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Making it in Grand Rapids: How the startup community is preparing entrepreneurs for the 'real world'

Can you teach entrepreneurship? This question may not have a straight answer, but is it even the right question? There are those in the Grand Rapids startup community who are not only working to educate entrepreneurs as much as possible but are also changing the question by asking not if it can be taught, but how it can be taught.  
Kyama Kitavi

Can you teach entrepreneurship? This question may not have a straight answer, but is it even the right question? There are those in the Grand Rapids startup community who are not only working to educate entrepreneurs as much as possible but are also changing the question by asking not if it can be taught, but how it can be taught.  
It's no debate that small business is on the rise. In Michigan alone in 2015, the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) helped open 347 new businesses, creating 3,984 jobs. Thirty-five of those businesses were in West Michigan.

What is up for debate, however, is whether or not the skills it takes to build those businesses can be taught.  As entrepreneurship as a career becomes more and more commonplace (entrepreneurs are increasingly some of the biggest contributors to job growth in the United States), a question is surfacing: Can you actually teach the skills it takes to make a successful entrepreneur?

While places like Start Garden, and programs like the Seamless accelerator, give businesses a place to go and offer guidance and resources once they have an idea and a business plan, what happens before that? What is available to entrepreneurs when a formal business plan still seems a million miles away?
Whether or not entrepreneurship as a whole can be learned in a class, there are specific aspects of entrepreneurship that can be taught. Offering a holistic approach to education, Grand Rapids, and the entrepreneurship ecosystem within it, has both the practical, one-on-one education small businesses need to get moving, and the nitty-gritty, hands-on experience the potential startup founder needs in order to understand what they are getting into.

Kyama Kitavi, who spent six years managing micro-loans for Accion in Chicago before recently moving to Grand Rapids to become involved in the startup scene here, has, while engaging in the conversations GR's entrepreneurship community is having, begun to notice where he thinks the typical entrepreneur needs the most help. "For most businesses, the biggest challenge is a combination of financing and education,” he says. “They need to know where that money is and how they can get it."

Kyama KitaviHe sees the chance to get funding as one of the most important pieces of the entrepreneurship conversation. "Everyone is talking and thinking about the entrepreneurship ecosystem, but we can talk (to entrepreneurs) all we want...if they aren't getting funding or loans, the conversation becomes moot."

He points out that the most successful businesses, the businesses most likely to get loans and funding, are sustainable businesses. But, if they don't know the specifics that will make their business sustainable, the banks won't even look at them. Kitavi knows what a potential lending institution will look at when deciding to give a business a loan. "They need to be ready to hit the ground running and start selling...that's what we want because you'll need to start paying that (loan) back in a month." He also knows that banks will look at more than just the numbers in front of them. "They'll look at past credit...so much of your personal life comes into play." These are things that may be common knowledge to lenders, but are facts the average entrepreneur may not know.

"General entrepreneurship education has its place, but there is a need in the space for customized, one-on-one interaction...working on their paperwork, going through their background, and finding overall strategies that fit to what they are trying to do,” Kitavi says.

The SBDC, in addition to the aforementioned businesses and jobs it helped create last year, also offers free courses and services designed to work with any business at any stage. Hanna Burmeister, Marketing Manager at the SBDC’s Grand Rapids chapter, located in the L. William Seidman Center on Grand Valley's campus, says it's the SBDC’s goal to partner with startup entities around the city, like Start Garden, and offer the resources they can't, like market research. "Market research is huge, especially for those entering an accelerator,” Burmeister says. “Demographics, consumer data, competitor data...are all critical components of a business plan."

The SBDC has centers throughout the country and multiple centers in each state. Because they are funded by taxpayer dollars, those at the SBDC feel a significant responsibility to help educate the businesses in its communities and support growth. "We want to help build the economy and make sure Michigan is a place where a small business or startup can start, grow, continue, and thrive," says Burmeister. To do this, the SBDC offers the very specific and one-on-one attention Kitavi encouraged. The group’s consultants are experts in a wide range of areas, including many former entrepreneurs, and by simply visiting its website you can register for courses like Business Legal Issues, Starting a Business, Social Media 101, Marketing Your Business, Forming Your LLC, Writing a Business Plan, and more. SBDC representatives are also available to meet with entrepreneurs at various locales, including Start Garden.
But, before an entrepreneur can take their startup or small business to the SBDC, before they can seek out funding, and before they are ready to step into an accelerator, they need to make the decision to become an entrepreneur. They need to know if they have what it takes and fully understand what they will have to invest, both financially and emotionally. And, while this is the part that some long-time entrepreneurs insist is almost impossible to teach, that's not stopping schools like Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) and Grand Valley State University (GVSU) from trying.

"There is a debate about whether entrepreneurship can be taught," agrees Shorouq Almallah, Director of The Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at GVSU. "But I think the better question is, 'how do you teach it?'"
Shorouq Almallah

One of the answers to this question, Almallah has discovered, is: early. "As you get older, your ability to manage or tolerate risk becomes lower and lower," she says. So, Allamah and her colleagues, upon realizing there weren't many opportunities for high school students to learn about entrepreneurship 10 years ago, decided to introduce a program that would expose them to that risk early on.

The Teen Entrepreneurship Summer Academy (TESA) is a five-day academy that teams up four to five students from different high schools and asks them to manufacture an original business pitch from the idea stage to a developed concept. They are given a problem to solve on the first day and, on the final day, each team presents their idea to a panel of local business professionals for a chance to win cash prizes totaling $5,000.

The goal of the program, says Almallah, is to help students start to build entrepreneurial competencies and skill sets, such as the ability to recognize opportunity, problem solving, ideation, customer validation, and when to pivot if something isn't working. They want to introduce the "real world" skills that would be needed when approaching a "real world" problem.

And, the introduction of those skills and fast-paced intensity of the program will not only help students seriously consider whether a career in entrepreneurship is right for them, but it also builds 21st century skills that will be crucial no matter what career path they choose to follow. "Some companies now have innovation departments," says Almallah. "And they look for people that can be entrepreneurial within their organization."

This blending of skillsets is called "intrapreneruship" and is something that Professor Felix Pereiro, Business Department Head at the Meijer Center for Business Studies at GRCC, also recognizes as an integral part of an entrepreneurship education. "Can students discuss innovation and the creative process? Can they solve complex problems, lead and produce results? Companies are looking for these traits," says Pereiro. That is why programs like those at GVSU and GRCC are so important to the next generation of entrepreneurs and those that choose to enter into a company. According to a 2014 survey of 3,335 human resources professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 54 percent of respondents indicated that job applicants lacked critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Within the eight associates degrees in business, two certificate degrees in entrepreneurship or innovation and marketing at GRCC or the entrepreneurship major and interdisciplinary entrepreneurship certificate offered at GVSU, students find that entrepreneurship can be taught. And while Pereiro says that the "drive, the passion and the mindset need to be there to begin with, we do try to teach the things that many say can't be taught. Things like, why you must be a grinder to start your business, that you need book smarts and streets smarts to succeed in business, and that it takes a total commitment."

"You either have it, or you don't," adds Pereiro, and some of his students have found that they did. Justin Williams is the founder and CEO of Affordable Limousine and Party Bus. "He started his business on a small sheet of paper in my office approximately six years ago, and today it is a million dollar business employing over 80 people," says Pereiro.  Almallah has seen similar results in one of her students who is currently making $30,000 running a lawn-mowing service. She also had a student, after visiting Start Garden, tell her that the incubator was “the place they wanted to be when they were older…finally a place where they could be an entrepreneur and innovate."
Results like these are exactly what Pereiro, Almallah, and entrepreneurship programs are aiming for. "It's our goal to help students turn their entrepreneurial dreams into reality,” Pereiro says.

And, sometimes, an individual knows exactly what they want to do, and they just go for it.

Neither Ryan Vaughn, founder of Varsity News, the largest and fastest growing high school sports marketing platform in the country, nor Ben Gott, founder of Boxed Water, had a formal entrepreneurial education when starting their businesses. In fact, Vaughn was always just ahead of the startup ecosystem in Grand Rapids when he started 10 years ago and was often used as an example of what needed improving within the community. "If they saw me struggling with something, they would work on improving it,” he says.

"I'm always cautious of programs that say they will teach you to be an entrepreneur," says Gott, "That's more of a mindset. But, teaching things I learned a little late, like how to raise capital...that's hugely valuable."

But, no matter the education they had going in, both Vaughn and Gott agree that having somewhere like Start Garden, or simply a place to interact with like-minded people, is where the real education lies.

"You want to be as prepared as you can," says Vaughn, "I 100 percent agree. But, in the process of starting a company, you are always in a spot where you don’t know what you’re doing and you have to learn... and that’s what you’re supposed to do. You are supposed to blaze a trail, and there's only so much you can do to prepare for that."

“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable startup-friendly community. Support for this series is provided by Start Garden. You can reach the author of this story on Twitter @allyspoon or e-mail her at alspooner@gmail.com for story tips and feedback.
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