Although MI Raza Association for Commerce was formed officially four months ago, it has been around for decades — and that’s what makes this West Michigan Hispanic business organization unique.
The “MI” in MI Raza has a double meaning: It stands for Michigan, but in Spanish “mi” means “my.” MI Raza — or “my people” — was formed by some of West Michigan’s most successful Hispanic business owners, and while it serves as a resource for the minority business community, it also serves to educate other business communities on Hispanic business culture.
“MI Raza is a group that’s always really been there in Grand Rapids. When I say ‘group,’ I mean Hispanic business owners within the heart of the community,” said Mayra Martinez, president of the soon-to-be 501(c)3 nonprofit. “They’ve always networked and have been close. We frequently have get-togethers, and that’s their way of networking. It’s always really been there, but it was time to take it to another level.”
The business owners that formed MI Raza were unhappy with the way their business community was being represented by other organizations: They felt that the cultural significances that make the Hispanic business community authentic were being neglected. So MI Raza was formed to “provide access, support, economic development, training and a cohesive voice for minority communities and individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit in Michigan,” according to a press release.
“It all comes down to the business owners saying it’s time to give back,” said Martinez. “No matter how long you’ve been in business, there comes those times when you need to rethink your marketing, new products — maybe a new line, maybe expansion. At some point, we all need that help and it’s important that we have a place where you can get the business training and to network in Spanish.”
Martinez said that because MI Raza was formed by some of the more prominent Hispanic business owners that have deep relationships within the Hispanic community, the organization has seen rapid growth. While it is not driven by memberships, its events have been selling out. One such event is Sin Barreras: “without borders.” Sin Barreras teaches English-only or Spanish-only speakers about each others’ cultures and how to communicate through business-centered conversations between each other.
“MI Raza provides a lot of technology classes, networking opportunities — a lot of great stuff — but in Spanish. If you come to our networking events, you will leave with a true piece of our culture,” she said. But more than language barriers, Martinez said it’s about understanding the culture. “We’re influenced a lot by our culture. Our buying habits are a little different depending on where they come from in Mexico or Latin America. People don’t have a good perspective on how (the Hispanic community) does business.”
Martinez was quick to point out the other organizations that have helped MI Raza officially form. Cooley Law School has been helping MI Raza become a 501(c)3. Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women also has played a strong role with MI Raza. Many of the resources and class structures for business owners are formed from GROW’s programming. Patricia Duthler, former executive director of GROW, has been a strong backer of MI Raza, along with Armando Hernandez, entrepreneur and an original founder of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber, and Lupe Ramos-Montigny, a notable local educator.
One of the interesting features of MI Raza is that it incorporates many of the Hispanic cultures represented in West Michigan.
“MI Raza is not just Mexicans. If you come to one of our meetings you will see … Caribbean, Dominicans, Mexicans, Cubans — all in one room,” she said.
Although the organization primarily represents the Hispanic culture, it also draws participants from the Asian, Arabic and other minority communities.
MI Raza also serves as an umbrella for two other new organizations that have come together as a result of MI Raza. One is the Alliance of Entrepreneur Latinas, which centers on Hispanic women business owners. The other organization focuses on young Hispanic entrepreneurs.
In its first four months, MI Raza has garnered approximately 50 regularly contributing companies. The Alliance of Entrepreneur Latinas will host its Dia de Belleza (Day of Beauty) event July 27, and a formal gala is in the works for early fall.