In January 2011, I found myself standing alongside fellow committee members waiting to present our findings to the Grand Rapids City Commission about what our city might look like in the years ahead.
After many months of meetings in 2010, we were finally prepared to speak and share our ideas.
The committee members of the Service Application Advisors would be concentrating on "how the city can provide current services in a different way while engaging citizens and reducing demands on city resources."
It was a challenging project and here we were after months of conversation and thoughtful planning, delivering our recommendations to the commission.
When it came my turn to present the piece on coaching, a term I felt was more appropriate than the original phrase of "hiring of consultant," I went off script.
A new thought dawned on me, as I recited what had been prepared, that the time could be here for a new kind of export to arrive.
While I acknowledged there are times when hiring an outsider is necessary to get the job done, what if we were so successful finding the solutions for Grand Rapids that we could actually launch a new generation of experts from our region who could be hired to coach other cities facing some of the same modern challenges?
The concept of homegrown talent in West Michigan is nothing new for a region rich in design history. During a recent breakfast conversation with local entrepreneur Shelly Klein of K Studio
, I realized her creative path provided a perfect example.
Although Rapid Growth has profiled Klein
in the past, I enjoyed hearing news about her recent trip to New York City. She got me thinking again about the concept of exporting to the world what we create here.
Klein, an artist in our region, began her business with the assistance of her mother Mary Klein, who had a strong background in the furniture industry. The pair harnessed their talent in 2004 and made a splash on the design scene by taking K Studio's newly minted line of products beyond the city boundaries.
"We just knew that if we were to make a living doing what we love, we would need to get our product in front of as many people as possible," Klein says. "To be sustainable, we had to take our product line to the country's top gift shows."
Almost immediately, K Studio was embraced everywhere it went. But soon, Klein realized that there were other benefits for her embroidered textile line she did not foresee at the beginning of this journey.
One benefit of attending these gift shows was that K Studio received wonderful press from TV, reputable design blogs and impressive print exposure from national magazines including The New York Times.
While these positive bumps in the press guaranteed a measurable increase in sales, the trips to these markets also placed Klein in proximity to some of the biggest names in the international design industry.
These new contacts provided an unexpected windfall of special design projects allowing Klein to tap into the artistic vein from where the textile work springs.
For seven years, she has traveled from city to city across the country to exhibit at these buyer markets. The New York International Gift Fair that has featured her work for years in the handmade division finally granted her access to show in the prestigious Accent on Design section, the same category well-known contemporary brands such as Alessi, Chilewich, and Jonathan Adler are exhibited -- and now K Studio.
It was a dream come true after seven years and 14 applications to this semi-annual international event and just when it seemed it could not get any better, K Studio won the Winter 2011 Best Product Collection Award, the top honor one can receive at this show.
As Klein shares this story with me, she is graceful and humble in retelling it, making sure I know that while she could have moved anywhere in the country, she chose our region to base her career.
The community of supportive friends she has cultivated is one reason, but Klein also knows West Michigan offers access to numerous designers who have built upon the reputation our region has garnered for generations. It all adds up. West Michigan does offer much to those looking to incubate and grow a good business.
Once more, I am reminded of what Klein learned years ago. We need to be bold, but if we want to grow, we also need to begin to think about how it will play on the world stage, too.
So, the next time you are sitting around watching an awards show and say, "Hey, why can't I be up there?" simply turn off the TV and set your mind to plotting a path to take your act on the road. The road not taken is, well, a path to nowhere if you do not leave the comfort of your front porch. So buckle up and get moving.
Grand Rapids is a great place to begin something, anything, and if it is good, you better damn well put it out there. Our community's history proves that fact and besides, we are counting on you to venture forth. No worries. We'll watch your plants while you are away.
The Future Needs All of Us (to keep on trucking)
Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor
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Photo of Shelly Klein and Tommy Allen at K Studio.
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