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Innovation + Job News

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One Black Crayon is at your service

Frederick Polk is here to help.

Polk is the founder of One Black Crayon, a one-person design firm that specializes in building websites and HTML emails. Polk says his sweet spot is helping small businesses and individuals that need "a little hand holding" when connecting with their clients through the web.  

Polk has been working as a freelancer for 15 years, with his business One Black Crayon officially opening in 2009. During his those 15 years, Polk worked closely with The Image Shoppe for five years -- and he credits his time there as a designer/developer/coder with teaching him the importance of putting a client's needs first and understanding business relationships.
As long time freelancer, Polk is acutely aware of the challenges of building a career in the "gig economy." Polk says the key to survival is to "stay relevant." He recommends Twitter as a tool to follow developers and designers and see what they talk about, and says he reads online magazines and blogs "that push me the in the right direction."  Working solo doesn't mean working alone either. "It's important to always be around like-minded people," he says.

Besides his work as a freelancer, Polk is well known for his service in the design and tech community, and as a key volunteer at user groups and events such as GiveCamp, where he helps nonprofits improve and optimize their web presence.

In his spare time, Polk continues to work on his startup venture, IamBookable, an application that makes it easier for organizations to find speakers and entertainers. He also dabbles in stand-up comedy.  

To connect with Polk, you can view his website here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

The EC Group reaches out to early stage companies needing I.T. support

The EC Group has added two interns for the summer, with a focus on creating marketing content for the mission-driven firm that helps organizations build remote and hybrid I.T. teams.

The new members of the team are Maria VanDyken, a film and writing major at Calvin College, and Ben Fenlund, a business and marketing student at Bethel University.

Mike Sudyk says the push to develop more marketing content is part of an ongoing process to increase awareness of their firm's service and to educate the  business community about the benefits of using remote I.T. talent to complement their existing core team of developers. "We are looking to partner with early stage companies," says Sudyk, who says there can be a negative connotation and lack of understanding about how to utilize remote tech workers, especially overseas. "They (early stage companies) are having a problem finding people locally. Being able to have a remote team come behind the core team can be a real asset," he says.

Sudyk says his company employs 70 full-time workers in India and has four full-time staff in Grand Rapids plus two sales reps. He anticipates bringing on another full-time team member in the next six months.

To learn more about the EC Group you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Down on the farm, Neucadia builds apps for the agriculture industry

Neucadia, a software startup founded three years ago, released its first product, AgraScout, this spring. The firm's focus is on building apps for the agricultural industry and the five-person person firm, which started in Carson City, now has five full-time employees, with two programmers working from Grand Rapids.

Jamison Sheppard, UX Designer describes the functionality of the new app: "AgraScout is a mobile crop scouting app designed to make communication between scouts, salespeople, and growers more efficient. We currently have customers in eight states. What makes AgraScout different from other scouting apps is its ability to aggregate disease, insect, and weed data at a national level -- allowing our users to see a real-time map of the infestations in their area and beyond. This has not been done before, although Monsanto is trying."

Sheppard says the members of the five-person team all have an agricultural background and a proclivity for technology and entrepreneurship. "We started as freelancers, doing whatever odd jobs kept the lights on -- an iPad app for limousine drivers, web development for a seed company, and IT support for a chemical distributor, to name a few," he says.

Brandon Warner, one of the founders of the firm, says the business found its focus in agriculture. "There is a lot done with pen and paper and that needs to be switched over," he says.

The Neucadia team is already working on its second product, Farm Cycle, a manure record-keeping app that automates manure record-keeping and helps farms be prepared for DEQ inspections. Sheppard says Farm Cycle is already being used on a few dozen dairy farms throughout the state.

Moving forward, Warner says the team will be keeping its remote workforce but is looking to make Grand Rapids its home base. "We can get more traction in Grand Rapids thanks to its startup community," Warner says. "Grand Rapids is also central to a lot of agriculture, from blueberries to corn".

To learn more about Neucadia, you can visit their website here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Literacy Center offers bilingual positions, hopes to bring literacy to more West MI families

Reflecting its mission, "building a literate community and transforming lives by strengthening reading and language skills," the Literacy Center of West Michigan is offering new positions for bilingual, English and Spanish, speakers.

The Literacy Center provides support to adults throughout West Michigan who need further help developing their literacy skills.

The two positions offered, a part-time community literacy assistant and receptionist position and a full-time program assistant, customized workplace English position, require similar skills from the candidates.

"We're looking for someone who has an interest and passion for working with people in the community," says Lindsay McHolme, director of the Community Literacy Initiative. "We want someone who values cultural awareness and inclusion and has professional communication and organization skills."

Of course, the most important requirement is bilingualism.

"As we seek to improve literacy in our community, we know there are more Spanish speakers now than there were 10 years ago," McHolme says. "We want to be accessible to the community. We're looking to meet all needs."

According to McHolme, 21 percent of adults in West Michigan are low literate: they have some reading skill, but not enough to easily function at a job. However, the Literacy Center's staff and its programs, like the Family Literacy Program, are reaching out to the community and improving those numbers.

"Seventy percent of children of Family Literacy Program families met their literacy growth target, according to district assessments," says Dan Drust, manager of the Family Literacy Program. "This group was compared to similar students whose parents had expressed a need for Family Literacy Services. Only 57 percent of comparison group children met their growth targets."

For more information, or to apply for a position, click here.

Writer: Nicholas Garbaty, Rapid Growth Intern
Images courtesy of Literacy Center of West Michigan

Grand Rapids' west side gets a little sweeter

"I find joy in baking for people" is the simple inspiration behind Scrumptious Cupcakes and Sweetery, the new business founded by Betsy Denham that has opened on the west side of Grand Rapids.

Denham began her journey baking from home, then moved her operation to the Downtown Market's kitchen incubator. At that point, Denham says she was selling and setting up deliveries online, but the challenge was being recognized as a local business when she only had a web presence. So when a shared retail space opened on the corner of Lake Michigan and Seward, she decided to make a move. "We are close to GVSU's campus so it feels like being downtown without being downtown," she says.    

Denham will continue to make her gourmet cupcakes in the Downtown Market's incubator and then sell them in her new location. In addition to the cupcakes, Denham's busines features event catering and soft-serve ice cream with a variety of bakery-themed sundaes such as red velvet cake and key lime. Denham notes that her dairy products are sourced from a farm in New Era, MI and are very high in quality compared to other soft-serve alternatives.

Looking towards the future, Denham says she hopes her business becomes a destination within the city: "We want people from all over Grand Rapids to visit our store because our products are unique," she says. She adds that her business currently features takeout and outside seating but has a goal of becoming a full-scale bakery with an inside cafe.

To learn more about Scrumptious Cupcakes and Sweetery, you can visit their site here or their Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

DTE Energy invests in West Michigan businesses through the Pure Michigan Business Connect Initiative

With a successful implementation of the Pure Michigan Connect Initiative in 2014, DTE Energy will be holding its Tri-Annual Leadership Summit next week in Grand Rapids to showcase the great work that is being done operationally in West Michigan and beyond.

"DTE Energy is proud to be a strong partner of the communities and companies that we serve throughout West Michigan," says Dave Meador, Chief Administrative Officer for DTE Energy, whose top 125 leaders will be in Grand Rapids July 16-18 for the company's Tri-Annual Leadership Summit. "DTE's ongoing efforts to increase procurement with Michigan companies continue to produce jobs and economic development throughout Kent, Osceola, Ottawa and other counties across the western part of the state. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. estimates that DTE Energy's ongoing procurement with Michigan companies supports more than 5,000 jobs across the state."

Through the Pure Michigan Business Connect Initiative, DTE Energy spent more than $200 million with Michigan companies during the first three months of the year as part of its commitment to supporting in-state businesses through the Pure Michigan Business Connect Initiative.

Of the $200 million, nearly $65 million was spent with suppliers from West Michigan. Among the businesses benefiting from the Pure Michigan Business Connect Initiative are the Reed City-based Utility Supply and Construction (USC) and The Hydaker-Wheatlake Company, Kalamazoo-based Heco and Knight Watch, Kalkaska-based PJ Supply, and Kent City-based Kent Power.

The Pure Michigan Business Connect Initiative is part of an $8 billion public-private program announced by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference in 2011. Administered through an alliance with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the program helps companies find new ways to raise capital, get access to a variety of business services, and provides business-to-business procurement opportunities to help grow and create jobs.

DTE Energy is a Detroit-based energy company involved in the development and management of energy-related businesses and services nationwide. Its operating units include an electric utility serving 2.1 million customers in Southeastern Michigan and a natural gas utility serving 1.2 million customers in Michigan. Information about DTE Energy is available at dteenergy.com and facebook.com/dteenergy.

Support for this story was provided by DTE Energy and the Pure Michigan Business Connect Initiative.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Crafting a custom tattoo experience in the old Horseshoe Bar

"All custom work" is how Nicole Ash describes what makes Honest to Goodness Tattoo and Piercing stand out from other tattoo parlors in the city. That, and their very cool space in the third floor of the old Horseshoe Bar located at 333 Grandville Ave. SW.  

Honest to Goodness Tattoo and Piercing was opened two years ago and moved to its new location in February 2014. It has a team of four full-time artists, one piercer and one screen printer who works on creating shirts, signs, buttons and posters from their artist's work.

Ash describes their team as very eclectic, thanks to the wide variety of skills and expertise that the four tattoo artists possess, which she says range "from traditional to new styles." Another unique quality, Ash says, is that five of the six employees are women and their work is "very influenced by the feminine hand."

Since the move to the new location, business has been very good, (even though they are the only tenant so far in the building), with tattoo services booked out as far as three weeks to six months in advance.   

Ash says they all work hard to create a great experience for anyone wanting a tattoo or piercing: "We try to make people feel comfortable, like they are at home."

To learn more about Honest to Goodness Tattoos and Piercing, you can visit their  Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Creswick Farms is smoking

Creswick Farms has been a longtime, local source of pastured ("salad bar beef") meats and eggs, nitrite/nitrate-, MSG-, soy- and preservative-free bacons and sausages.

Now, thanks a to a 500-pound Southern Pride Smoker, Creswick Farms will also be your source for barbecued baby back ribs, smoked chicken, brisket, pulled pork, and smoked boneless chicken thighs.

Nathan Creswick, the "CEOEIEIO" of Creswick Farms, says he had been considering adding these items to his product line for several years, but it took a family trip south, through the heart of barbecue country and countless stops at barbecue landmarks, to solidify his decision and help shape his offering: "We hit all the famous places. We'd check out the menu and take notes; what we liked, what we did not like."

Upon the return home, Creswick said he took his team to the Southern Pride distributor to learn more about operating the unit. After making the purchase, he went through an extended testing period, one that made him think he might "need to get my stomach stapled" as he fine-tuned the recipes by tasting everything he made.

Now, Creswick's new products can be purchased at his farm store or at the several area farmers' markets his farm services. All his products are fully smoked, vacuum sealed and frozen.

With the new line of foods in production, Creswick says he has added a plant manager and employs 13 full- and part-time workers.  

Looking into his crystal ball, Creswick plans to continue adding more smokehouse products, sausages, meats and new ways to deliver his products to customers in the near future.

To learn more about Creswick Farms, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

OneBowl to rule the kitchen

Who other than a starving college student would invent a better way to make ramen noodles and mac and cheese?

Justin Herd is the local inventor behind OneBowl, a product that allows anyone to make, eat and store noodles in the same bowl.

Herd says he was inspired to invent OneBowl after he wondered why it took a pan, a strainer, a bowl and a storage container to make something as simple as noodles. His idea was to create a system that resulted in less dirty dishes, less time cleaning, and less room needed for storage.  

Starting with help from a fellow student in the design school, he made a simple prototype. Herd then began refining his idea through customer validation testing and five iterations before he ended up with a product that is ready to be mass manufactured.   

Well, almost ready. He just needs to raise some capital: "Tooling cost are very expensive."  

Not one to be deterred by hurdles, Herd has launched a $50,000 Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds for tooling and is confident in its success. He says his goal is to begin selling online this fall and begin shipping "to hungry college students" in October, with a longer term goal of having his product sold through traditional brick and mortar retailers. Herd says the OneBowl will be retailing for $20.

Although OneBowl is a solo effort, Herd credits his unofficial team for mentorship and advice. He says the staff at GVSU's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, GR Current, Tiger Studio (design help) and Twisted Root Marketing have been instrumental in his success to date.

You can visit Herd's website or Facebook page to learn more "The OneBowl."  

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Fashion entrepreneurs get boost with the area's first small-batch production and design studio

There has long been a gap in West Michigan for accessory designers who want to ramp up small scale production of their products before considering mass production. These designers, who work with leather and a variety of fabrics, have have to look to the east coast or the west coast of the United States to find a small-batch manufacturing company that could bring their designs to life--and to the market.

In West Michigan, that gap is now officially closed with the opening of Parliament Studios, a new accessory design and production company that will be opening in July at 401 Hall St. SW.
The co-founders of the studio are Elyse Marie Welcher, the proprietress of Parliament Boutique and maker/designer/dreamer of Littlewings Designs, and her fiance Jacob Vroon, owner of Harbinger Leather.

Welcher says the new space will provide fashion entrepreneurs with the ability to have "small-batch" (up to 1,000 pieces or items) production services along with professional consulting, sample making, and sourcing assistance. She says they can produce almost anything designed from leather or other fibers including purses, handbags, belts and leather components for larger items such as chairs or tables.

Welcher says the team, which includes Megan Roach, is "stoked" about playing a role in bringing back a manufacturing base to Michigan. "We are all Michigan-raised and we are proud to be from the area and proud to be bringing back manufacturing skills to the area," Welcher says.   

To support the opening of the new business, Welcher has submitted her idea to Start Garden but is moving forward with or without that additional assistance.

To learn more about Welcher's ventures, you can visit her site here or their Start Garden application here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

KCAD adds new position, aims to connect business community to university

Ken Krayer has been named the inaugural Kendall College of Art and Design, Ferris State University (KCAD) Director of Business Engagement.   

Krayer says his role will be "getting KCAD out in the business community and the business community into KCAD," a process that will ultimately help both the students and the area businesses.

"West Michigan is a hot place to be from a student's perspective. Most of Kendall's students want to stay in area," says Krayer, who says his program will help increase the awareness in the business community of the talent and skills of Kendall grads plus educate the student about the opportunities to build a career or a business in West Michigan.

Krayer says he is working on creating several "pop-up" lecture series at KCAD, and will be bringing in local professionals to meet with students in an informal settings. He says he will also work closely with Design West Michigan and the local chapter of AIGA throughout the process of formalizing his program.

Krayer has experience in both higher education and professional design. He's taught at California College of the Arts, the College for Creative Studies and he currently teaches Design Practice as an adjunct professor in both the Collaborative Design program and the Industrial Design program. Private sector experience includes consulting, and he has worked at both Haworth and Steelcase.

To learn more about Krayer, you can visit his blog here. To follow Kendall, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

GVSU hosting engineering summer camp for middle school girls

West Michigan middle school girls will get a chance to explore a career in engineering at a four-day camp at Grand Valley State University this summer.

The Science, Technology and Engineering Preview (STEPS) Summer Camp for Girls will be held June 16-19 and June 23-26 in the John C. Kennedy Hall of Engineering on Grand Valley‚ Pew Grand Rapids Campus. Nearly 90 campers will get hands-on engineering experience by designing, manufacturing and flying radio-controlled electronic airplanes.

Sara Maas, director of the STEPS program, says that research points to several studies that show girls begin to withdraw from pursuing classes in STEM-related subjects when in middle school, especially in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade. "There are not a lot of role models for girls," Maas says. "It is very common to see girls as teachers, lawyers, doctors, but they don't see  themselves as an engineers."  

Maas says there is a tremendous misconception about what engineers do: "Being an engineer is not all isolation. It is very compassionate. It's about solving problems and  making life better for people. Our camp is a great age to introduce them to these careers."

The camp is in its 13th year and is driven by volunteers who Maas says are key to the program's success. "Jeff Woollett is our technician," she says."Warped Wings Model Airplane Club and West Michigan Soaring Society have been our partnering community organizations."

Maas says registration is closed for 2014. 'We have 44 girls in week one and 44 girls in week two, with a waiting list of 33."

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Design, development and custom hosting firm thrives with distributed workforce and trust

The Agathon Group is a design and development firm specializing in cloud hosting and custom software solutions. The firm is based out of Grand Rapids, but that is something of a technicality.

The Agathon Group is the epitome of what it means to have a distributed workforce. There is no office. There are very few employee meetings and, for the most part, no managers.  Just a group of very talented developers, designers and technicians that can work from anywhere in the world.

Joel Boonstra, software architect and one of the firm's principal members, says the firm's origins go back to 1999 when he worked at Gospel Films in Muskegon. After Gospel Films closed, Boonstra and another employee continued to work with existing clients and then founded The Agathon Group in 2003.

Boonstra describes their service offering as a "full solution." He says their hosting service is all custom-based and provides full service with servers and data centers in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Denver. "We are comfortable in software development, front-end, back-end and can handle rescue missions for sites when a host can't handle the traffic. We can build an app and host it door-to-door," Boonstra says.

Managing a distributed workforce requires a unique skill set and company culture. It's not for everyone, but Boonstra and Kedron Rhodes, a designer and strategist with the firm and the newest hire, say the benefits far outweigh any challenges.

"It provides an opportunity for a really good work-life balance. As long as we don't miss a client meeting, we are not concerned about working a 9-5 job. The rigor of a physical office puts on too many constraints," says Boonstra, while acknowledging the challenges with employee-company fit. "It is tricky to find the right people. There is a significant amount of trust needed. It's a two-way street. We encourage people to work when it works for them. You have to get really good with communication, be self-motivated and plan tasks ahead of time."

Although there are no current job openings, Boonstra they remain on the lookout for talent and says that having a distributed team means they are not constrained by the lack of tech talent in a geographic area. "We have success with hiring for aptitude. We might not have an exact fit for a job description but everyone we hired has expanded what we had to offer," he says. "When Kedron joined, we added more planning, design and systems support to the team. Generally anything to make our customer's world better."

To learn more about The Agathon Group, you can view their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Help wanted: Creative and meaningful work with unlimited opportunity and excellent compensation


Maybe a pop culture reference is not the best way to get people's attention, but for many whose job it is to recruit and hire tech talent, there are moments when they feel no one is listening. And they're working to change that.

The leadership team at OST knows as well as anyone the challenges of hiring technical talent in West Michigan. The firm has been on a growth and hiring binge for the last several years.

Most recently, OST has hired 41 employees since the beginning of 2014 and has 11 additional jobs open in Grand Rapids. But despite their success in hiring, they are also acutely aware of what the numbers say: that only a fraction of students are graduating with technical degrees that will qualify and prepare them for the projected 10,000-plus technology job openings in the state.

It is a job gap that leaves Tamara Iakiri, manager of talent acquisition at OST, a little bewildered at the opportunity that many students will be missing. "It's hard to comprehend," says Iakiri, that many students are not understanding the true opportunities for careers in I.T. where the starting salaries can ranges from $50,000 to $65,000. "We have to get the message out to parents, students and new grads about the tremendous potential in I.T."

To support her case, Iakiri shares the following statistics about technology careers:

-U.S. News 2014 Best Jobs Ranking: #1 - Software Developer
-Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 22.8 percent employment growth 2012 - 2022
-Estimated 139,900 jobs will need to be filled
-2012 mean salary for a software developer was $93,000

In West Michigan:

-$82,904 is median salary in West MI (source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Grand Rapids-Wyoming MSA)
- By comparison, median household income in Grand Rapids is $50,658 (source: Census ACS)

"The comparison reinforces the point that high-tech jobs are well-paid jobs that can bring more discretionary income into the local economy. High-tech workers can easily afford to live in (the) region and even support their family as a sole breadwinner. This can lead to better quality of life and work/life balance," says Iakiri.

OST is not the only business in the area that shares these concerns. In fact, every large corporation, software development firm and startup in West Michigan is aware of the talent shortage.

To address the issue, Iakiri says that several area employers have teamed up to form West Michigan Tech Talent, a group that intends to create and implement a comprehensive plan to fill the pipeline for these jobs. "We have been meeting for four months and are focusing on three primary areas: grow, focused on K-12 and exposing them to career opportunities in tech and providing them with development opportunities; develop, focused on developing tech skills for current professional and those looking to make a career transition; and recruit, focused on recruiting tech talent into the region. Current organizations leading the effort include Spectrum, OST, Atomic Object, Collective Idea, New Horizons, KISD, GRCC, Michigan Works, The Right Place, SEI, Elevator Up, and The Factory."  

If you are interested in learning about this group, you can contact Iakiri at OST.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

After 33 years, four new jobs prove RCP Marketing is "not just doing the same old thing"

After 33 years, Muskegon-based RCP Marketing says it continues to attract clients like ConAgra Foods and Campbell's Soup because of its determination to evolve with the times.

That evolution includes attaining the coveted Google Certified Partner accreditation, plus adding four new people to handle video production, digital advertising, social media, and traditional media. In addition, RCP Marketing seeks to fill a new account manager position.

"I'm constantly interviewing for that position," says President Amy H. Atkinson, who says that finding just the right person is always high on her list. "I'm always looking for really good, experienced folks that have been in the agency business on the account side, because our system is such that we can continue to grow and manage more accounts than what we have. We are purposely small to be very responsive. My folks are wearing a lot of different hats -- it doesn't take 15 people to get a project going, so we look for people who can do lots of different things."

Atkinson says the right person will handle new business development and project management, must have agency experience, and must have an education in marketing or advertising. Beyond that are the more intangible talents: understanding the current needs of companies, understanding changing marketing and advertising trends, and understanding the types of companies that would benefit from RCP's services.

"We're not just doing the same old thing for the past 33 years," Atkinson says. "As our clients and consumer behavior has changed, we, too, are always in a state of change to provide for our clients the best way for them to reach their customers. We want someone with the ability to always put the client first and who knows that, at the end of the day, it is the successes of our clients that allow us to be successful."

To inquire about the position or to send a résumé and cover letter, click here.

Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of RCP Marketing
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