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G-Sync: The Boomerang that's so 'Fly

Laura Caprara

When Laura Caprara moved back to Grand Rapids, few knew of the concept known as the boomerang. But as Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen discovers this week, sometimes when they return to our region, they fly even higher than anyone could imagine.
There was a time in our city's history when, in order to meet someone or gain access, you needed a direct phone line, a gatekeeper's trust or the "right place, right time" chance introduction at a community event. These methods still happen, but with the advent of social media, those barriers are not as daunting.

One refrain we hear again and again, both from newcomers to West Michigan and from those who have moved away before boomeranging back again, is that Grand Rapids is a surprisingly accessible place for those who want to make a difference, find a mentor, or create something new.

One local boomerang, Laura Caprara of Stellafly, left Grand Rapids once upon a time to try her skills in another market before returning with new knowledge and inspiration. Equipped with the drive to do things on her own terms, she's not only created one of the most exciting social media firms in GR, but in 2012 also picked up a nomination for a Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Athena Award  shortly after forming Stellafly. And these days, she's breaking down barriers left and right.

Caprara has told her story often, but even if you've heard this one, it is still a thrill to hear again. And for the sake of getting to the good stuff, I have compressed those early boomerang years.

Once a psychology major at Calvin College, she decided to shift her major to the arts, which prompted an outburst from her father, a doctor: ""Well, you better have a place to sell your work or have a husband who can support you."

It's almost laughable now, but in those days at Calvin College, Caprara says, "It was not uncommon for some woman to answer the age-old question, 'What are you majoring in?' with, 'I'm getting an MRS degree.'"

After graduation, Caprara and her brother, entrepreneur Scott Ostrander, moved to Eugene. Caprara eventually moved to Portland for work. (Ostrander, driven like Caprara, is the co-founder of the multi-million dollar Constant Gardener line of organic products.)

And before she returned to Grand Rapids in 1996, she also picked up the nickname that a friend would yell every time she would walk into a Portland bar. "Stella," delivered much like Marlon Brando in that classic city scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, would be a name that echoed throughout her life for years to come.

"When I arrived in Grand Rapids, I discovered that not only was I adept at the graphic arts, but I was discovering other skills as well as a result of the advent of the personal computer," says Caprara, as she describes her Apple Classic ii. "Sure, I was able to navigate programs like Quark and Pagemaker, but I unearthed an almost natural ability to not just understand the process, but to intuitively begin to think like the computer."

This came in handy for Caprara who, in the early days, would have to help people around her -- from her boss to friends -- move from an analog realm to a digital one.

After marrying Anthony Caprara and having two kids -- Thomas and Anthony Jr. -- she was given an opportunity many had yet to discover. Caprara was able to spend the first years of her children's lives working from home.

As she came out of the era of analog, wrestled with countless floppy discs from AOL (her first service provider), and even learned to tame the computer beast to produce the results she needed, she also solidified her brand name by adding "fly" to her still-used moniker, Stella.

"As I sat there in front of my computer trying to create an AOL name, nothing I wanted was available," says Caprara, sharing an all too familiar experience from a time when we were discouraged from using real names. "So as I surveyed pop culture, which included shows like "Solid Gold" and "In Living Color ", I thought, I like the Fly Girl dancers from ILC, so StellaFly was launched as my firm that would pick up freelance work over the decades."

Moving quickly through time, we land in 2008, where Caprara, like many, was discovering Facebook for the very first time.

"I was dead set on having a limit to the number of friends I would have on this platform," says Caprara, "but this all changed when I met Paul Jendrasiak, one of the early adopters. He got me thinking about the audience he had discovered, and I set to finding ways to monetize it."

It was while she was working on a research project in New York City with a dog show group that she stumbled upon the New York Social Diary. Almost as quickly as the idea sparked, she would go on to form West Michigan's version of this electronic Page Six feature with a few other members of our community. It was called the Grand Rapids Social Diary (GRSD).

But almost as fast as it formed, it would fold under the weight of too much, too fast. Caprara, while down at first, realized in this downturn was another opportunity.

Shortly after GRSD closed, StellaFly emerged with a similar mission -- but not quite.

She had been born again as a new winged creation, a phoenix. Having gone through the fire, she was able to go from Page Six -- a page typically devoted to who's who and wearing what with whom -- to the front page, becoming a true community-focused brand. She did this by nabbing plum accounts like the Grand Rapids Community Foundation (GRCF), Grand Rapids Public Schools and ArtPrize.

Now, a few years down the road and firmly on the minds of city folk who enjoy her arts and education coverage from the urban core, Caprara has discovered another market entirely by accident.

In an adventure that  began as just a personal challenge to earn something that cannot be bought, she, like many around her in their 40s, decided to take up running, inspired by her three mentors, GVSU's Shelley Irwin, GRCF's Roberta King, and author Lisa Rose Starner of The Urban Ranch. (King, like Caprara, is a firery redhead who uses twitter to update her followers of her journey. King inspires more than just runners with her often 5 a.m. runs near the Muskegon Lakeshore.)

"These women provided the encouragement I needed to make those first steps," says Caprara, who, like her mentors, used social media to share fitness accomplishments and even failures. "A community I had not been a part of before suddenly was open to me. It was wonderful."

As a result of being so open with her quest, she not only ran her first 5K at the debut of the Grand Rapids Color Run, but through the Gazelle Girl race, her firm also went on to create personal videos telling women's stories as they prepared for the half marathon. After this event, StellaFly's Facebook page audience grew by almost 1500 overnight.

Caprara, ever systems minded, saw an opportunity to not only expand her reach, but to also let others run with her brand. This year, Caprara has openly shared the introduction of other people who are helping her with her plan as she advances to her first marathon race this May.

She is also taking these behind-the-scenes training sessions very seriously, as she relies on MVP's in-house trainer Rusty Ross to make sure her body is up for the task ahead of her. And she's using her new commitment to fitness, health, and endurance, along with her social media platform, to train for a cause bigger than herself.

"The very best part is that we are finally able to launch a new venture, Flys on the Run: Team StellaFly -- a group of athletes who will run under the StellaFly brand, but do so by supporting area races but also other nonprofits, thus raising funds as well as awareness," says Caprara. "And while we have a host of causes from our team of 19 runners, most of them are running on behalf of My Team Triumph."

The nonprofit My Team Triumph myTEAM TRIUMPH is an athletic ride-along program that serves children, teens, adults and veterans with disabilities. The participants with disabilities are known as "Captains," and the athletes, like Team StellaFly runners who have selected this group as their cause, have the honor of pushing and pulling the captains at a race and are called their "Angels." This group opens up the experience to those who normally may not be able to experience endurance events such as triathlons or road races.

"Team StellaFly will seek to not only open up a new avenue of conversation around the sport of running," says Caprara, "but it allows these athletes representing diverse populations within our community to connect with not just one another, but to our city in a new and exciting way."

Indeed, Caprara is just one of many Grand Rapidians on the road even during this harshest of winters, using city sidewalks as their training grounds as they explore new neighborhoods and connect with other athletes from all walks of life. A year and a half into finding ways to strengthen her body, advance her brand, connect with others, and improve the way we live and interact within our city and our region, Caprara is still breaking down barriers.

And while I will admit it was her personal quest to run her very first marathon that caught our attention at Rapid Growth, she is quick to share that all this training is instilling a new desire -- to complete her first Ironman triathlon, and soon.

Sometimes a boomerang returns with a force far stronger than when it left. And in these rare cases, they bring out the best in us through their discovery.

The Future Needs All of Us

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Art, comedy and health play a big role in this week's G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This!

Photography by Adam Bird 

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