A Grand Investment logo Home to more than 130 global companies and one of the fastest growing economies in the U.S., West Michigan has long been known as a great place to do business.  Whether in small, family-owned companies or global, multi-billion-dollar manufacturers, entrepreneurship and innovation thrive here.

But historically, not all members of the community have been represented in West Michigan business ownership.  Only about six percent of the businesses in the Grand Rapids-Wyoming Metropolitan Statistical Area are minority-owned.

As is true in many cities across the country, minorities have often not experienced equitable levels of access to business mentorship and networking opportunities, as well as the investment capital needed to start, buy or grow their businesses.

That’s starting to change here in Grand Rapids as nonprofits, business associations, and business and community leaders commit to increasing ethnic, racial and gender diversity in business ownership and entrepreneurship.  This community knows that diversity and inclusion in the workplace – including in business ownership – is not just a moral issue.  Without diversity in business, Grand Rapids knows a community's ability to thrive in an increasingly competitive global marketplace is limited.

While there is still room to grow and expand on this vision, several initiatives have been created to close the gaps and eliminate barriers that prevent minorities from owning businesses and contributing to the local economy.

Man and Woman Holding SpringGR Certificates

Started in 2014, SpringGR works to empower underserved entrepreneurs to build strong businesses through training and coaching.

Photo by Sam Cooper Photography

Springing into action

Started in 2014, SpringGR works to empower underserved entrepreneurs to build strong businesses through training and coaching. Now in its seventh year, SpringGR is a 12-week grassroots business training experience targeting minorities who have never owned a business but have a skill, are inspired and would like to develop their entrepreneurial abilities.

“At SpringGR, we believe that our city is full of individuals with great ideas for products and services; however, due to a lack of business acumen many of these ideas lay dormant,” said Attah Obande, director of dream fulfillment at SpringGR. “These ideas deserve a chance to thrive in the marketplace, and SpringGR helps create this opportunity.”

The business training experience meets weekly and teaches participants the basics of starting a business, such as identifying target customers, crafting a marketing message, setting up a legal structure, pricing, projections and more. Over time, participants learn how to turn a cool product or service into a full-fledged operation.

The program has graduated 490 entrepreneurs into the Grand Rapids community and provided them with the tools and confidence to create over 300 new businesses.

“We consider ourselves an onramp to entrepreneurship. There are several other great organizations helping small businesses in Grand Rapids, but none that walk along side an individual at the grassroots level (idea stage),” explains Obande. “We see our space in the ecosystem as the top of the funnel, bringing in more minority entrepreneurs that can then grow and access the many other resources Grand Rapids has to offer.”

The program proudly uses the analogy of a spring to represent the entrepreneurs they serve. To them, a spring is a resilient device that can be pressed or pulled before leaping forward when released. The entrepreneurs who pass through the program are the spring, and SpringGR acts as the force providing resources they need to leap ahead and reach their goals.

Audience of Several People Sitting at Tables Looking to Speaker

Now in its seventh year, SpringGR is a 12-week grassroots business training experience targeting minorities who have never owned a business but have a skill, are inspired and would like to develop their entrepreneurial abilities.

Photo by Alfield Reeves Photography

Elevating to the next level

The Grand Rapids Chamber is also committed to seeking a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce, membership, business environment and community. The organization recognizes that it’s not only minority-owned startups that need help getting their business ideas off the ground. Existing minority-owned businesses often struggle to overcome obstacles and take their ventures to the next level.

That’s where ELEVATE Minority Business comes in. This GR Chamber program aims to build capacity among second stage, growth-focused minority businesses by removing barriers for equitable inclusion and creating a solid foundation of social capital.

Those who participate in the program benefit from a robust support system individualized to their business goals and needs. Participants receive business analysis and advice through direct consulting, peer roundtables and outside expertise all while gaining access to an expansive network of past and present participants.

Among ELEVATE’s objectives are to transform the perception of minority businesses in the community, create a solid foundation for high-performing minority firms and increase their ability to contribute to the economic well-being of the region.

“The data show us that 90 percent of job creation happens at the second stage business level,” said Dante Villareal, ELEVATE program director and vice president of business and talent development at the GR Chamber. “We also know that minority businesses hire more minorities. Putting these two data points together permits us to see how this program is critical in cultivating wealth in our communities of color.”

Mayor Bliss speaks to an ELEVATE Minority Business Class.

The Grand Rapids Chamber's ELEVATE Minority Business program aims to build capacity among second stage, growth-focused minority businesses by removing barriers for equitable inclusion and creating a solid foundation of social capital.

Photo by Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce

In an interview with the chamber, president and CEO of Jireh Metal Products, Michael Davenport – a 2017 ELEVATE participant – said that he was looking for an opportunity to learn from accomplished business people in the area. After more than a decade in the banking industry, Davenport had taken the reins of Jireh – a tier-one supplier to the automotive, furniture and hardware industries – two years prior.

“ELEVATE was structured to focus on the core things we would look at as a business owner – everything from HR, negotiation, acquisition, and even your day to day interactions with clients,” Davenport explained.  “I think one of the biggest impacts of the program was the bond created between me and my fellow participants. Hearing them articulate their challenges as business owners really resonated with me. It was great to leave the program knowing I had a solid group of local business owners I could call up any time I needed an outside opinion on an issue.”

New Community Transformation Fund

Another community initiative recently announced takes a different approach to the challenge. Bank of America, the Consumers Energy Foundation and The Right Place, Inc. will develop the New Community Transformation Fund, a venture investment fund created to attract and support businesses owned and operated by people of color. The goal is to raise $15-$25 million in capital to increase ethnic and racial diversity in business ownership and entrepreneurship in West Michigan.

“West Michigan has one of the strongest performing economies in the nation,” said Birgit Klohs, president and CEO, The Right Place, Inc. in announcing the fund. “Yet, this economic growth has not been shared by all members of our community. By investing in companies that will create long-term economic prosperity in communities of color, this fund will increase upward mobility and ultimately build a more diverse and globally competitive economy.”

The fund is based in the city of Grand Rapids and will invest the funds in a couple ways. First, it will look for second-stage minority-owned companies that are ready to scale. Second, it will help qualified people of color purchase or invest in existing family-owned businesses that are ready to transition from local or family-ownership.

Group photo following the VC Fund announcement.

Members of the New Community Transformation Fund include representatives from Bank of America, Consumers Energy Fund, and The Right Place, Inc.

Photo by The Right Place, Inc.

The focus will be in the industries of advanced manufacturing, food processing and agribusiness, life sciences and medical devices, and information technology. The fund will invest in both current and prospective West Michigan companies, but will require founders and portfolio companies to locate and operate in West Michigan.

Ultimately, the fund will focus on businesses intending to create multigenerational wealth within historically disadvantaged groups.

Building a More Welcoming Community

As the area’s destination marketing organization, Experience Grand Rapids embraces these initiatives and sees them as aligned with their efforts to create a more welcoming and inclusive community for visitors as well as residents.

The idea is, if we increase diversity in businesses that serve meeting planners and business and leisure travelers, West Michigan will feel more welcoming to people of color.

“Many meeting planners we work with are looking for access to minority-owned and woman-owned providers and vendors – services like caterers, photographers, entertainers, speakers, transportation services and event spaces,” explains Angela Nelson, vice president of multicultural business development at Experience Grand Rapids. “As we build our network of partners and suppliers, I have seen a change in the landscape over the past few years. Initiatives like SpringGR and ELEVATE are making an impact.”

She is very hopeful about the promise of the New Community Transformation Fund, as well.

“This fund is another move forward in ensuring that minority owned businesses have an equitable opportunity to thrive in Grand Rapids.”

A Grand Investment is an ongoing series exploring the business landscape of Grand Rapids. Michigan’s fastest growing metro area and one of the nation’s strongest economies, Grand Rapids is fueled by a creative, collaborative spirit that generates global, national and entrepreneurial investment. This series highlights leading sectors of the local economy and underscores the city’s suitability for innovation-focused meetings.