. Many of them went to school four or five years. They didn’t finish elementary school. So that’s a reality, and we want to bring full service here at the chamber, in the food safety certification.”

After identifying the problem, the chamber decided to repeat the food safety and financial planning cohorts, this time with individualized, intensive help with literacy and comprehension skills.

Jose cultivated a partnership with the Literacy Center of West Michigan, and she also is bringing in an instructor whose first language is Spanish — and who is herself a business owner — to teach the classes so nothing will be lost in translation. Additionally, the chamber’s staff will help participants run through practice tests.

To double down on the current issues that need solving, the chamber decided to do away with the phased approach to Transformando and concentrate on helping the entrepreneurs they’ve already enrolled.

“We wanted to make sure that we help this group of people grow as much as we can so then maybe they can be the mentors for the other groups that we’re bringing in,” Jose said.

Those groups could include the growing number of beauty salons, mechanic shops and supermarkets whose owners and staff need to learn financial management, human resources and customer service skills, Jose said.

She and Cisneros said they can help as many as 25 entrepreneurs per class. With some overlap between sections, so far, they have accommodated 16 customer service class participants, more than 20 in the HR class and 21 restaurants in the food safety certification course.

Cordova said he and Abundis started El Globo — which means The Balloon — 14 years ago “from the back to the front.”

“We didn’t know anything about business,” he said. “I remember having my first $10,000, and I said, ‘Let’s go start a business. Let’s do a restaurant.’ And I found out $10,000 is nothing. I had to invest another $20,000, and it wasn’t enough. When I found out, it was too late. We had a house in Mexico, so we sold it and brought the money here. After 12 years, we could do nothing. We couldn’t move forward because we had no idea what to do.”

Three years ago, the restaurant moved into its current space, and when the chamber moved in next door, the couple enrolled in the Transformando program.

Since joining, they have grown the business 30-40% year over year, improved their English, learned money and people management skills, hired non-family staff members and expanded their catering business from one or two events per year to five or six per month, including events for Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort.

“We try to take all the classes possible, because they all work,” Cordova said.

Added Abundis: “We are glad to be part of this program, because it has given us tools to grow and to have a better structure in our business.”

Tinoco started her first restaurant, La Casa Del Pollo Loco (The Crazy Chicken House), with only $5,000 in her pocket four years ago. In Mexico, prospective restaurant owners don’t have as many hoops to jump through, which she said put her at a disadvantage when starting her business in the U.S.

“We think, ‘Oh, I want to cook something, and I want to sell it.’ We never make accounts of how much we spend and how much we want to sell (the food) for. Usually, in Mexico, we make the food and sell it and we don’t pay taxes and we don’t have insurance for the building; we don’t have anything like the things over here. So when we opened a restaurant, we didn’t know we had to get insurance, we had to get a payroll (service), we had to get an accountant — we didn’t know a lot of things.”

Tinoco priced the food according to what she thought would put money in her pocket and not according to any specific plan — until she started going to classes at the Hispanic chamber. She has since learned to be financially savvy, including learning about the American tradition of tipping servers; has designed a more professional sign for her restaurant; and also opened her second restaurant, El Desayuno Loco (The Crazy Breakfast), two years ago.

Besides mentoring, teaching the participants and working to increase literacy, the Hispanic chamber also helps the entrepreneurs with other challenges, such as negotiating permits with the city and corporations.

Jose has helped three Latino businesses — Maily’s Dominican Salon, Radio La Mejor GR and iRIDE SMART — secure loans from the nontraditional lenders Rende Progress Capital and Northern Initiatives.

To power the Transformando program, Jose also has forged partnerships with organizations that provide instruction, education, coaching, staffing and additional resources for the entrepreneurs, including Local First, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, River Network, Experience Grand Rapids, Express Employment Professionals of Grand Rapids, Principal Financial, Varnum, Gordon Food Service, Grand Valley State University, Acela Business Brokerage, the U.S. Green Building Council, MI Energy Promise of DTE Energy, Michigan State University, Spectrum Health, Steelcase, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and more.

“Those are powerful partnerships that are benefiting our Latino businesses,” Cisneros said.

Jose said she is very intentional, when she meets with partner organizations, to schedule the meetings at one of the businesses enrolled in Transformando. She said it helps the owners forge connections and generate future sales and builds a pipeline of supplier diversity for the partner organizations.

“We want people to know that (the Latino-owned businesses) are in our community, they’re striving to do things better and the only way for them to grow is for people to give them an opportunity,” she said.

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