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Taking the first step toward moving the needle: Start Garden's 100 Ideas

Joel Rahn, regional president of Chemical Bank.

Promoted as “the easiest way to pitch for $1,000” is Start Garden’s newest endeavor, their 100 Ideas campaign. The goals for this competition include procuring new ideas, infusing capital into the community, and reducing the gap between minority and non-minority owned new business launches.
The 100 Ideas campaign has been promoted as “the easiest way to pitch for $1,000.”

Announced in January 2018, Start Garden’s newest endeavor is focused on encouraging new ideas and infusing capital into the entrepreneurial community. As of February 19, over 390 accounts have been created to participate in this competition. From these, 100 will be selected to receive $1,000, support for moving their idea forward, and the potential for additional funding. This initiative also seeks to bridge the gap between minority and non-minority-owned business development in the area.

“The Kauffman Foundation recently reported that ‘if minorities started and owned businesses at the same rate as non-minorities do, the U.S. would have 1 million more businesses and as much as 9.5 million jobs in the economy,’” says Start Garden Director Paul Moore.

Paul Moore, photograph by Adam Bird.“In Start Garden's six years of working with hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs, we learned something obvious. Every entrepreneur uses some capital to work on their ideas. The first few thousand dollars [are] the hardest to raise and it's almost always bootstrapped or borrowed from friends and family. So, the question for us was, ‘what innovations will we never see just because someone doesn't have bootstraps or a network that can finance their ideas?’” Moore elaborates.

Access to capital is an ongoing discussion within the entrepreneurial community; particularly as it pertains to early-stage businesses. Start Garden is not the only organization to see this as a need and an opportunity to have an impact. This campaign is being supported by various companies and foundations.

The Economic Development Foundation (EDF) provides access to capital for small businesses in Michigan. Founded in 1981, the EDF “has been instrumental in assisting small businesses with the acquisition of real estate and equipment,” says President Julie Parker. This funding is provided through collaboration with local financial institutions as well as the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), she shares.

As a first-time partner of Start Garden, Parker clearly sees the value of this initiative.

“I think the 100 Ideas Campaign is a great way to support the growth of new ideas in our community. Lack of capital is often the stumbling block to moving ideas forward and this program can definitely give entrepreneurs the boost they need to keep their ideas alive,” she says.

This initiative “directly aligns with our goals and the goals of the SBA,” Parker elaborates. Other partners saw the link between this campaign and their missions as well.

Chemical Bank is focused on reinforcing their strong community ties and partnerships, says Regional President Joel Rahn. “We take community partnership very seriously. It is [at] the heart of our culture,” he says. As Chemical Bank becomes more ingrained in the West Michigan community, one of their focal points in on entrepreneurship.

Joel Rahn, photograph by Adam Bird.

Founded in 1922, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation (GRCF) is not new to supporting local initiatives. GRCF is a nonprofit foundation, receiving all of its funding from members within the community, shares Vice President of Community Investment, Laurie Craft. Their board determines the core issues within the area where their financial support will be allocated, Craft elaborates.

“One thing we’ve done is invest a portion of assets into local investments. They have primarily been for development types of opportunities, primarily affordable housing. [We’re seeing] if there is more we can do with those assets,” says Craft.

“We’ve recently made an investment with Northern Initiatives, which is for local small business and minority lending,” she shares.
Looking in the Greater Grand Rapids area, the GRCF has been actively involved with Start Garden and apart of the entrepreneurial support organization (ESO) discussions and initiatives for several years now. “I think we have a great community of entrepreneurial support organizations that are very interested in seeing businesses succeed,” says Craft.

“We have been aware over the years of what Start Garden does. We have been aware of the fact that all of this activity has been going on and that is hasn’t moved the needle on the number of minority-owned businesses we have in the community. I started having a conversation with [Start Garden] almost a year ago now about what role we could play in helping them move this forward,” Craft says.

Laurie Craft, photograph by Autumn Johnson.
Having partnered with Start Garden through event sponsorships including Update Nights and Startup Weekend, this new idea made sense for Chemical Bank as well. “It’s good for the overall health of our West Michigan economy. Even more important than that, it’s inspiring to see [an] individual’s dream [be able to be] fulfilled and put into action,” says Rahn.

One of the aspects that resonates most with Rahn is “the fact that [Start Garden is] targeting more of the grassroots entrepreneurial initiatives. These are truly startup business ideas. It is not designated or restricted to one sector. It naturally involves a larger cross-section of our community. That appeals to us,” he says.

“Access to capital seems to be an issue and I think what we’re trying to find out is ‘is it really’ or is it readiness. We’re moving forward with an idea that is going to increase activity, increase opportunity and get people talking. It’s going to create some buzz within the community, maybe a sense of hope,” says Craft.

Rahn looks to see two outcomes from this campaign. First, “greater accessibility to resources in our community for aspiring business owners,” he says. He hopes aspiring entrepreneurs will walk away with a great sense of awareness and knowledge about the resources they have access to. As for its long-term potential, Rahn feels there can be a momentous impact.

“If someone decides to go into business for themselves and Start Garden can help plug them in to the right resources and give them a better change…that’s life-changing. That, to me, is the most exciting. You can’t put a price on that. [And that entrepreneur] might inspire the next generation of business owners,” Rahn elaborates.

Craft hopes this project will start a new dialogue and provide insights, especially around the disparities in the community. “It’s one of those things, if we can start to change the narrative a little bit and the conversation about this, then I think that’s a big success. Making sure that people are acutely aware that this is a deficiency within the community and that we need to do something about it and [saying] ‘what can we do’ is a good first step,” she says.

“If we aren’t taking risks, we aren’t doing our jobs,” Craft says. “If this doesn’t work, we will try something else, but we [have to] keep trying.”

Moore concludes, “100 Ideas is not the silver bullet for the problem, but it is the first domino to fall in a line that we’re working on at Start Garden.”

“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable startup-friendly community. Read more in the series here. Support for this series is provided by Start Garden.

Leandra Nisbet, the Editor of this series, is Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Gold Leaf Designs LLC, has over 12 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. Through these organizations, she assists businesses with creating strategies for growth and sustainability through: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management solutions and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees. Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at leandra@stingrayadvisorygroup.com.

Photos by Autumn Johnson of Bird + Bird Studio.
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