So if the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce isn’t reaching all businesses, then somehow it’s failing in its mission, Chris Byrnes reasons.
That premise is behind the chamber’s recent initiative to reach out and better connect with minority-owned businesses that haven’t always viewed the organization well.
“There’s a perception in the minority community that the chamber is this exclusive organization,” said Byrnes, president of the 1,500-member organization that is working to dispel that perception.
“We want to make sure, at least in the business community, that we’re open and accepting, no matter what your background is,” Byrnes said. “We need to broaden our range and help all businesses become as successful as they can.
“The business issues don’t change based on your background.”
The effort goes beyond reaching out and building trust among minority business owners. It’s also about better promoting diversity in the community, exploring new programs and services for a business segment that in the past has been underserved, and helping to create a welcome atmosphere in the broader community for diverse cultures — an issue that Byrnes believes affects economic development efforts.
In a global business world, corporations need to reach far and wide to find the talent they need to take them into the future, Byrnes said.
That means that diversity is paramount to many large corporations and the communities where they do business. If the community doesn’t embrace diversity and adapt to the changing world, then chances are it will have trouble recruiting certain companies to locate there. Or, current employers may have a problem recruiting the diverse talent pool they need to compete in an increasingly global environment, Byrnes said.
He cites a specific case where a Holland-based corporation has had problems convincing employees in its overseas operations to come and work at its corporate headquarters in Holland, a move usually seen as a step up the corporate ladder. The employees were hesitant to do so because they did not feel comfortable living in Holland during a previous assignment that brought them to town.
“That creates serious issues for businesses located here in trying to recruit the best and brightest from all over the world,” Byrnes said. “That’s a serious challenge.”
The roots for the chamber’s effort go back more than two years when it hosted a speaker on diversity at its annual retreat. A diversity task force subsequently developed a few key points for the chamber to work on, but for whatever reason, “it just kind of sat there,” Byrnes said.
Networking with counterparts in Muskegon and Grand Rapids and participation with the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce in a minority suppler trade show, combined with a push from its own Ambassador Committee that develops membership activities, brought the issue back on the agenda for the Holland chamber.
Efforts are occurring on many fronts that run from organizing new seminars, such as an ethnic marketing event that’s designed to help business tap the rapidly expanding minority buying power, to personal outreach.
The latter comes from the hiring last year of Teresa Lamb as workforce development specialist. Lamb, who moved to Holland five years ago from Mexico, is also president of Latin Americans United for Progress, a local organization that advocates on behalf of the Holland area’s rapidly growing Hispanic population.
Locally, the Hispanic population in the city of Holland is 22.2 percent; almost double that of the national percentage. Hispanics comprise 33 percent of the Holland Public Schools student enrollment, and 14.3 percent in the neighboring West Ottawa Public Schools.
Lamb has made it part of her job to personally visit minority business owners in the community who may initially feel more comfortable dealing with somebody from the chamber who shares a similar ethnic background.
“I think people feel a little bit more comfortable now coming to the chamber,” Lamb said.
While the Holland Area Chamber has always promoted diversity, the new effort elevates the issue. The chamber has become a co-sponsor of LAUP’s upcoming Hispanic Leadership Conference, has formed a minority arm to the Macatawa Manufacturing Council, plans to conduct some seminars in Spanish, is helping employers recruit bi-lingual employees, and is putting its own staff through diversity training.