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Support network emerges to help Syrian refugees in West Michigan

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." -Margaret Mead

Sam Attal is a committed citizen and advocate for Syrian refugees in West Michigan. His reason is simple.
"I am involved because I am a Syrian-American, and because of the scope of the calamity that fell on the Syrian people,” Attal says.

Attal, who is a pathologist, says there are a handful families in West Michigan that are informally supporting the agencies bringing Syrian refugees to Grand Rapids.  He says there is a lot to do and opportunity for anyone who wants to make a significant difference in the community
"Most of our support is by assisting the agencies in cultural, social and religious matters,” Attal says. “We try to befriend the settled families and make them feel welcomed and at home. We try to show the refugees that there is hope for the future and provide role-models to them by connecting them with successful expatriates. We make sure the kids are adjusted and doing well at school and in their neighborhood."
He says also they provide some material support, but those resources are limited.

Attal says both Bethany Christian Services and Lutheran Social Services are the agencies taking the leadership role locally.  He says volunteering through these groups is fairly straightforward. After background checks and some training, you can have make an immediate impact.
"You can befriend a family and become a mentor, an English instructor, a driving tutor, or just assist the families with the multitude of skills that they need to learn to become productive citizens,” Attal says.

One important focus for Attal is helping the refugees to find employment as soon as possible.
"Finding jobs is essential,” he says. “It changes their lives dramatically.  They feel that they are part of the community and they are also giving."
He says language can be a barrier, and many need coaching as they seek to re-enter the education system, which is an ongoing service need.

Attal estimates there are 10 refugee families in the area now that represent just over 70 individuals. He says there are plans for more families to be settled here but it is unclear when this might happen.

You can contact Bethany Christian Services here and Lutheran Social Services here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Traditional pit barbecue finds a home on West River Drive

Keith Hall, owner and pitmaster of The Grilling Company, prefers not to get into any debate about what is traditional barbecue and what is not. Instead, he just does his own thing and lets his wood pile, his customized Texas built wood barbecue pit and his smoky and tender briskets, tell the story.

"I only use wood in my pit,” Hall says. “This is what I do." The Grilling Company recently celebrated their grand opening on West River Drive with a ribbon cutting ceremony in mid-October, after a two-month soft launch.  Before opening a brick and mortar location, Hall had been catering from his home in Cedar Springs for almost four years.

The Grilling Company features barbecue takeout and catering. They specialize in many traditional barbecue items: pulled pork, chicken, sausage, ribs, burnt ends, and brisket, plus a wide variety of made-from-scratch side dishes. Hall says all seasonings and sauces are also his own creation.

Hall estimates he goes through about two cords of apple wood per month in his custom built trailer and pit, which he recently hauled back from Whitney, Texas. (For the record, a full cord of wood has a volume of about 128 cubic feet. That is a lot of wood.)

"I left Grand Rapids at 5:00 p.m. on a Thursday and was back cooking in Grand Rapids on Saturday,” he said.  A round trip of almost 3,000 miles made in less than 48 hours.

The Grilling Company has a team of four employees, along with several seasonal and event staff.

The Grilling Company is located at 6231 West River Drive NE.  You can view their website here and join their Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor.

Modustri makes a sweet move

Hostile takeovers might make business headlines, but there is nothing sweeter than Modustri's recent friendly takeover.

The Grand Rapids-based tech company that designs and builds digital measurement tools for the heavy equipment industry was faced with space and growth challenges: too many new hires and not enough room.

So, the company, which is based at 38 Commerce Avenue SW, made an offer to the owner of their next door neighbor's business that was preparing to close, Sissy’s Sweet Shoppe. Modustri would take over her lease payments in October and purchase more than 180 pounds of candy she had in her inventory. A sweet deal.

Brian Steketee, founder and CEO, says that once the additional space was acquired, the second order of business was what to do with the almost 200 pounds of candy in inventory? He pulled his team together for a little brainstorming session.

"How can we turn this into a positive event for everyone?" he asked.

One idea quickly resonated.

"How cool would it be if we could send it to the troops?"  The answer? Very cool.

Modustri donated all the candy to Operation Gratitude, an organization that creates care packets for overseas military. The team spent an entire day packing the candy into 14 extra-large boxes that were later shipped out. Steketee attributes much of the sales and job growth to a recent strategic alliance  with Caterpillar, the construction machinery and equipment company based in Peoria, Illinois.

"We've been hiring so fast, it's been hard to keep up,” Steketee says.

He says the firm has six new hires this fall and more job openings waiting to be filled. He anticipates the 30-person firm will grow to 54 employees in 2016, and he categorizes these as all great, well paying jobs: developers, mobile and UX designers, and back office administration help.

To learn more about Modustri, you can check out their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Local health care sites land grants to help provide services to uninsured and underinsured families

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan presented $60,000 in Strengthening the Safety Net Grants on Tuesday, November 17 to four Grand Rapids clinics that provide health care services to uninsured and underinsured families in Kent County.

The recipients of the Strengthening the Safety Net Grants are: Baxter Community Center, which received $15,000 to support its dental clinic; Catherine’s Health Center, which received $20,000 for medical service enhancements; Health Intervention Services, which received $15,000 for dental services; and Oasis of Hope Center, which received $10,000 to support its medical services.

Kim Kratz, a senior health care analyst at Blue Cross Blue Shield says the grant program is in its 11th year and has become an important part of these organizations' ability to serve their clients. She estimates the grants have a five-time multiplier impact on the amount of services that are provided.

"All the grants support  operations,” Kratz says.  “All four organizations use volunteers to help with administration so they are able to leverage the grants to provide more services.”

According to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, more than 150,000 Kent County residents are uninsured or underinsured. Combined, Baxter Community Center, Catherine’s Health Center, Health Intervention Services, and Oasis of Hope Center provided free or low-cost medical care through 17,500 primary care and 3,000 dental visits in 2014. The health centers assisted patients in obtaining 4,400 free or low-cost medications and helped 5,500 people enroll in a health plan.

Written by John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Grand Rapids company Appropos launches software to simplify online campsite reservations

Camping is supposed to be a bit rustic, but that doesn't mean that making an online reservation at a campground needs to be like starting a fire with two sticks and a piece of birch bark.

Grand Rapids-based technology company Appropos has announced the launch of an Appropos-designed software, Campspot , that will streamline, simplify and optimize online campsite reservations at select Yogi Bear Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts around the country.

The software was developed for RezPlot Systems, LLC, an industry leader in campground management, and Northgate Resorts, the owners of RV camping properties, including several Yogi Bear Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts.

Northgate Resorts CFO, Caleb Hartung, says the need for a new reservation management program was self-evident by anyone who has made campground reservations in the past, and in the case of Northgate Resorts an important part of the growth strategy.

"As we acquired RV resorts with their existing reservation systems, nothing met our needs,” Hartung says.

In fact, he says the whole online reservation system "was a miserable experience." Hartung says Campspot was developed with a superior front end design and a vastly improved user experience.

Mari-Megan Moore, senior UI/UX designer at Appropos, describes Campspot as "modern and responsive" and says it gives the camping customer a very simple and streamlined way to reserve sites from any device. It will also allow campground owners to better manage their sites for profitability through smart bookings, discounts to encourage longer stays and repeat reservations. It also gives them the ability to introduce other products and services such as firewood, pie irons and s’mores, golf carts, hot tubs, and more.

The launch was recently announced at the annual Yogi Bear Jellystone Park Symposium and Trade Show  in Cincinnati last week.

Appropos is a Grand Rapids tech company that was formed in 2012. It employs 22 people and serves some of the largest U.S. and international companies. Learn more about Appropos at www.appropos.com.

Written by John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor.

Hook a Sista Up provides support for women entrepreneurs

Hook A Sista Up (HASU) is a local networking group focused on entrepreneurship, collaboration and helping women be more successful with their businesses and careers.  Its mission is to help women entrepreneurs launch their business ventures faster and sustain them longer through collaboration and mentorship.

Linda Otterbridge is the founder of HASU. She started the organization just over two and a half years ago. She says there was a need for an organization that addressed the unique needs of professional women. "Women have several interesting challenges, especially around time," she says. "They juggle home, kids and careers."   

Otterbidge says the group has monthly check-ins that provide accountability checks based on previous goals and also serves as a platform to set new business goals. HASU also hosts member events for women entrepreneurs interested in starting a new venture and has programming for existing business owners focused on sustainability and growth.

All members are expected to "collaborate not compete" says Otterbridge. "The main blueprint for the group is connecting the sisterhood of women entrepreneurs."

The meetings are typically $10 to attend and there is a $75 annual fee for membership.  More information, including meeting times, programming and locations, can be found on the website here.  

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

DanceOff benefiting Well House returns to the Pyramid Scheme

Grand Rapids' best dancers will once again go head to head in a battle to crown the ultimate dance champion on December 3. Back for its second year, the event awards the top dancer with a grand prize of $500 while proceeds from ticket sales benefit local nonprofit, Well House. Last year's event raised $4500 for Well House.

Jonathan Williams is the founder and organizer of The DanceOff. Williams, who also is one of the organizers of Failure Lab, says the inspiration behind the event is pretty simple: "I always wanted to organize a dance off." He says his dream became a reality when Tami VandenBerg, director and founder of Well House, welcomed the idea as a fund and awareness raiser for her program and then gave him the green light to organize. "The Well House is a very progressive nonprofit and Tami is the perfect partner," Williams says.

Live tryouts for the event were November 9th at the Pyramid Scheme. Dancers still can enter The DanceOff by submitting a 3-minute video of their best moves at www.thedanceoff.co. DanceOff contestants who make the cut will compete before three judges and a packed house on stage at the Pyramid Scheme at 8 p.m. on December 3. Two rounds will lead to a final dance battle that determines the final winner. The Dance Off welcomes experienced and diverse dancers who are ready to give an upbeat and exciting performance.

Tickets for the event are $10 and can be purchased online at www.thedanceoff.co. View a video trailer for DanceOff 2015 here. 100 percent of proceeds go to support the programming at Well House.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

I'll toast to that! Experience Grand Rapids announces Cocktail Week GR

Add one part artisanal spirits, one part growth in craft distillers, top it off with talented bartenders and you end up with the first ever Cocktail Week GR, celebrating Michigan craft spirits from November 11-22. Shaken, not stirred.

The week was designed and created by Experience GR as a way to showcase the growth in the artisan spirits and local distillers. In their research, Kate Herron, community development manager, says that with the success of marketing Grand Rapids as a craft beer destination, they also found a parallel opportunity to market the region as a "craft cocktail" destination. "The Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild helped us learn about the industry," Herron says. "We found there is a different market that enjoy craft cocktails."

The campaign's tagline is "sip local" and throughout Cocktail Week GR, participating local restaurants will offer two Michigan cocktails and a shared-plate appetizer for $25 or less as well as menu items paired with Michigan-distilled spirits. Participating restaurants, menus and cocktail-related events will be updated regularly at http:/www.CocktailWeekGR.com.

Cocktail Week GR coincides with additional celebrations of spirits at the annual Wine, Beer and Food Festival, taking place at DeVos Place Convention Center from November 19-22.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Job News Editor

Make no bones about it: Encoris is on the grow

Encoris is a five-year-old, Holland, Michigan-based company that specializes in the design and manufacturing of clear, custom skeletal models that are used by medical device companies like Stryker Orthopaedics, Johnson and Johnson, and Medtronic to educate and promote implant devices in the medical field.

The firm recently moved to a new manufacturing and design plant at 3612 128th St. in Holland, Michigan, specifically for enhanced manufacturing capabilities and efficiencies that Jim TenBrink, vice president of marketing & sales, says are needed following some successful trade shows and customer meetings in Europe. "Europe has really taken off," TenBrink says. "They do not make clear bone models and found our company through Internet search."

TenBrink says the company recently participated in a medical device show in Germany, where interest was high: "We're close to partnering with a German company, with 1500 distributors worldwide, that want our clear bones in their catalog." He says another company in Italy, a business incubator for inventions, also loved their products and they are in the process of crafting an agreement for an alliance.

In just four years from startup, the company has almost topped $1 million in sales and is expected to grow by 35 to 40 percent in 2016 based on expansion into European and teaching hospital/university market segments.

TenBrink says all of the Encoris products are designed and made in West Michigan by the company's 17 employees and contract designers using CAD engineering and design, 3D printers and hand sculpting to create the master molds.

To learn more about the firm, you can visit their site here.

Source: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Grand Rapids Mobile Monday Chapter relaunches

Linda Daichendt, executive director of MTAM (Mobile Technology Association of Michigan), the parent organization behind the Grand Rapids Mobile Monday chapter, says new leaders are in place to reestablish the organization. "The original chapter launched in 2011 with a volunteer leadership group and met quarterly for a while," she says. "However, due to relocations and job changes, the original volunteer group had to step aside and the chapter went on hiatus until MTAM could find a new volunteer organizer."

The new Steering Committee Chairperson is Al Juarez, Director of Business Development at RX Networks. Arrangements are also being finalized for a host sponsorship from Priority Health, where the group will meet on a monthly schedule on Monday evenings. (Visit their Meetup site here for meeting times and subjects.)

Daichendt says the timing is perfect for the group to become active again: "There is a very vibrant mobile and wireless technologies community in West Michigan; from mobile app development to wireless charging to use of wireless technology in surgery and much more."  

She says the organization draws from a wide variety of business and technology professionals. "Mobile Mondays have very broad appeal and the audience changes based on the topic being presented," she says. "If the topic is focused on something related to the 'how-to's' of mobile app development, you're likely to see a very large contingent of mobile developers, UX/UI specialists, graphic designers, etc." Likewise, if the topic is focused on mobile applications and healthcare, you would likely see CEO's, CIOs, hospital tech staff, and doctors alongside tech experts who want to work with the healthcare industry.

There are currently four active chapters in Michigan (Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Grand Rapids) with over 2900 members state-wide. Information about Mobile Monday Michigan can be found at http://MobileMondayMichigan.org.

Daichendt says Juarez is still seeking additional volunteers to assist him on the organizing committee. If interested, contact Juarez through the Meetup site.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Family Promise of Grand Rapids announces 'A Journey Home' campaign

Family Promise of Grand Rapids is hosting a press conference and ribbon cutting celebration Thursday, November 5 at 10 a.m. to celebrate their new location at 516 Cherry St. SE and to announce their $2 million fundraiser.

Cheryl Schuch, executive director, says the new facility is a needed step forward for the organization to keep up with the increased problem of homelessness among families with children in Kent County. "The old facility was rented and expensive. It did not allow us to serve individuals with disabilities and there were no spaces for private meetings with families or respite spaces for young children‚" she says.
Schuch says the fundraiser is designed to pay off the new building's mortgage and to support and grow the three key programs serving their mission: Pathway Home, an innovative shelter program in partnership with Mel Trotter, where existing space was repurposed into family space; Partners in Housing, a "mini-habitat" program, where manufactured homes are rehabbed and used by families with housing needs; and the continuing development of their After Care program, where Family Promise staff work to stabilize families and keep them in their homes (and schools) long term.

The fundraiser is chaired by community leaders Laurie Beard (Grand Rapids Region President, Old National Bank) and Carl Jandernoa (Vice President, 42 North Partners).

Schuch says that in 2009, they were servicing five homeless families at one time and now they are providing service to 60 families at the same time. She says there were almost 3000 students in Kent County schools who were homeless last year and with a successful campaign there will be a 200% increase in shelter capacity.

To learn more about Family Promise, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor.

Collective Idea and the culture of calm

Since the beginning of the year, Collective Idea, a Holland, Michigan-based software development consultancy, has added eight software developers and designers to its team.  

That is no small accomplishment. Besides growing revenue to sustain eight new jobs, finding and hiring qualified, creative tech talent when seemingly every organization in the region is looking to add software developers and designers is very impressive.

Daniel Morrison, founder, says that although it's true that the market for software professionals is competitive, West Michigan technology firms are well positioned to compete on a national level for talent. "The software industry is a very competitive market right now nationwide. Silicon Valley can tempt people with high salaries, but we are easily competitive when you factor in our quality of life and low cost of living," he says.  

Morrison says that besides the relatively low cost of living and high quality of life in West Michigan, he also has purposefully created a culture where creative people can do great work and find the elusive work-life balance. "We have a culture of calm which is different from many startups, which can be manic," he says. "We work hard, but go home at night and take vacations. We are valuable to our clients because we do great work and don't burn out. We take care of our employees by offering a strong work-life balance, great benefits and investment in their continuing education." Recently the firm added a small fleet of bicycles for the team to use around Holland for trips to the lake or area restaurants and festivals.

Collective Idea's newest team members have come from all over the country with a variety of backgrounds of interests and talents. They include Dana Jones, Laura Mosher, Brianna Onken, Ray Brown, Mike Kopchick, Joshua Kovach, Ben Lambert, and Jon Stokes.  

Equally important to its culture, Morrison says finding the right fit and mix of qualified programming talent is essential. "Without a doubt, the more diverse people you have on a team, the better the team executes," he says. "Our industry skews heavily toward white males, so we're always excited when we can bring underrepresented groups into the mix. That said, we didn't do anything specific to hire women; we simply didn't limit ourselves to people who fit a stereotype."

Founded in 2005 by Morrison, Collective Idea creates innovative software experiences for multinational companies, small startups and everything in between for organizations around the country.

For more information at www.collectiveidea.com

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Varsity News Network adds software product expert and readies to launch VNN 2.0

Varsity News Network (VNN), has announced the addition of industry veteran and software product expert, Lucian Taylor, as vice president of product. Taylor has more than 20 years experience leading software teams at technology companies including Rosetta Stone, Microsoft and Autodesk.

Using a couple of sports analogies, the addition of Taylor could be considered the equivalent of a college landing a five-star recruit, and VNN founder Ryan Vaughn attributes the hiring success to a team effort.   

"We have a very talented internal recruiting team, led by Bob Barber and Hallie Dorsey, who led a comprehensive, nationwide recruiting search for this position," Vaughn says. "We had a number of amazing candidates, but Lucian really rose to the top, particularly when he visited Grand Rapids and had a chance to bond with our team."

Taylor will be responsible for directing VNN's current product lines and lead development of VNN 2.0, the company's new product initiative. Taylor says VNN 2.0 will allow for many more users to contribute and greatly increase community engagement.

"VNN's first-generation platform was a huge step forward in making an Athletic Director's life easier," Taylor says. "With VNN 2.0, we'll reach beyond the Athletic Director. We'll fully engage coaches, athletes, parents, and fans. The entire community that rallies around the excitement of local school sports. We'll introduce four new products that work together to increase community."

Taylor is excited about the prospects of living and working in Grand Rapids. "I think Grand Rapids is a great place for innovative companies and people. There's a great work ethic here that comes, I think, from a grounded, stable social culture and a midwestern sense of family and commitment. There's even a west coast, complete with dunes and beautiful sunsets!"

VNN provides high school athletic departments with a digital communication platform, enabling schools to seamlessly distribute critical information and promote school athletic teams. The Grand Rapids-based firm has 40 employees and taps into a network of 50 independent contractors.  

For more information about VNN visit www.varsitynewsnetwork.com.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Meredith Bronk on work-life balance, career success and happiness

How can a person who runs a $160-million-dollar business, with almost 200 employees and offices in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis and London, England, maintain any semblance of work-life balance?

It's pretty simple. It starts with purposefully making time to be happy.

Meredith Bronk, CEO and president of OST, was recently recognized as one of the top 50 women entrepreneurs in America by Inc. Earlier, OST made the Inc. 5000 list for the 9th consecutive year, highlighting the company's 83 new hires and three-year average growth rate of 57 percent.

Besides her responsibilities and success at OST, Bronk is also very involved in the community, serving as a board member of United Bank and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. She is a committed mentor to other business professionals and is a wife and mother to three active girls, ages 15, 13 and 11.   

So with schedule like that, how do you maintain any semblance of work-life balance?

Bronk credits her commitment to the "happiness challenge" to achieving balance in her life. She says she was introduced to the program while in the Executive MBA program at Notre Dame, and now makes the five tenets of the challenge part of her daily and weekly routine. "The 'happiness challenge' has five habits; regular exercise, meditation, journaling, daily acts of gratitude and random acts of kindness, she explains.

Bronk recommends these five habits for anyone needing a system to find balance in their lives. She acknowledges that it does take time and discipline to make these part of your daily and weekly routines, but the key is to make a commitment. "To get started, you take and practice what you can" and over time there will be a transformational effect, helping you become "the best version of yourself" both at work and at home.

To learn more about OST you can visit their site here. You can also read about their recent recognition by Inc. here and here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Ed-tech startup Kickstand has new interface to take on reading literacy

Ed-tech startup Kickstand is rolling out something new: EdifyK4, the new interface for the company's flagship product Edify. It's designed as part of a grant that was awarded by the Michigan Department of Education for the development of at-risk, early reading challenge systems using tools that will help teachers throughout Michigan to identify and provide resources to those students who are not reading proficiently at grade level.

The new interface is an easy-to-read dashboard. It went live on September 30 and is being rolled out to several school districts in Michigan targeting K-4th grade.  

EdifyK4 features checklist assessments, comprehension rubrics, reading lessons, educational resources, 24/7 access and real-time feedback for students, teachers, administrators and parents. To keep students engaged, game-like elements have been incorporated to capture their attention and make learning fun.

Ruth Hester, elementary education specialist with Kickstand and former teacher, says the EdifyK4 interface brings together the entire educational ecosystem by capturing assessment data with an easy to use and understand dashboard: "I was an elementary teacher and I had to keep track of all the different tests, assessments and personal notes using binders, folders and spreadsheets, which I manually needed to update - when I had time." She says with EdifyK4, all this information is now consolidated and ready to view in real time.  She says parents can also view this information through a mirrored portal, also in real time, so they can be completely engaged with their child's learning.

Kickstand, LLC is an education technology startup company, founded by Tom Bieniewicz and Scott Goldberg. Its products are are similar to an individualized learning management system but are designed to serve multiple stakeholders, teachers, students and parents as they interact in the classroom and at home. Edify and the new release of EdifyK4 provide courses in science, math, social studies and English language arts.

To learn more about Kickstand, Edify, and EdifyK4, you can view their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

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