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Falling in love with programming: Django Girls inspires women to join the tech world

I came across a Facebook post the other day of a room full of women learning to code, and thought how great it was that we were getting another boot camp. Programming (or coding) has been a hot topic for a few years now, with new coding boot camps springing up across the country. Grand Rapid itself is getting its very own boot camp this spring when Grand Circus-Detroit finishes its expansion to the west side of the state; its first class is set to launch in late March.

I looked further into the post only to realize that it was not a coding bootcamp, but something just as exciting. After some Facebook investigating, I found out it was a coding tutorial that went into the weekend. The group responsible for this weekend coding blitz was Django Girls. They are an international non-profit organization that helps people of all backgrounds to learn how to to code using Django (an open-source framework written in the programming language Python).

If you’ve tuned out already, don’t worry: that is about as heady as the coding talk will get here.

So, I reach out to Django Girls and ask if they have time to meet and chat more about their story. We decide to meet at every downtown freelancer’s office, a coffee shop with strong brews and wifi. I’m welcomed by three of the organizers: Rachell Calhoun, Josh Yuhas and Jace Browning. They are three of a total of five total organizers for Django Girls: Grand Rapids.

Calhoun starts off with the history of Django Girls. “It started in 2014 during a Django conference in Berlin by two Polish women, Ola Sitarska and Ola Sendecka,” she explains. Calhoun comes from a recent nine-year stint in Korea, where she was a member of the local Django Girls chapter. She says their mission, like their website, is simple and to the point:
 
  • Inspire women to fall in love with programming.
  • Support and mentor those that want to continue their programming after the workshop.
  • Build a revolving community: students become mentors.
  • Help increase the presence of women and individuals from underrepresented groups in the tech field.
  • Create a safe, non-threatening environment in the local tech communities.

The rest of the group chimes in about how their approach to every participant is to treat them as if they don’t know anything about computers -- down to where to find the startup bar, so that this way no one feels left behind. You can move as fast or as slow as you want without feeling pressured. Django Girls are not here to run code alongside a room of people, rather they are here to help guide them every step of the way.

Their first event in Grand Rapids was hosted at the beginning of February, and it filled up. They like to keep the ratio to about one volunteer to every two participants. The coding workshop is structured around a tutorial for building a blog. I ask, why a blog? Can’t anyone go to a free website to get their own pre-made blog website? Yuhas chimes in, saying, “It touches all the pieces of code you need to learn. It’s not about just building a piece of software, but about learning the basics of the language as well. A blog covers a lot of what a beginner will need to know to move on to bigger projects.”  

The event starts on a Friday, lasting three hours to get everyone set up. You only need a laptop and enthusiasm to join, and the team will provide the rest of the software needed. The team of volunteers and instructors spend the time making sure all software is installed and that you are ready for the next day.

Saturday is a full work day, an eight-hour marathon, not a sprint, to the end of the tutorial. As a local chapter of Django Girls, the team has access to tutorials and resources they can use to host these workshops. During the day, they make sure to give the participants food breaks, resting periods and plenty of encouragement in the form of hand-clappers. Every participant is given one to celebrate finishing a section.

What’s next for the Django Girls team? Where do inspired new programmers go after they attend their first event? The team tells me that the international Django Girls organization has plenty of more tutorials and resources to offer. Calhoun herself was part of many tutorials while teaching in Korea. The team is always there to support weekend coding projects through a Slack channel or coffee meetups. The plan is to have more events and tutorials as interest grows.

Yuhas tells me that “Django Girls is perfect for Grand Rapids since it already has Bitcamp in the ecosystem. Django Girls wants to help underrepresented women in the community, because if you look at any of the agencies in the city, women may represent one or two of a total of 70-plus employees. There’s something wrong with that; there’s a lot of talent being lost there.”

In furthering their mission, the Django Girls team are very aware that they need effective marketing and strategic partnership to ensure thorough community outreach. They are already looking to collaborate with other events organizations to further enhance outreach for underrepresented women in the West Michigan area.

Calhoun mentions in closing that she was an English teacher before learning to code, and that she never paid for a formal coding education. She now helps lead the Django Girls team and is herself employed in the tech sector, making a living on what she taught herself to do.

The Django Girls team would like to invite you to stay tuned to their website to join their next coding tutorial event. Come for the coding, but stay for the clappers.

Photos courtesy of Stoneburner Media

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
 

Business with a conscience: How Symposia Labs is changing GR’s marketing landscape

On a windy afternoon I head inside a downtown coffee shop to sit down with Timothy Haines, the founder of Symposia Labs, a digital marketing and advertising agency, to chat about industry, ethics, and the growing Grand Rapids market.

The Symposia team is fresh from a ribbon cutting ceremony for their new Grand Rapids office that opened on January 31 of this year. In their move from Holland to Grand Rapids, they found a location just a few blocks east of downtown at 255 Washington Street.

As with any good story, I sit back and ask Haines about where it all began. Not surprisingly, the Symposia Labs story starts like many tech company stories: at home with employee number one, Haines.

“At first it’s all trial and error,” Haines says after I ask him if the company was always in digital marketing. “You take the work you can get, and you’re not sure who you are. Do you build websites? Are you in marketing? Do you do design work?”

Haines tells me that at first the company approached work by specializing in social media, and after some time he began to pivot to digital marketing as a whole. He explains it best when he says, “We’ve found that our approach has three components: technology, people, and business… and to do digital marketing right you have to understand all three. Not just those concepts individually, but also how they interact.”

I tell Haines how many non-business owners, or people outside of the industry, might look at Facebook advertising, search engine optimization (SEO), Google ad words, and so forth as millennial hogwash. Timothy replies with an elegant explanation. “Digital marketing is like a lense on a camera; it enhances what you see on the subject.”

So I ask him, what does Symposia Labs do? “ We execute and design digital design strategies,” he replies, clarifying that his team operates a bit differently than others. They of course have the cool office, telecommute option, and laid-back culture, but they differ in how they interact with their clients. Symposia Labs does not a have a large swath of clients across West Michigan, rather they opt to have a smaller portfolio of clients with whom they work closely.

“We work on retainer and mold ourselves around our client’s team to get the best results for them,” Haines says. In a city with more and more freelancers and small design shops, it can be hard to find a business with a conscience. A business that isn’t after billable hours, but rather a strong working relationship.

Haines credits the large, and growing, Grand Rapids market for his approach. “There’s enough pie for all of us here,” he notes. As part of his company’s move, they share a space with local design studio Kmotion Design to accommodate the few clients that need a bit of everything, including a custom website from the ground up. Symposia Labs has found what they are great at, honed their expertise, and expanded their network to include business friends to assist with the excess work load.

I follow up Haines’s thoughts about business with a conscience and ask him about the lack of professionals of color in tech and if he has this in mind in his hiring practices as Symposia Labs grows larger.

“Absolutely, we moved here from Holland for a chance, albeit still small, at greater diversity in our work,” he says. I mention how important it is for people of color to see representation in different business fields, and Haines points to the design landscape in West Michigan, sighs and says, “I know; you look around and it’s white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, and you know there’s something wrong there.”

I’m surprised to hear Haines be so natural and at ease when speaking truth to these issues, especially because of what midwest decorum normally dictates. It’s refreshing to hear a person of privilege be so honest about their privilege and actively seek answers. We move on to speaking about operating from a place of intentionality and how we must be intentional if we want to help.

He brings up an example of his time in Holland, when he knew few people in the digital marketing space, and how he wanted to expand his network but also share and learn experiences and techniques in his field. Without an approachable resource to turn to, he started what is now Drinks and Digital, an event where professionals interested in digital marketing can meet up and talk a bit of business over drinks.

Haines mentions that it has evolved to a become a bit of a pool of prospective applicants where many of his hires have come from. His team is still ramping up after their Grand Rapids launch, and they will be searching for another team member to come on board as project manager within the next few months.

As he takes the last drink of his coffee I remind him that I discovered his agency on Facebook. His eyes light up, and he goes for his phone and says, “ I bet it was the latest Facebook ad we put out that you saw! We practice what we preach!”

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Speaking out: Women in tech tackle (lack of) diversity in their field

As Grand Circus ramps up its Grand Rapids launch, the company hosted a panel discussion with all women in tech. I mention specifically a discussion with all women in tech instead of a discussion about women in tech because of how each woman framed their professional experiences that night.

If you weren’t able to make it out to Start Garden on Wednesday, Feb. 8, you really missed out. As packed as we all were in the main room, there was spillover space in the far back, and it was worth the standing to hear the gems powerful messages that each panelist brought to the stage.

Grand Circus gathered an array of professional women in tech from around the city. There was Emily Carbonell-Ferguson of Mighty in the MidwestBecky VandenBout, an independent freelancer; Beth Zuke of Amway; and Andrea Napierkowski of Curly Host, a Grand Rapid-based firm that specializes in Wordpress websites.

To a standing-room-only crowd, panelists spoke about their experiences in the tech field, their opinions on what it means to be a woman in tech, and what they hope to see in the field.

As the night drew on, panelist Andrea Napierkowski found herself behind the mic more and more, adding wit along with some much-needed candid answers to the mostly male room.

When posed with the question, “how do we empower women to succeed," Napierkowski’s replied quickly, saying, “To say that women need to be empowered feels as if we as women do not already have what it takes to do the work. I disagree with that; I think we as women already have what it takes to do the job. What is happening is that we are being overlooked.”

After a brief pause, Napierkowski pressed on to declare, “It seems to me that what the industry needs to be doing is educating our male counterparts as to why they need diversity and inclusion. We women aren’t the problem.” A quick look around the crowd showed a room filling with smiles, nodding heads of agreement, and attempted slow claps, surely paused by the prospect of hearing more from Napierkowski. It was clear that this response summed up the feelings of many in the room.


After the event I took some time to sit down and chat with Napierkowski to further the conversation she championed on the stage.

We hit the ground running and started talking about her strongest response during the panel discussion, and I ask her how she has come to that point of view. Napierkowski tells me that it was not something she came into the field thinking about. “It was actually a surprise to me when I came to the realization a few years ago that there weren’t many women in tech,” Napierkowski adds.

She recounts how she came into the industry really by chance. “It started with one project I gained through a connection; I was coming into all this from international relations and political science background.” Napierkowski shifted careers from her college major to working in the food service industry to building websites. I asked her if she didn’t grow up programming or building websites, what then was her dream job?

“My dream job was to come into people’s houses and clean and organize everything, then make them an amazing meal from whatever was in their kitchen...that never materialized," Napierkowski replies.


I ask her about her prior perception of the tech industry and how it is unusual that she was unaware of the gender gap. “I hit the ground running; I became so involved with my work. I come from a family of very thoughtful learners. We all dive deep into our work and passions” Napierkowski responds.

Napierkowski’s  learning and working approach is different. “Starting off, I had to do everything myself, often taking work and learning it on the go. I picked up a lot of skills, so by the time I had enough work that I had to begin hiring people and collaborating, I realized how advanced I’d become.”

“I imagined everyone in the industry was like me, or better," she elaborates. "You see, I would start a project and have to collaborate with others and realize that they hadn’t touched design, or marketing, or user experience, or backend code. So it made collaborating a bit more difficult; I had to search harder for collaborators that I could work with well.”

Collaboration can be difficult, so we talk about the biggest roadblock to her collaboration process.

“I have worked with very talented programmers who pride themselves in building sites from the ground up," she says. "The sites end up meeting exactly what the client asks for, but they are impossible to figure out on the backend, and makes any adjustments or maintenance tedious.”


Napierkowski adds that her "goal isn’t to make my clients dependent on me. I want them to run their business and use the site flawlessly. I try and make it easy enough for them to update and adjust as they need.”

I point out that I see this trend, coming from small design shops in Grand Rapids, of building a business with a conscience. I ask her if she would describe her business in this way and she replies, “I love my work and clients, don’t get me wrong, but my hope is to not have to see them after the project is done. My work has to be good enough to not break. I actually encourage my clients to try and break it!”

Napierkowski tells me that a website has a life of about two to three years, and that her work quality of work stands the test of time so well that most clients return for their updates and rebuilds.

“There is this idea in the industry that the higher the price the better the quality," she says. "I sometimes take on clients who currently have a custom site that cost them nearly double my rate and I have to go in and fix the mess.”

I press Napierkowski to see if she is willing, or has in the past, arbitrarily raised her bid to get the project, and she sighs, saying, “No, it just doesn’t make any sense. The goal is to get them up and running, I just don’t have time for anything else.”

Napierkowski and I stay and talk longer about tech, client war stories, and the latest films we want to see. In full disclosure I have known her for some years now, but in a different capacity. I have been part of her documentary film club since returning to Grand Rapids some years ago.

Her vast network, kindness, and ever-curious mind have helped to build an impressive roster of clients. Her welcoming approach of having people into her home to orient themselves in the city has always been refreshing in this ever-growing metropolis.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
 
Photos courtesy of Start Garden

Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center students raise more than $1K to help rebuild Rising Grinds Café

One by one, hundreds of students file into the Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center’s cavernous gym this past Friday, filling the space with a sea of colorful book bags and talk of the impending weekend. They do the things kids do when they gather together: they laugh; they braid each other’s hair; they excitedly wave to friends, parents and teachers as they wait, winter hats in hand, to exit the school doors and welcome the weekend. Like every Friday afternoon, they cover the school’s wooden floor to bid adieu to an eventful week and cheer on each other’s accomplishments. There is much to celebrate this past week: children’s birthdays, students’ artistic feats, lessons on Martin Luther King Jr., and more.

On this day, however, something different is happening. Today, the students will learn how much money they raised for Rising Grinds Café, a coffee shop that, after nearly three years in the making, was set to soon open its doors at 1530 Madison Ave. SE before it burned to the ground this past November. And they will present a check to the folks behind the café, who are working to rebuild the space that is slated to empower young adults from the Madison Square community with employment and training opportunities.

“We’ve been talking about Martin Luther King and one person making a difference,” GRCDC Principal John Robinson, whose school, located at the corner of Wealthy Street and Lafayette Avenue, is situated about a mile and a half from Rising Grinds, says to the students. “You have a voice, and it’s so important to hear from all of you.”

Then, the students, who spent the past month holding a drive to collect change for the café, are told how much they have raised: $1,090.10. It’s a number that brings cheers and gasps from the students -- after all, it’s hundreds more than many of them expected. And it was done almost entirely by collecting change (plus a few $10 and $20 bills).

“I feel like I’m going to cry; I’m so touched,” says Justin Beene, who, along with his brother, Nathan Beene, is working to reopen Rising Grinds, which lost more than $50,000 worth of equipment and donated materials in the blaze. “It was devastating for me -- it was a three-year process of trying to get a cafe that everyone could own, where everyone could feel comfortable.”

Nathan Beene too tells the students what a difference their efforts have made -- for their morale and, of course, for the café itself.

“This is a perfect example of what it really means to be a community,” Nathan Beene says. “With all of your help and support, we will rise from the ashes again.”

Nathan Beene’s daughter, Tayden, a 9-year-old student in the fourth grade at GRCDC, is the mastermind behind the fundraiser: she was the one to call for the school to step in and help. Following Tayden’s original call to action, Sheryl Veeneman, a parent whose son, Hunter Veeneman, 11, attends the school, helped build upon the idea, suggesting the students conduct a drive entailing collecting change. All of the school’s 264 students immediately got involved, doing everything from scouring couch cushions to keeping an eye out on the street for change and more, and their efforts were incredibly successful. (Plus, as a reward, all of the students will receive a much-anticipated pizza party with food from Eastown's Harmony Brewing.)

“It felt really important to me,” Tayden says, explaining her desire to launch the fundraiser -- an initiative she told her father about on Christmas. “If the café didn’t open, it would affect the community.”

Veeneman echoes these sentiments, explaining that when Hunter, her son, told her about the fire, “it broke my heart.”

“We’re such a community-driven school that something like this is very devastating,” Veeneman says. “I said, ‘Let’s do a penny drive -- I thought we’d get a couple hundred dollars. When I heard how much we we’d raised, I cried.”

That the students poured so much of an effort into this has inspired Nathan and Justin Beene, along with everyone behind Rising Grinds, a project from the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation -- a collaborative entity created by Bethany Christian Services, Tabernacle Community Church and Double O Supply & Craftsmen Inc. With the café, the Beenes say they want to focus their recruitment efforts on disenfranchised members of the community: for example, individuals in foster care and immigrants and refugees. Alongside decent wages, the café would offer such benefits as a social worker to assist with housing and other issues, enrollment in the Center for Community Transformation’s GED program, and more.

“We grew up in this neighborhood, and to see the kids have a voice and make such an impact, it’s powerful,” says Nathan Beene, the director of operations at Building Bridges Professional Services, an initiative also from the Center for Community Transformation that focuses on employing disenfranchised youth. “One voice really can make a difference.”

“That the kids got to witness Tayden having this idea and it becoming a reality, it says, ‘I matter; I have value,'” Beene continues.

If you're interested in learning how you can help support Rising Grinds Café's rebuilding efforts, please visit their Facebook page here or call Rosie at Rising Grinds at 616-224-7409. You can also visit the Center for Community Transformation at 1530 Madison Ave. and enjoy a cup of coffee at the Rising Grinds incubation site.

Cheap thrills: How to explore downtown Grand Rapids without breaking the bank

This article is the first installment in Rapid Growth’s series covering ways to explore our city’s incredible neighborhoods without breaking the bank. This week, we head downtown. Don’t let the new, shiny buildings fool you: there’s still plenty of ways to have fun and not spend a ton of dough.

There’s nothing better than an unexpected day off. So, what is there to do around the city if you have an entire free day to spend? Michigan winters can snow on your parade a bit, but it can also unexpectedly, and quite literally, brighten up your day.

First things first, text your best friend and see if they’re available. If you’re a first time day-off adventurer, it may be best to tag team the day with a friend. For all others going solo, bold or otherwise, don’t forget to grab your headphones and make sure your favorite music and podcasts are all downloaded and synced while you still have some strong wifi at home.

If you’re fortunate enough to live inside the city limits, grab your bus pass and check the Transit app for the next bus headed downtown. If you live outside Grand Rapids, or you don’t have a bus pass, grab those keys and head downtown.

This is where you might be asking yourself: why should I take the bus? I have a car with gas to burn and a need for speed. Allow me to answer your question with the following: Slow down, fast and furious, it’s an adventure so try something different; don’t waste your day/money looking for parking, and finally use the free time to hang with your friend or sink into your favorite podcast.

So, the best place to start is at the Downtown Market. If you don’t have bus passes, mosey up the hill to the Silver Line stop on Division near Wealthy and purchase a day pass ($3.50 for an adult). Head back down into the market and grab a hot chocolate and pastry from either Field & Fire or the market’s newly arrived Madcap. As you munch away, put together a loose plan of what you feel like doing. It’s a day off, so don’t stress on packing the day with activities. Travel from spot to spot and let your mood guide you through the day. Heck, I’ve spent whole afternoons riding the same transit line back and forth in major cities just listening to music, and popping out just for snacks -- and I don’t regret a second of it. Here, with your $3.50 day pass, you can kick back and relax while getting to be a tourist in your own city.

When you’re finished with breakfast, head down Ionia, past the bridge underpass and then take a right to pop back up onto Division, where you should be sure to head into any of the Avenue for the Arts shops. Walk into Parliament the Boutique and check out the team’s latest crafts, or just admire the cat it in all its orange glory.

Cross the street to check out some music at Vertigo, and be sure to find a favorite artist in the stacks. Then browse nearby in the same genre and see if you can’t find something that catches your attention. I have found plenty of new favorite artists this way. You can snag plenty of music for under $10 -- including some amazing vinyl finds for $1. Just have your headphones ready for an impromptu album listen right there in the stacks.

Now, if you’re still feeling chill from the Vertigo vibes, take a walk down the street to the UICA and catch a noon film ($4 for members, $8 for non-members). Heads up: for discounts to places like the UICA, check out a Michigan activity pass with your public library card.

Don’t feel like sitting for an entire movie? Keep those legs moving and wander around the city streets, soaking in architecture, art, more art, and history with self-guided (read: free!) tours. Be sure to take this free interactive tour of GR’s Civil Rights history. Created by Kent Innovation High students, the tour includes 12 stops that provide insight into incredible achievements by our city’s African American residents and organizations, such as Helen Claytor, who fought tirelessly for racial justice and was the first black woman to serve as president of the Grand Rapids YWCA.

And, if you’re hanging out on a Tuesday, be sure to head to the Grand Rapids Art Museum -- you’ll be able to get in free all day. (You can also bypass admission costs on Thursday evening from 5-9pm.)

Want to move your feet in a different direction? Head north and keep the tunes blasting because you’ll be catching the Dash North (free and no bus pass needed) to Higher Ground Rock Climbing for some fancy footwork. Be sure to get off the dash near the 6th street bridge and walk on over to Higher Ground. Get set up for your climbing session and let it rip. Pro tip: having wireless headphones will let you turn your climbing session past 10 and straight to 11. (At $22, which includes a day pass and all the rental equipment, this is the most expensive thing on our list -- but you can stay there for as long as your feet can keep climbing.)

So you’ve rocked it at Higher Ground, and now your stomach is clamoring for food. Cross the street and start walking down to the Dash stop right on the corner of 6th Street and Monroe. Be sure to get off right before the bridge underpass. When you’re off the bus, head down to the Silver Line stop, heading south and get off at the Wealthy Street Station to walk back to the Downtown Market.

If your head is spinning from these transfers you can always get out your phone and hail a Lyft, so if your stomach is roaring it’s best to tame the beast and head to food quickly!

Now that you’re back at the Downtown Market, head to Slow’s BBQ. Get the small, $3 pit smoked beans and watch as they kindly fill it to the brim with beans and small chunks of barbecue meat. Walk over to Field & Fire and buy the smallest bread available to help slop up the delectable beans and sauce. Turn around and grab a cold can of guava juice from Rak Thai, then head upstairs into the greenhouse seating area to soak up the sun while it’s still up.

So you’re back where you started, and you’ve had a full day. Congratulations on your mini-adventure, but there’s still hours left on your watch and the night is young. Do you double down and head back out or call it a day? Let us know in the comments how you would continue your mini-adventure, or if you would like to hear our second half of our day off adventure!

Until next time, stay moving, stay cheap, stay curious.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Giving back: A guide to volunteering in Grand Rapids

Giving back through volunteering does more than just help the organization that receives your efforts. It expands your mind, extends your network, creates new friendships, and in some cases gets you into events for free!

Check out our roundup of some of our local organizations that are easy to sign up for, have lots of programming, and are really fun. (Click on the name of the organization for the groups' information on volunteering.)

Of course, this is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the many wonderful groups in our area who are looking for volunteers. Please feel free to share who you love supporting in the comments below.

Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA)
Become a docent (a guide) to expand your knowledge, improve your speaking and presentation skills, and gain access to nationally recognized art. Remember, nothing beefs up your dinner party conversation more than a little insider art information from the latest exhibit.
Training Required: Yes



Grand Rapids Main Library & Branches
Whether it’s special events, helping with the Summer Reading Program, or assisting the Grand Rapids History & Special Collections Department, you will be able to find a great way to give back to your community. The Main Library’s Instagram account is a great example of how to make learning cool and funny. See their post from Aug. 2 for a good chuckle.
Training Required: No

Organizations serving refugees in Grand Rapids
Michigan has long been one of the top states to welcome refugees in the country. Here in West Michigan, we are fortunate to have numerous organizations serving those who come to the United States as refugees, including: the Refugee Education Center, Bethany Christian Services, Samaritas, Thrive: A Refugee Support Program, and Justice for Our Neighbors. At these various sites, you can lend a hand by doing everything from helping individuals settle into their new lives immediately after they move here to furnishing apartments and more.
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.

The Grand Rapids Community Media Center (GRTV, WYCE, Rapidian, and Wealthy Theatre)
The aspiring PEGOT (Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) training ground of Grand Rapids, this local organization has it all, from spinning records to ushering seats. If you happen to volunteer at the Wealthy Theatre you’ll find yourself being treated to a free pop, popcorn, and a free seat if any are open. That’s a hefty reward given that a night at a normal cineplex will cost you at least $20.
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.



Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

This is the perfect choice for the green thumbed citizen. Our city parks can always use a little TLC whether it’s spring, summer, or fall. Did I mention they have a Citizen Forester program? There’s no official patch for your jacket arm sleeve just yet, but they do have other neat FGRP swag!
Training Required: No, Offered

Hispanic Center of Western Michigan
If you find you need to break out of your bubble, then check out the Hispanic Center. Located on the southwest side of the city, this organization welcomes volunteers from all skill levels. Although speaking Spanish does help, it is not required. Experts say the best way to learn a language is through immersion!
Training Required: No

Grand Rapids Ballet
This is the only professional ballet company in Michigan, and we have it right around the corner. To witness extraordinary people defy gravity and push the human body to its limit, you’ll want to grab a seat of your own with your volunteer discount.
Training Required: No

Grand Rapids Civic Theatre
Building sets, sewing costumes, helping with props, and that’s just on stage! If you rather stand away from the limelight, the theatre has plenty of other off-stage opportunities. But beware, once you get a taste for the lights and glow, you may begin to hear the stage calling!
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.

Well House
You can increase access to safe, affordable housing in Grand Rapids by lending a hand to this nonprofit that purchases vacant, boarded-up houses in the city and brings them back to life to provide housing for our homeless neighbors. Work in their garden, help fix up homes and more.
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.

The Grand Rapids Red Project
For more than a decade and a half, this organization has been dedicated to improving health, providing health resources, and preventing HIV, accidental drug overdose, and Hepatitis C. Volunteers are always needed to help build a stronger community, including to work during the Walk To End HIV, World AIDS Day, and more.
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.

Grand Rapids Art Museum
Be a docent, assist in the gift shop, or help with the youth or family programs. Pick anything from the list of opportunities; any one of the options will bring you up close and center to world renowned art.
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.

Autism Support of Kent County
From friendship support groups for children and teens with autism to free movie screenings for families, there are plenty of ways to get involved with this nonprofit. The group holds monthly family activities for anyone affected by autism, and they’re always looking for volunteers for these events.
Training Required: No

Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities
With its Cook Arts Center and Cook Library Center, the Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities aims to empower and enrich the lives of youth who live in the Grandville community. (Recently, for example, GAAH teamed up with the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan to offer teenagers the chance to paint a gorgeous public mural on Grandville Avenue.) Both centers depend on student and community volunteers to run their many classes and programs, including their Teen Leaders in the Arts, Girls Rock! Grand Rapids, and more.
Training Required: Depends on what you'd like to do.

West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology
Are you tech savvy? Want to work with some seriously talented teens? There’s some very fun ways to volunteer with WMCAT, an organization that does everything from empower the city’s teens to affect social change through design thinking to provide free job training for underemployed adults.
Training Required: Yes

Grand Rapids African American Health Institute
Volunteer with this nonprofit to help promote health care parity in the city’s African American community. Through advocacy, education and research, the organizations ensures that all residents have access to excellent health care.
Training: Depends on what you’d like to do.

Kids Food Basket
One in five children in Michigan experiences hunger, but the Grand Rapids-based Kids Food Basket is changing that with its Sack Supper program, which ensure thousands of our community’s children can receive nutritious evening meals that their parents often cannot afford. This is a great organization to volunteer for as an individual or a group -- you can do a wish list drive, help with the sack suppers, raise money through school dances or benefit concerts, and more.
Training: No

Dégagé Ministries
There are more than 1,200 volunteers who give their time to Dégagé, and the organization is always on the lookout for more. This group plays a big role in supporting our neighbors who are homeless, providing services like transportation, funding for prescription co-pays, appointment scheduling, meals, showers, storage space, trips to places like Lake Michigan and Whitecaps games, and an overnight women’s shelter. There are endless volunteering opportunities, from taking people to a baseball game to hosting movie nights, when you’ll have a chance to get to know your homeless neighbors better.
Training: No

HQ
A drop-in center for youth ages 14 through 24 who are experiencing homelessness, HQ gives teens and young adults a place to rest, connect with resources and spend time with friends. Volunteers provide a huge range of services at this center, which provides individuals everything from meals and showers to help with job searches and housing, and a whole lot more.
Training: Yes

Your local neighborhood association
Want to see something in your neighborhood change? Or have an idea that you think could make your area even better? Throughout the city, there are numerous neighborhood associations that would love to see volunteers help with a huge range of activities: street festivals, community meet-and-greets, official association meetings, and a whole lot more. You can find contact information for your neighborhood association here.
Training: No

Catherine’s Health Center
This nonprofit, community-based health facility offers medical care to low-income, underinsured residents -- and support from volunteers is vital. Right now, they have opportunities for primary care professionals, registered nurses, health coaches, computer assistants, and more.
Training: Yes

Literacy Center of West Michigan
One in eight adults in West Michigan struggle with low literacy. The Literacy Center of West Michigan offers a variety of literacy programs for adults, and volunteer tutors are needed to work with adult learners. You’ll get to meet people from all over the city -- and globe -- who will enrich your life as much as you enrich theirs.
Training: Yes

Whether you’re looking to get more involved in our city or fulfill that New Year’s resolution of spontaneity be sure to bring a family member, a friend, maybe even a date! Just don’t forget to snag a picture and tag these great organizations online before you leave!

Their fingers on the pulse of Grand Rapids, GRNow's new owners roll out big plans for website

What’s going on in Grand Rapids this week? Well, for starters: the Lumineers are playing at the Van Andel Arena, internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibit opens at Meijer Gardens, the Grand Rapids Symphony is performing a live score for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and there’s the USA Cycling Fat Bike National Championships -- not to mention about a billion other things.

It’s no secret that Grand Rapids’ cultural and entertainment scene is exploding, with everyone from international superstars (think: Kanye and Garth Brooks) to local celebrities (Vox Vidorra and Lady Ace Boogie, to name a couple) providing the soundtrack to our city, the debut of a nearly constant stream of new restaurants and bars, venues like 20 Monroe Live and Studio C opening their doors, and, of course, arts and music festivals that have landed the city in headlines across the country.

With everything that’s happening, it’s become an almost daunting question: What should I do tonight? This weekend? This spring (or on the strange winter days when it feels like flowers will be blooming at any second)? CJ DeVries and Jeff DeLongchamp want to help you answer that.

DeVries and DeLongchamp, both longtime Grand Rapidians, purchased the website GRNow.com from the former owner, Josh Depenbrok, last August, and the duo have been unrolling ambitious plans to make it, as DeVries says, “the most comprehensive list of events” in the city, from sports happenings and live music to art openings and theatre performances -- and everything in between. Plus, the website features bloggers covering Grand Rapids’ food, fashion, city living, and art scenes.

“Both CJ and I are big Grand Rapids fans; we’ve been here for a long time,” says DeLongchamp, who also co-owns ELK Brewing and owns ElectionSource, a Grand Rapids-based company that provides election products and services nationwide. “That we can provide a media outlet for everybody, one place where everybody can go and not just list events but find events that are going on is exciting. We want it to be the place to go. If you’re going out on the weekend, we want this site to be the site you go to.”

Like DeLongchamp, DeVries, who founded and owns Innovative Social Exchange MKTG, a Grand Rapids-based creative marketing firm, says she was thrilled to take on a new role as co-owner of GRNow.com.

“With my marketing company, I had used GRNow from the advertiser perspective, so I got to see how powerful it is,” DeVries says. “It made me believe it’s such a great platform; it helps local businesses grow. And I used it personally, so when I found out Josh was getting out, I was like, hands down I want to do this. It’s really neat that Jeff and I get to have something that I’ve really looked up to.”

The site, which DeVries and DeLongchamp are planning on growing, currently has about 10 people working for it, and the two owners are set to unveil a new GRNow.com website this year, apps they’ll soon be beta testing, and more content.

“The apps will have features that people are really going to like,” DeLongchamp says, hinting that the upcoming applications will be event-heavy. “There will be some very fun things, and I think they’ll be used immensely.”

Plus, DeVries notes that they will in the near future launch a show during which they’ll talk about upcoming happenings in the city. For the program, she’ll be partnering with former Second City comedian Joe Anderson -- who’s set to soon open a new downtown comedy club in Grand Rapids.

With all of this new movement from DeVries and DeLongchamp, the work that Depenbrok invested in the site and the site’s massive social media presence (it has more than 70,000 Facebook likes and nearly 32,000 Twitter followers), GRNow’s reach is skyrocketing -- its recent 2017 development roundup (written by Rapid Growth’s former publisher, Jeff Hill), was seen by 135,000 people, for example. With those kind of numbers, DeVries says the owners are hoping the site’s weight will translate to major support for the city.

“We’re using this medium, this platform, to help charities, and we’re very much trying to collaborate with other businesses,” she says.

As connoisseurs of events, restaurants and more in GR, DeVries and DeLongchamp shed some light on some of their go-to favorites in the city.

What's your favorite restaurant/bar?

DeLongchamp: ELK is number one. And we have great restaurants: Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, The Chop House -- those are two favorites, but there are so many great local restaurants, so many places to eat, like Electric Cheetah, in Grand Rapids; it’s unbelievable. We have a lot of great food in this area; it’s changed so much over the past 25 years I’ve been here.

DeVries: My favorite place to eat is Little Africa; it’s awesome. My other favorite restaurant is whichever the next one I’m going to try -- I love the fact I can walk out of my office and see a new place opening up. But we have to understand even if there’s a new place, we still have to patronize the places that have made Grand Rapids what it is.

What upcoming event are you excited about?

DeLongchamp: The 12th annual Winter Beer Festival at Fifth Third Ballpark in February. [Tickets for the festival’s Saturday event on Feb. 25 are sold out, but brew lovers can still snag a spot on Friday, Feb. 24 here.]

DeVries: The Yoga Dance Party and Brunch at Lions & Rabbits, Huntin' Time Expo at DeltaPlex Arena, Cookies and Canvas at Cheshire Kitchen, and the USAC Fat Bike Nationals at Indian Trails Golf Course.

What’s your favorite hidden gem in Grand Rapids?

DeVries: Dime and Regal -- they have very minimalistic jewelry; they want you to be able to have artwork but at moderate prices. Nothing in the store is over $75, and there are local artists. Also, Goodwill has an upscale boutique, reBlue; it’s amazing.

DeLongchamp: There are so many. If you’re looking downtown, there’s so many neat little niches. The SpeakEZ -- Eric Albertson, who owns it, has done a great job with that place.

Literary sensibility: Books & Mortar and Congress Elementary partner to provide books to students

When Chris Roe and Jonathan Shotwell opened Books & Mortar in East Hills this past fall, they knew they wanted their passion for books, reading and literacy to translate to support for the inclusive, empathetic and caring community that surrounded them.

So, when many of their customers would relay their fears about the incoming administration in the days leading up to the presidential inauguration, Roe and Shotwell began to think: what could they do to showcase, and lend hands to, a community that thinks globally and acts locally? In the face of a divided nation, what could they do to continue the unity sewn by so many in their neighborhood and city?

To answer these questions, they looked to their neighbor: Congress Elementary.

Roe and Shotwell have just announced that they are partnering with Congress to create a fund that will provide books for every student in March, books for teachers and school workers, and other financial support for a wide range of literacy opportunities.

“We were getting people all day who are very down about the climate of the country and the administration,” Roe says. “We thought, ‘We should be promoting the little things that we can do.’ We felt helpless, but there are so many things that keep us going forward in our community. Congress is in the backyard of the store, and we’re both huge public school advocates.”

Essentially, Books & Mortar will be partnering with Congress “for forever,” Roe says, explaining that the fund is meant to support the elementary school with any of its literacy programs and goals. In the coming months, the fund will pay for books -- chosen by the teachers -- for the entire student body, and, come May, every fifth grade student will get to go to the store and select a book for free. Additionally, the fund will provide books for the teachers, and the shop will keep educators’ book dream lists on file, allowing customers to purchase, at a discounted price, books that the teachers want.

“At the most rudimentary level, this is about making a value statement and saying, ‘These children and this school have a huge amount of value in this community,” Roe says. “It’s really just about putting out there that the school matters. It’s as simple as people coming to the store and realizing there’s a really great school resource in this community.”

A big component to this partnership is an emphasis on it being just that: a partnership.

“We really want this to be a mutual relationship; we’re giving to Congress, but Congress already gives so much to the community,” Roe says. “Congress is putting out all these children, teachers and families that are awesome assets to this community.”

And, Roe says, they’re looking forward to seeing how their work with Congress, and the community at large, continues to grow.

“When we started [Books & Mortar], we always wanted to be part of the community,” he says. “This is the first step; we’re really excited about this. This is a tangible way to respond to the state of the union.”

To support the Congress Elementary literacy fund, you can make a donation of any amount at the store, located at 955 Cherry St. SE. When you donate, you can put your name and a thoughtful message on a recycled paper heart that Books & Mortar are using to fill the shop's windows. On March 1, there will be an all-day event to kick off March Is Reading Month, and the store will be having special discounts for those who donate to the fund that day.

For further information, 
email Books & Mortar at info@booksandmortar.com, call 616-214-8233, visit its website, and follow it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

With a nod to neighborhood history, Creston Brewery kicks off beer branding competition

Flash back to the turn of the 20th century: Creston wasn’t yet named Creston; instead, it was often referred to as the North End or the Fifth Ward. The area, a working class community of Grand Rapids, was growing, its streetcar line running on Plainfield Avenue attracting hotels and shops to the neighborhood populated by immigrants from places like Ireland, France and Poland. Not long after the dawn of the new century, in 1905, residents formed the first neighborhood organization in the city -- and one of their first orders of business was to select a new moniker for their area, a community wanting to reclaim its pride after being tarnished in the press as the “Bloody Fifth” following a series of crimes.

A year later, in 1906, the Citizen’s Committee announced in the Evening Press newspaper that they would award $10 to the individual who came up with a winning name for the neighborhood. The names came in: Pride of the City, Shanahan Heights, Riverside, and others. So far, no Creston. Then, hundreds of people arrived at the then-Shanahan Hall (now the Rezervoir Lounge) to select the new name. A community leader, A.W. Morgan, suggested the name Creston (or, at the time, Crestown) -- which, as we know, was the name that stuck.

Now, more than 100 years later, the recently opened Creston Brewery, is getting inspired by its neighborhood’s history and is turning to its residents to help it with its own branding campaign. Beginning Feb. 1, the brewery owned by Scott Schultz, Vincent Lambert, Molly Bouwsma-Schultz, and Cailin Kelly is launching a branding competition for its flagship beer, GRale. Through Feb. 28, artists are welcome to submit entries that will be the artwork for t-shirts, posters and labels for bottles and cans.

“Creston founded itself on competition and community, and we wanted to honor that with a competition with artwork for our first Grand Rapids beer, the GRale,” says Andrea Bumstead, the sales and events coordinator at Creston Brewery.

Following the end of the submission period, an artist committee made up of some of the city’s most highly respected artists and art influencers, including Tommy Allen (also Rapid Growth’s publisher) and Miranda Krajniak, the executive director of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, and the brewery’s owners will select the top 10 branding entries. From March 10 through March 29, the final entries will be displayed on professionally printed posters, and the public will get a chance to vote for their favorite design. To be eligible to make your pick, you’ll need to make a purchase in the brewery’s taproom in order to get one vote. And if you order a pint of the GRale, you’ll get an additional ticket to vote.

Come April 3, all participating artists will be invited to join the community for an unveiling party of the final pick. The winner will land a $250 gift certificate to the brewery, their artwork will be displayed on bottling labels for GRale (as well as on other merchandise), and more.

For those who are interested in participating, you’ll probably want to know what the GRale is -- if you haven’t already imbibed.

“More than being our flagship, it’s our very definition of our approach to beer: flavorful, distinctive and as antagonistic as it is approachable,” Creston Brewery writes in a press release. “How’s that? Well, it’s all about the ingredients. We start with a base of pale malts and oats to deliver a chewy and rich medium body with a beautiful hazy golden color. Then we add just the right combo of superstar hops -- Michigan Nugget, Simcoe, and Citra -- to provide big flavors of citrus, mango, and pine with a beautifully balanced bitterness that we can only refer to as ‘righteous.’ With our beautifully fruity house yeast strain rounding out the flavor profile, we dry hop with more Citra hops to make this an absolute aromatic masterpiece to experience.”

In other words, you’re probably going to want to grab a drink to get your creative juices flowing.

Some basic details about the contest:
 
  • Submissions will be accepted from Feb. 1 through Feb. 28
  • You may submit artwork to andrea@crestonbrewery.com.
  • Artwork will only be accepted if the image is 72 DPI or higher and is submitted in a 10x10 format size or smaller.
  • Do not send images of your artwork that have been framed or contain watermarks.
  • Files should be titled in the following format: name, art title and medium used (example: ScottSchultz_OilPastel_GoldenSubmarine).
For further information, you can email Andrea Bumstead at andrea@crestonbrewery.com.

Justice is manufactured here: Q&A with Janay Brower, founder of Public Thread

If you know Janay Brower, you know of her passion for people, community and justice. So it should be no surprise that her new business venture combines a very strong commitment to people, community and justice.
 
Public Thread is located is located at 906 South Division. The business produces quality cut and sew products for clients and provides pre-production services: design, sourcing of fabrics and notions, prototyping, sample making, and pattern-making.
 
Like many startups, Public Thread has a fascinating backstory. Unlike many startups, however, the vision is not as much about fast growth, profits and expansion; rather, it is about developing a sustainable business model, making quality products with a local workforce and creating living wage jobs.
 
In this interview with Rapid Growth, Brower dives into the story behind behind Public Thread.
 
RGM: When was your business officially started?
 
JB: I researched and worked on Public Thread for three and a half years before we launched. We started actually producing sewn goods for clients in June 2016.
 
RGM: How long were you thinking about this idea? What was your inspiration?
 
JB: Public Thread generates from many parts of my life. I grew up in Grand Rapids, went to GRPS and moved out to the suburbs in the middle of high school. I experienced two very different cities within the same geographic area -- one that had significantly more people of color and was under-resourced and one that was almost all white and highly resourced. This shift in location and culture opened my eyes to systemic inequalities and planted the seeds that opened up my world view to orient towards justice work.
 
After college, I worked for more than 11 years doing systems change and public policy work for vulnerable children and families at both the City of Grand Rapids and through the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness. What I saw at a systems level, mirrored by experience as a young person, was that, similar to many cities in the U.S., there are two different communities operating simultaneously -- and they are not equal. As I navigated through my work in the public and nonprofit sectors, I was continually challenged as to how I could put my values into action in a concrete way. How could I utilize my life experiences and what I have learned in my profession and thread them together? A common theme I kept seeing was the incredible need for living wage jobs and getting away from secondary systems that are not addressing root causes.
 
I researched and talked with a lot of people, finding out that there are so many talented people in GR and across Michigan with skills to design, sew and make things, but those skills are underutilized. I found out that less than one percent of the clothes we wear were designed by a person of color. I found out that a lot of small businesses need assistance with production in order to grow, and that there is a significant movement to re-shore apparel production in the U.S. Along with all that, I and many others I know and have met want to buy clothes, accessories and gifts that were made locally. We want to support domestic production and living wages. We want to build a stronger connection to the people that make the garments we wear every day. We want to be part of the solution and not wait any longer for someone else to do it. And so from all this, Public Thread was born.
 
RGM: What is your 'elevator pitch' for Public Thread?
 
JB: Justice is manufactured here. Public Thread is a social enterprise that offers small-batch cut and sew product manufacturing in Grand Rapids. We believe that being able to live in our own supply chain is critically important. Therefore, we pay living wages for our employees to make high quality, quick turn-around, sewn products right here in Michigan. We assist designers and businesses with product design, sample making and production of their sewn products. We also produce our own Public Thread line of products made with non-traditional textiles. We work in partnership with area breweries and community organizations in order to prevent materials from ending up in our landfills (because textiles/apparel are third biggest input into our landfills in Kent County).
 
RGM
: On your website you speak of building community. How does your business fit into the growing West Michigan "social entrepreneurship" community?
 
JB: We are working with a number of apparel or sewn product businesses in order to create a functional system and foundation across the supply chain to be able to grow all of our ability to design and make sewn products here in West Michigan.
 
RGM: So, early on, what have your learned so far? Have you changed any of your original assumptions about this type of business?
 
JB: Seriously, what haven't I learned? It’s crazy hard! I have definitely learned that it takes a village to launch a business. One of many challenges is that I really like doing work that has a positive impact on people, the environment and hopefully on the larger systems involved. These elements are not how most businesses lead into their work since so many are only oriented towards how much money they can make. It has been challenging to navigate a system that has become so focused on one thing to the detriment of the other elements. In particular, in this industry (cut and sew, apparel), the profit is made by squeezing labor. In order to make that $5 t-shirt, someone in the supply chain had to take the hit. That means if we value other humans and the planet, it requires a shift in thinking and in our purchases.
 
Public Thread was created to be a different kind of manufacturer -- one based on the triple bottom line (humans, the earth and money all matter). But we cannot do our work alone. We need designers, small businesses and end consumers that use their precious resources to be part of the solution. And now, seven months in, we are incredibly thankful for the amazing partner businesses, organizations and people that believe in Public Thread and have continued to invest in it with their time and resources. They are part of our inspiration every day.

RGM: Thank you Janay! 
 
Check out more details at www.publicthread.co
 
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

A culinary adventure: Blue Ribbon Farms carves out specialty niche with rabbits

Rabbit farmers. Rabbit farming. Free range rabbits.   

These aren’t necessarily the first things that come to mind when looking for the new agricultural businesses in the area. However, sometimes it is the unexpected ideas that can turn into something very special.

Blue Ribbon Farms is owned and operated by Chris Pabst and Jason Courtade. It was established in 2014 and is located on 8th Ave. in Marne, Michigan.

Jason Courtade says the inspiration behind Blue Ribbon Farms is not all about about rabbits; it is about creating awareness of alternative, healthy food sources and production systems.  “We want to change the way food is produced by making it healthier, flavorful and more sustainable.  Rabbits are just the first step in our long term goals.”  

The fact that rabbit is not readily available at local butcher shops or a staple at local restaurants is a big part of the business opportunity for Courtade. “Rabbit is, and has been, popular in many other countries for a very long time. Rabbit has been tested to be extremely lean, low in calories, and high in protein,” and it contains a high moisture content, he explains. “It really is as versatile as chicken.”
 
As Blue Ribbon Farms ramp up production and marketing efforts, there are a few early adopters where you can purchase their product. “Currently, customers can find our meat at Sobie Meats on Remembrance and A Gemmen & sons (The Meat Market) in Allendale. We are also currently looking to expand in West Michigan.”

As far restaurants go, Courtade is anticipating several local restaurants to feature their rabbits. “Spring is a popular time to put rabbit on the menu and we are currently working on finalizing the restaurants that we’ll be partnering with,” he says.

Beyond supplying local butchers and restaurants with their product, Courtade says Blue Ribbon Farms has a multifaceted business model.  “Supplying, fresh, local rabbit is our first priority,” he says. “It is not just about growth, but providing the freshest and highest quality rabbit meat with great service to our customers. We have aspirations to expand through sustainable means as well as teaching others how to raise their own meat rabbits. Additionally, rabbits provide some of the best manure available. Marketing it to the home gardener will be one of our next projects this spring. We have used it in our own gardens and have seen incredible yields from our plants that we hadn’t seen in previous years without manure. It’s a natural, proven way to encourage growth.”

Ultimately, where the rubber hits the road when it comes to rabbit farming comes down to consumers being open to try something new. When it comes adding rabbit to your home menu, Chris Pabst says there really is nothing fear, especially with their meat. “The taste of the ‘domesticated’ meat rabbit can be described as a mix between chicken and pork,” Pabst says. “There is no ‘gamey’ taste in the domesticated meat rabbit that we produce. Several times a year we sample rabbit meat at Sobie Meats for people to try. Feedback has always been excellent.  We encourage people to give rabbit meat a try; typically people are very surprised as to how excellent it tastes and the moistness of the meat.”

For those still a bit squeamish about rabbit, Pabst has shared a few recipes. “We have experimented with many different recipes that have been proven to be winners at our houses and with some of our customers.”

1. Ground rabbit meat – just like ground beef, but rabbit.  We use this for taco meat, burger patties, spaghetti meat sauce, etc.
2. Rabbit Chicken Sweet Italian Sausage – Available at Sobie Meats; a fantastic lower fat sausage option
3. Smoked Rabbit – Whole rabbit with Tim’s Blend Dry Rub (available at Sobie Meats). Smoke in smoker using maple or cherry wood.  Meat pulls off bone effortlessly.
4. Rabbit Loin Medallions – Bite size rabbit meat cubes wrapped cross grain with Sobie’s Homemade Thick Cut Bacon held with a toothpick. Cook on a smoky grill.
 5. Deep Fried Rabbit – Start with a fully broken down rabbit and dredge in egg, then roll pieces in Skeeter’s Lemon Mustard Light Batter Frying Mix (available at Sobie Meats). Fry in peanut or grapeseed oil at temperature between 350-375 degrees fahrenheit for about five minutes or until golden brown.
6. Grilled with dry rub.

To learn more about Blue Ribbon Farms, you can visit their Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 

Entrepreneurial Gold podcasts highlight diverse group of entrepreneurs & creatives in West Michigan

Ricardo O’Neal and Holly Young are looking for gold. And when they find it, they want to share it with the world.

The gold the talented duo is mining are nuggets of wisdom and fresh inspiration from a diverse range of local entrepreneurs, creatives and thought leaders in West Michigan.

The plan to share these nuggets of gold begins with a live interactive event and then through a series of podcasts. Pure entrepreneurial gold.

Holly Young, the organization strategist at The Aurikk Brand Movement Group (Aurikk BMG), the creative team behind the Entrepreneurial Gold Podcast series, answered a series of questions from Rapid Growth about their company and inspiration behind the series of podcasts.

RGM: First, tell us about your company.

HY: The Aurikk Brand Movement Group is a collective of gifted creatives with a passion to build brands through consistent and effective strategy, design and engagement elements. These three core elements, we call SDE, all play off one another to scale and strengthen brands. This includes strong strategic work as a foundation supporting growth and customer retention; design work (logos, web sites, info cards, etc.) to gain attention and build interest, and ultimately, build the all important customer retention through engagement. We've been around for three years as Aurikk BMG. Our team is small yet powerful and effective. We've got our creative branding guy, Ricardo O'Neal; two graphic designers, Jake Karadsheh and Edwin Anderson; and organizational strategist, Holly Young.  The team works out the Blue 35 building located at 35 Oakes St SW.

RGM: What was the inspiration for the Entrepreneurial Gold Podcasts, and what do you hope to accomplish?

HY: We know West Michigan has a strong and powerful entrepreneurial spirit. People have brilliant business ideas everyday, and the ecosystem to support entrepreneurial endeavors in GR is becoming stronger every day. Entrepreneurial Gold stemmed from the gap we see in the Grand Rapids entrepreneurial community in the areas of diversity -- not just racial diversity, also gender, religious, orientation, and even business ideas. Our mission is to deliver valuable nuggets of entrepreneurship designed to help shape, strengthen and scale brands. We plan to build a diversified networking forum, create an educational business media outlet dedicated to assisting entrepreneurial growth and economic equality in the Grand Rapids/West Michigan region, and unearth the richness of our community through sharing stories of why failure isn’t the end of the world, but a motivational push towards success.

RGM: Besides your team, who else is involved with the podcast project?

HY: We have strong support from Scott Brew of Adtegrity (38 Commerce St. SW) as our primary sponsor. From the very first conversations about this idea with Scott, he was bought in as he sees the same solvables -- we don't use the 'P' word, problems, at Aurikk -- and was eager to be at the forefront of supporting the Entrepreneurial Gold movement.
 
RGM: Where and when can people check these out?

HY: The beauty of the Entrepreneurial Gold live podcast experience is in the ‘live’ part. Interested individuals can come to the actual events and be a part of the experience. There is a networking component and live Q&A with the speakers to truly make the audience a part of the movement. We host these events at multiple locations throughout the city, with our initial launch hosted at The Factory. Entrepreneurial Gold is a mobile event designed to make sure we are inclusive of all communities in the Grand Rapids area, so we will pop up at various locations across the city. The recordings will be uploaded onto Stitcher, SoundCloud, and iTunes within 48 hours of recording. As the Entrepreneurial Gold movement grows, so will the platforms hosting the podcast.

RGM: How do you select the panelists?

HY: We are actively and intentionally looking for a diverse set of speakers. Successful entrepreneurs representing various business ventures and backgrounds who are willing to share their journey (successes and failures) and be fully open and engaged with our audience; speaking from a place self-assured transparency and prepared to give away some of the valuable Entrepreneurial Gold nuggets integral in propelling their journey to success. We are really looking for individuals who understand the significance of participating in something game-changing and thought-shifting.

RGM: Why the podcast format?

HY: This is our first foray into the podcast world. We have plenty of guidance from skilled sound engineers to help along the way. We chose the podcast platform over other communication avenues (blogs, Facebook, etc.) because they are so mobile and easy to use. Whether listening during one’s commute, doing the dishes, or just cleaning out the inbox in the evening, listening to a podcast is something people can do anytime while still in motion. While we will still use other written platforms to support and share the message, we are excited about the inclusive nature of the live podcast experience and getting more people involved in the conversation and entrepreneurial movement than just the interviewer and guest speaker.

To follow the when and where of the next live Entrepreneurial Gold Podcast experience, check out their Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Sales of electric cars drive job growth at LG Chem

LG Chem has emerged as a significant job creator in Holland, having added 140 new jobs in 2016 to a team that now tops 450 members. New positions for the business that produces lithium-ion batteries for the auto industry include technical operators, journeymen electricians, and engineers.

Fueled by the rapid growth in electric car sales, LG Chem accelerated its growth in 2015 and expects continued job growth in 2017.

Nick Kassanos, LG Chem MI president, says his company is in the “hiring mode” in 2017. He acknowledges the tight job market in West Michigan, but he notes LG Chem is a terrific opportunity for individuals looking for careers, not just jobs in an advanced manufacturing environment. “The challenge is always finding people,” he says. “The unemployment rate in West Michigan is below the national average. But we offer an opportunity  for individuals wanting to grow, build a career and work in an interesting industry.” 

LG Chem produces lithium ion battery cells for electric and hybrid vehicles, including the award-winning Chevy Volt. In November, LG Chem added the production of battery cells and battery packs for the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, the first-ever hybrid minivan. The Holland plant manufactured over six million battery cells in 2016, enough for more than 30,000 vehicles, and is expected to produce even more in 2017.

LG Chem Michigan Inc. (LGCMI) manufactures large, lithium-ion polymer battery cells and battery packs for electric vehicle and energy storage applications. LGCMI is a wholly-owned subsidiary of LG Chem, a South Korean company that has global operations focused on basic materials and chemicals, IT and electronic materials, advanced materials, and energy solutions. LG Chem is part of the LG Group.

For those interested in a career at LG Chem, visit their website here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

The Ferris State Digital Animation and Game Design program gains national recognition

The Ferris State Digital Animation and Game Design (DAGD) program could easily be one of West Michigan’s best kept secrets.

Of course, it is not a secret, but, unless you are directly involved with the program, you probably would be surprised by the success and scope of this innovative initiative.

Let’s review a few facts.

The program is nationally recognized. The Ferris DAGD program was recently ranked number 16 by the Princeton Review in its 2016 rankings of the top 50 undergraduate schools worldwide for game design instruction (the list includes institutions in the United States, Canada and abroad). This is the second consecutive year for Ferris’s number 16 ranking, which is based on factors such as lab facilities, academic offerings and starting salaries for graduates of the program.

The program is focused on helping students to become successfully employed after graduation. The DAGD program was designed by industry professionals  to teach students the entire spectrum of skills needed to be successful in the digital animation and game design industry. Among the industries the DAGD program helps prepare students for include film, game design/asset creation, medical visualization, educational software and game/animation development. DAGD program coordinator David Baker is an award-winning media producer, animator and educator with extensive background in media production and animation. He has produced projects ranging from instructional videos to children's CD-ROM games for organizations such as the Children's Television Workshop, MTV and Amway.

This emphasis on the gaming industry translates to big career opportunities for the students. After all, from an economic standpoint, the gaming industry had total revenues of $23.5 billion in the U.S. in 2015 -- an increase of five percent from 2014, according to Forbes.

The program is designed to not only help students gain the needed skills to be successful, but also help them post-college, with a very active and supportive alumni group, a network of digital animation employers and access to an online portfolio where students can share their work with the world.

But the real magic of the DAGD program is best understood from a student’s perspective.

Rapid Growth was able to interview Emma Alvarez, 17, a graduate of the West Michigan Aviation Academy and current DAGD student, via email.

RGM: When did you start the program?

Emma: I started at Ferris this fall (of 2016) at the age of 16.

RGM: Why did you choose this program?

Emma: I was originally planning to go to Western Michigan University to pursue Biomedical Engineering, but around May of this year my mother showed me a video on Facebook of this new Ferris University program. After watching the introductory video for the program, I was immediately hooked. I have always had a passion for art and video games, so the collaboration of the two that the program created was a perfect fit for me. I have always appreciated video games for their visual aspects, such as intricately animated environments and the graphic design behind game's UIs (user interfaces). Not only would this program allow me to expand on my own personal creativity, but it would also be training me for one of the most booming career fields in the current time: game design. How could I not want to be part of such an innovative and immersive program right in my own city? I did not even think twice about applying to the program.

RGM: What excites you about this program?

Emma: Frankly, everything about this program excites me. Though, if I had to make a choice, I would say the aspect that excites me the most is the opportunity to be able to join the VR (virtual reality) community. Day by day, the VR community is expanding and discovering new and innovative ways to bring its audience into a whole new side of gaming that they could not have ever imagined. It amazes me that the gaming community is experiencing such an awesome way to delve into their online interfaces, and it excites me even more that I could be part of the VR game making process. It has always been a dream of mine to create video games, and now this program has taken my dream and raised it a level, going beyond what I could have imagined.

RGM: What do hope to do after you graduate?

Emma: After I complete the program, I would like to start off working as a graphic designer at a video game studio, as well as doing PR (public relations) work for various companies. As I work my way up, gaining experience and networking, I would then like to see myself be able to start my own video game company that focuses on rebooting classic video games into VR versions, as well as creating new video games for the VR scene.

Well done Ferris State University. Well done.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

The Fresh Food Fairy takes a rewarding dip in the Dolphin Tank

Known as the “Fresh Food Fairy,” Hether Frayer is on an epic journey that includes Michigan-grown kale, unique spices and oils, and swimming with dolphins.

The Kalamazoo-based Frayer is an evangelist and educator for eating healthy.  Whether she is riding her stationary blender-bike to make smoothies at farmer’s markets or pitching her Kaleamazoo Chips (Michigan-grown kale flavored chips) to investor groups, retailers and business plan competitions, she is 100 percent focused on educating people about the benefits of eating healthier and maybe most importantly, having fun doing it.

Frayer, the founder of Fresh Food Fairy, an organization that advocates for good nutrition -- particularly among children, says she began producing and selling the kale chips with the hopes of funding scholarships for her nutrition education programs.
 
One such program included an extensive tour of the Kent County District Library system in 2016.  “I go wherever I'm invited,” Frayer says. “Last summer the Kent District Library hired me to visit 10 of their branches with my ‘Fresh Food is Fun’ presentation, followed by bike blender smoothies.  It was a great opportunity to visit the greater Grand Rapids area - I really enjoyed it.”

But back to swimming with dolphins. 

On Nov. 10, Frayer was in Grand Rapids to participate in the Michigan Women’s Foundation Dolphin Tank and Entrepreneur You Business Plan and Pitch Competition at Grand Valley State University, where she presented her vision for Kaleamazoo Chips.
 
“I’ve been meaning to write a business plan for Kaleamazoo Chips for three years, and the Entrepreneur You Program finally gave me the incentive and support to do that,” she explains. “As a result, I'm in a better position to make decisions about where the business should be headed next. The business plan was 60 percent of our score for the competition, and the pitch was 40 percent. Varnum Consulting in Grand Rapids donated "Speak Up and Be Effective,” a full day course to all 10 participants in the program to help us learn how to pitch. That was extremely valuable and will be helpful with all of my Fresh Food Fairy presentations as well.”

Frayer’s pitch ended up being spot on as she won $5,000, which will be used to fund in-store demos (especially at Whole Foods) and to hire a salesperson.

After the pitch, Frayer was asked what else she needed to keep moving forward and the answer was simple: connections. “I would like: businesses/corporations who have wellness fairs and other wellness initiatives who might be interested in bike blender smoothies. Schools, after-school programs, and events that would be interested in Fresh Food Fairy programs and specialty food/grocery stores and delis that have a customer base who appreciate healthy and locally produced snacks.”

To learn more about the Fresh Food Fairy and Kaleamazoo Chips, you can view Frayer’s website here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 
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