Christian and Jovana Garcia didn’t realize they had applied to be in the same leadership program until after they were accepted. But taking part in the transformative experience was better together, they say.
The Holland couple are part of the inaugural Lakeshore LEADeres class
, a Latino-centric leadership program that began nearly a decade ago in Grand Rapids.
“What stuck with me is the community involvement piece,” Jovana says. “Latinos are one of the fastest-growing minority groups but the least involved in boards and commissions.”
LEADeres is a non-credit leadership lab at Ferris State University’s Latino Business and Economic Development Center, designed to support Latinx professionals as they pursue their career and life goals.
“We believe there’s no such thing as Latino leadership, but leadership through the Latino lens,” says Carlos Sanchez, the program founder and director. “We need more Latinos in leadership in all areas.”
Building future leaders
The Garcias join more than 150 alumni, such as Ottawa County District Judge Juanita Bocanegra
, who decided to run for office after completing the program.
Jovana is part of Meijer’s human resource team, while Christian works at CVS Health and is the part-time program director at Momentum Center’s new Holland facility. He was recruited by the Tri-Cities of Puentes Initiative (TCPI), where he is a board member, to take part in the project. Jovana was recruited by her former employer.
Christian and Jovana Garcia are graduates of the first Lakeshore LEADeres class. (Isabel Lopez Slattery)
In addition to the Garcias, the inaugural Lakeshore LEADeres class includes David Aleman Morales, Maria Alvarez de Lopez, Deanna Baza, Paige Brockmyre, Salomon Caballero, Liz Chala-Hidalgo, Yvette Chiquito, Karen Forbes, Israel Hipolito, Ana Olson, Ana Orozco, Ana Rodriguez and Abby Teasley.
The Grand Rapids program expanded to the Lakeshore through the efforts of TCPI, an outgrowth of the 2019 Grand Haven Hispanic Heritage Fiesta. Its mission is to build a bridge between Latinos and the community.
The Lakeshore expansion wouldn’t have been possible without a grant from Grand Haven Area Community Foundation and a donation from Independent Bank, says Reyna Masko, co-founder and co-chair of TCPI.
“I'm an alumni of this program,” says Masko. “I know the tremendous impact that this leadership program had on me and many of my colleagues. That is why I knew that I needed to be a part of making this happen here on the Lakeshore.”
As part of their capstone project, the LEADeres participants spent time with local leaders: retired Hope College Associate Provost Alfredo Gonzales; Ed Amaya,
philanthropist and co-owner of Kenowa Industries; and Lu Reyes
, an activist who founded multiple organizations in Holland, including Latin Americans United for Progress in 1964, the annual Fiesta, the community’s first Spanish-language radio show (Alegria Latina), Community Action House in 1969, and Holland Community Health Center in 1995.
“The most important thing I learned is to never give up,” Christian said. “The networking is valuable. There is always someone who can help you. We can make good things happen with dedication and commitment. I think it's important to believe in ourselves.”
Developing a diverse network
When Mexico native Carlos Sanchez arrived in West Michigan 20 years ago, the young bilingual professional was quickly recruited as one of a handful of Latino leaders to serve on boards and commissions.
“I didn't know many other Latinx professionals to look up to for mentoring or advice. I wanted to change that,” he says.
Since then, he has been on a mission to develop leadership tied to the economic development of Latinx communities. He did so first as executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and, in the past decade, as the founder of the Latino-centric leadership program LEADeres
Sanchez says he is intentional about recruiting a diverse group for the program, representing the diversity of culture and heritage within the Latinx community.
Hispanics are the third-largest demographic in both the state of Michigan
and in the city of Grand Rapids
. They represent 10% of Ottawa County and more than 24% of the city of Holland’s population.
With the growth of this population in the area, Sanchez says there’s a need to develop and prepare more Latinx individuals to assume professional and leadership roles.
“The LEADeres program is uniquely designed to help Latino professionals be equipped and better positioned to take advantage of opportunities that can help them to participate in all facets of West Michigan’s growing economy,” he says.
The groups meet monthly, on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Breakfast and lunch are provided, as well as all materials and reading assignments. The day-long Saturday sessions cover topics including innovation, cultural awareness, leadership, professional development, and civic engagement.
Jovana invited her parents, Margarito Sanchez and Ignacia Castillo, to attend the March 31 graduation ceremony at the Spring Lake Country Club because her attendance at the monthly day-long sessions meant skipping their family Saturday breakfasts.
Her parents beamed with pride as she and her colleagues were honored at the event, which included a short but inspiring speech by outgoing Ferris State University President David L. Eisler.
“We are proud of her,” Sanchez says.