Grand Rapids, a shift is taking place. Some would characterize the shift as cultural. Some would say it’s a power shift, or perhaps even a paradigm shift.

One local group intently focused on making #TheShift is Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB), an organization founded by Jamiel Robinson. Robinson is a GR native, concerned citizen and millennial advocate for black businesses in Grand Rapids. He founded GRABB out of a vision to create a thriving black community characterized by economic prosperity and social equity through economic development.

Damon Lawerence, CEO of Homage Hospitality, speaking at #TheShift Summit.

Damon Lawerence, CEO of Homage Hospitality, speaking at #TheShift Summit.

Photo Credit: Carbon Stories


Over the past few years, Robinson has been helping provide and create spaces for black business owners to shift from home-based to storefront businesses. He’s been educating and promoting current and aspiring black entrepreneurs and offering community engagement and networking opportunities for black business owners.  Most importantly, he’s been helping black businesses build capacity and uncover resources that will support them in scaling their services and reach into the marketplace.

On November 16, GRABB hosted their third annual #TheShift Summit, a one-day short format conference that featured a keynote speaker in the hospitality industry and panel workshops on several topics, such as building neighborhood business districts, female entrepreneurship, accessing capital and creating wealth. Experience Grand Rapids proudly sponsored the summit and was encouraged by the attendance and support it received.  

Why #TheShift Summit?

Robinson shared with me that, “Similar to other urban cities and communities, any statistic that indicates socioeconomic success, African Americans are at the bottom. In Grand Rapids, currently 45 percent of African-Americans live at or below poverty level. In certain neighborhoods that are predominantly African-American, unemployment rates are as high as 53 percent. So, The Shift Summit was created to connect, engage and inform black entrepreneurs, small business owners, professionals and stakeholders from around the state of Michigan about opportunities, resources, programs and policies that increase economic activity that will lead to economic empowerment and equity.”

The Shift Summit was created to connect, engage and inform black entrepreneurs, small business owners, professionals and stakeholders from around the state of Michigan about opportunities, resources, programs and policies that increase economic activity that will lead to economic empowerment and equity

A Focus on Hospitality

This year the summit focused on hospitality and featured keynote speaker, Damon Lawrence, CEO of Homage Hospitality based in Oakland, CA. When I asked Robinson why he selected Lawrence to speak, he explained, “We were looking for an individual who was an entrepreneur practitioner and doing some amazing work in an industry where African Americans are currently underrepresented in ownership. With all the new development and growth taking place in our city and state, especially in the hospitality and tourism sector, we knew Damon was a person our community needed to hear and meet.”

While Lawrence isn’t the first black hotel owner in the U.S., African Americans are still grossly underrepresented in this sector of the hospitability industry, according to National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers.

Lawrence’s visit to Grand Rapids was timely. Just a week prior, Experience Grand Rapids hosted eight African American men from Morehouse College – one of whom expressed interest in hotel ownership. Eager to share the CEO’s perspective with this young man, I asked Lawrence what advice he had for young people who aspire to own a hotel. His message was very concise and clear: “Stick with it, stay the course and celebrate the small wins. The easy part is to dream but sticking with the plan is the challenge in a day when social media will lead you to believe that success = instant gratification.”