Great Lakes Bay Region works to create an inclusive business community

In Bay City, the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce established the Bay Area Minority Business Partnership. In Midland, the Midland Business Inclusion Council (MBIC) formed about 18 months ago. And Mount Pleasant is the home base of the Central Michigan University Research Corporation (CMURC), which supports business owners throughout the region and strives to create inclusive entrepreneurism.

Business owners around the region say the efforts are making a difference.

Michael Espinoza, holding the coffee cup, says many minorities don't realize they are welcome at chamber programs. To combat that perception, the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce recently formed a Minority Business Partnership.Bay Area Minority Business Partnership matches entrepreneurs with experts

Michael Espinoza, of Insight Financial Group, said the Bay Area Minority Business Partnership formed after conversations with others saying they had friends and family who weren’t sure of where to get help starting a business. Espinoza says people assumed institutions such as chambers of commerce weren’t welcoming to minorities.

People were saying “I don’t really know where to turn for resources,” Espinoza says. “They don’t know what a chamber of commerce does or minorities feel the chamber isn’t for them. They don’t know it’s for everyone.”

The Bay Area Chamber of Commerce welcomes all business owners. Chamber President & CEO Ryan Tarrant says the chamber got involved in the Minority Business Partnership in order to meet its goal of helping all new business owners connect to the information they need.

“We want to provide some of the tools and resources to them so they can be successful,” Tarrant says. “We want to make sure minority business owners have access.”

For example, most people are familiar with individual tax forms. But completing business tax forms requires different knowledge and new skills. The partnership connects business owners to experienced professionals who offer advice and help.

During his 20-year career as a financial adviser, Espinoza has taken advantage of many opportunities for mentoring and has always encouraged others to do the same. The new partnership gives him another avenue to continue that effort.

“That’s initially why we started it, to be almost a welcoming center,” he says. “It’s a little more comfortable for an African-American man to talk to an African-American entrepreneur. The same thing with me being a Latino.”

Those conversations are the opening to connect people with resources. “A lot of it is education,” Espinoza says. “A lot of it is putting people in the right place to get funding and advice for their particular niche.”

'Working with different individuals and companies through their business models and business plans, that diverse voice really leads to the best result as it relates to planning a business.'

- Erin Strang, President and CEO of CMURC

Tarrant says he sought steering committee members from a range of professions in order to provide a broad range of expertise. In addition, businesses can join the partnership without joining the chamber. A one-year membership is $30. The goal is to make the program available to as many people and businesses as possible.

While talks about the partnership began in the spring, it didn’t really launch until fall. Now, the organization is focused on how to let the community know help is available. To accomplish that, the partnership is offering a series of virtual webinars. They’ll also communicate through social media.

The first webinar was Feb. 17 when the partnership held an online event to focus on how apprenticeship opportunities help businesses and individuals. More information about future webinars will be posted on the partnership’s Facebook page.

Those future webinars could discuss Limited Liability Corporations vs. Sole Proprietorships. Another confusing topic for many is the different thresholds for business taxes. Espinoza says he might bring in the Small Business Association or Bay Future to talk about funding.

“We’re trying to get the word out so people know where the resources are,” Espinoza says. “We’re not necessarily trying to re-invent the wheel, but we’re trying to improve the model of it.”

One key element is that nothing is final. Espinoza says the steering committee will watch results closely and adapt.

The time is right for the program. Espinoza says he expects the 2020 Census to show a shift in Bay City’s demographics. He thinks we’ve gained diversity, which is a plus for the overall community and the business community.

The key now is to connect potential business owners with local resources. Espinoza says minorities trying to open businesses often assume doors won’t open for them. Instead, though, Espinoza says they often just haven’t tried the right doors.

“It’s not the privilege vs. non-privilege type of thing that you see in certain areas,” he says. “It’s more a lack of knowledge of where to go for resources. It has nothing to do with privilege. You’re just not looking in the right spot.”

Midland Business Inclusion Council is working toward a community where everyone thrives

“I hope in the next few years we will do some real, focused work … All of us business leaders can play a role — a really important role — in impacting the community,” says Amy Beasley, co-chair of the Midland Business Inclusion Council (MBIC).

About 18 months ago, Beasley approached Tony Stamas, president and CEO of the Midland Business Alliance, to co-chair the MBIC with her.

“We’re hoping to build the kind of town where business owners who are from marginalized communities would want to come and establish a great, thriving small business here,” Beasley says. “... The healthy way for us to grow and thrive is to attract lots of different kinds of people here. And to do that and keep ‘em, we’ve got to create the infrastructure to support that.”

Tony Stamas, president and CEO of the Midland Business Alliance, co-chairs the Midland Business Inclusion Council with Amy Beasley.Stamas says that initiatives to support minority-owned businesses both locally and at the state level are becoming more common.

“One of the state’s largest COVID support grant programs, the Michigan Small Business Restart Program, required at least one-third of its grants go to ‘diverse businesses,’ including minority-owned, women-owned and veteran-owned,” Stamas says. “We were proud to distribute more than $1 million of these funds throughout Midland County, half of which went to diverse businesses.”

While Midland is taking on more diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, there’s always more work to be done.

“I’d love to see some mentoring programs for small business owners. I’d love to see some grants made possible for small business owners,” Beasley says. “We have some incredible business leaders in this town, and for some of our leaders to go out and intentionally source and mentor and support a small business owner would be priceless.”

Beasley also looks outward to the rest of the Great Lakes Bay Region. While each county is different, she says that each has value to contribute.

“We’ve got to work together for the region to evolve,” Beasley says. “... The diversity is there; we just have to appreciate the opportunity as a region to do this together.”

Stamas adds, “We are always looking to partner with groups in Midland and surrounding areas to support these efforts.”

Mount Pleasant-based organizations advocate diversity through building a strong business community

“There are several economic advantages to being in this area from the state and federal government,” says Doug Wallace, President and CEO of the Mount Pleasant Area Chamber of Commerce. “We are fortunate to have these in place in this community and can help any businesses that may be looking to relocate. With the strength of our higher education community, we can assist in any new business looking to locate here.”

In its 2018 Small Business Profile, the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy reported that out of the 870,301 small businesses that are located in Michigan, over 18% of them are minority-owned.

Owner of Jib-Bob Korean Restaurant Maya Denslow plates a side order of handmade pickled garlic. 'Jib-Bob means mother's homemade food," says Denslow. "That's how I want to serve my customers...that's how I care.'Mount Pleasant resident and first-time business owner Maya Denslow moved to Michigan from South Korea in 2008. She opened Jib-Bob Korean Restaurant in Mount Pleasant in April 2019 using the resources provided by the Michigan Small Business Development Center (SBDC) offered through Mid Michigan College.

“It's a kind of day counseling,” Denslow says. “Making a business plan and kind of how it goes with a business. This is my first business, so I needed somebody to advise me not like just run the business.”

Wallace says that the area’s affordable housing and cost of living is needed to help sustain growth of businesses.

Diyonn Fahlman moved to Mount Pleasant in 2002 and after years of experience in real estate, decided to launch her own business in February 2019.

“It was going to happen one way or another, going into business for myself,” says Fahlman, broker and owner of Avant Garde Realty in Mount Pleasant. “It just happened to be this was the best area. I love being in a midsize to smaller town because you can see the impact of your business more readily compared to a larger place.”

Another resource that aspiring entrepreneurs may utilize is the Central Michigan University Research Corporation (CMURC). CMURC helps to advance economic development through entrepreneurial development and has locations in Mount Pleasant, Bay City, Saginaw, and Midland. The 501(c)(3) organization strives to create inclusive entrepreneurism through its programs.

“In each community we have different opportunities, and in Mount Pleasant with the university being here… they have a lot of offices dedicated to this space. So as we look at the opportunities that exist in this area, it's really to cultivate the individuals that are here to help them see that this is a viable opportunity for them,” says Erin Strang, President and CEO of CMURC.

Strang says that when the pandemic hit, CMURC made a virtual platform which connected the four regions and created an unintended benefit by infusing more diverse voices.

“Working with different individuals and companies through their business models and business plans, that diverse voice really leads to the best result as it relates to planning a business,” Strang says. “Now, you not only have your group of friends that always think alike, but you have a number of diverse voices that are contributing and adding to the business development.”