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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


SalesPad growing, "always in hiring mode"

SalesPad might be one of the fastest growing, most innovative West Michigan software companies you've never heard of before. Which, according to Jeremy Boogaart, general manager, used to be okay with them but isn't so much anymore.

With continued projected growth and ongoing hiring needs in a very competitive market, Boogaart says it is time to share their story to a broader audience. "We used to fly under the radar but after ramping up the hiring process and adding about 49 people in the past year, we decided it was time for people to know more about us," he says.

SalesPad makes innovative business software. The company has a suite of 13 products for a wide variety of enterprise level, business management activities. Boogaart says the company was founded by Matt Williams in 2004 and the firm now has 120 employees and is  "always in hiring mode."

"We never stop hiring", he says. "We always runs ads and we currently have open jobs in sales, support, and development." Boogaart describes the SalesPad culture as "collaborative" and says it is quite different than many development and consulting development shops.  

"We are a full-time software development shop with our own products. We focus on team work. We provide a lot of training, opportunities for ongoing learning and group development, all in an open office environment. Plus, we have fun." He says with their commitment to training, it is a great company for new college graduates,

Besides adding to the local economy, SalesPad is also helping to showcase Grand Rapids to people from around the country. The firm recently hosted a three-day conference in downtown Grand Rapids, bringing in around 250 customers, the majority of whom were from outside of West Michigan. "We had to block about 800 nights at hotels. We had brewery tours, golfing and ate at various restaurants throughout the city," he says. "Many people attending did not know what to expect in Grand Rapids. They were surprised with the cool vibe." This was the second year for the conference and the firm is already planning for 2016.

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

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor.

Rebranding complete, Freshwater Digital is getting innovative

2015 has been good for Freshwater Digital. Very good.

The five-year-old digital signage and media production firm has been riding a significant growth wave in the past year and shows no sign of slowing down.

Just in the last several months, the firm has moved into a new office and warehouse space (almost doubling its previous footprint) to occupy 25,000 sq. feet, hired eight new people (now a total headcount of 14), released its own proprietary software, acquired and integrated a digital gaming company, and finished a complete rebranding.
And to think: less than four years ago, the founders of the company were working out of their homes.

Jon Dodge, EVP of business development, says the growth is a result of a blend of their core business expansion, a great team and new opportunities: "We've had fantastic growth in last two years. We have a very talented team and we recently added a vice president of product development."

Dodge describes Freshwater's core business as retail digital signage, but he says the firm is always looking for innovative ways to expand. "We are moving beyond just content on a screen. We now have different platforms to provide better communication with the consumer," he says.  

Dodge points to the firm's recent acquisition of the digital gaming company, "Extreme Ring Swing", (extremeringswing.com) as an example of moving beyond traditional digital signage to create a better customer experience. Dodge says that this product is a creative and engaging way to help their clients promote products and also increase sales by enticing customers to spend more time in an establishment.

With the growth and commitment to new product development, the firm just completed a complete rebranding including a name change (Freshwater Digital Media Partners to Freshwater Digital) and a revamped logo and website. The firm is planning an open house in early November to showcase its new location and its production and product development labs.

To learn more about Freshwater Digital you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Nitro Cold Brew, the official coffee sponsor of ArtPrize, hits the streets

Riddle me this. What looks like a dark beer, tastes like a stout, is served cold out of keg but is not a beer? Give up?  

Well, it's not much of a riddle, especially since Nitro Cold Brew is gaining traction and brand awareness quickly these days, but it is worth noting that in Beer City, U.S.A., there's a new beverage in town and it is not a craft beer.

Kirby Watson, president of Direct Trade Coffee Club, says the nitrogen-infused, cold brewed coffee is a phenomenon and is quickly trending throughout the country. Watson says he was personally inspired by the nitrogen coffee movement in Austin, TX, and he felt there was an opportunity to do the same thing in Grand Rapids.

He says the brewing process is fairly complex but the end result is worth the time and effort. "The nitrogen gives it a nice creaminess, he says. "The people who taste it say it is a bit like a stout. A creamy stout." Watson says the product is caffeinated so it can serve as an afternoon or evening "pick me up" but it also has about half the acid of hot brewed coffee, serving a market for coffee lovers who aren't able to enjoy the beverage because of the acidity.

Watson says his cold brewed coffee will be a viable product throughout the year and adds a better option to 'last call". "We think people will drink this all year round" he says. "We envision people drinking it at bars as the last drink of the night."

Introduced just over 10 weeks ago, Watson says you can find the product at Hall St. Bakery, Wealthy St. Bakery, Long Road Distillery, Lyon Street Cafe, Bartertown and the UICA.

And thanks to a very unique distribution model, you can also find Nitro Cold Brew being served from a series of specially outfitted trikes in downtown Grand Rapids during ArtPrize: "We built up four trikes and we will be rolling around ArtPrize throughout the event. Just flag us down."

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

New restaurant in downtown Grand Rapids unleashes the flavors of Latin America

Bienvenido a Grand Rapids!

Luna, the new Latin American-themed, full-service bar and restaurant located at 64 Ionia Ave. SW, opened its doors last week and will soon be opening the eyes and taste buds of the local food community to something very distinct and flavorful.

After working on the concept for almost two years, Mario Cascante wanted to bring something unique to the Grand Rapids food scene. While working with Rockford Development to identify a location, an opportunity opened up on Ionia Ave. SW and Cascante was ready.

While remaining true to his roots (Cascante is a native of Costa Rica), he says the new spot will also be "distinctly different" than his first venture, Tacos El Cunado at the Downtown Market.  

Cascante says Luna will feature meals that are prepared with the flavor profiles of Central and South America. Because of the breadth of spices, foods, and techniques in this type of cuisine, Cascante is reluctant to generalize about the menu but he says customers can expect a different type of spice level, "flavorful but not too spicy" and very different takes on traditional street foods like tacos and flautas.

However, he says the menu will also feature stews, vegan fair and South American-style steaks. "This is not a continuation of Tacos El Cunado. It will be a very different vibe and atmosphere. You can sit down and enjoy your meal. The flavor profile will be Latin American and it will be very refined and approachable."

Besides the unique menu, Cascante said Luna will feature a very good wine list, a "thoughtful" beer list and and interesting cocktails.

Cascante says he anticipates 30-40 jobs to be created with his new restaurant; he has several openings and encourages individuals to apply online here.

You can learn more about Luna here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor


Degage Ministries voucher program provides meals and more

Heartside neighborhood homeless organization Degage Ministries has a dignified solution to help visitors respond to downtown panhandlers during ArtPrize: Help them. And the best way to help them is to direct them to a place where they are assured of getting help.

Marge Palmerlee, Degage executive director, says the organization developed a voucher two years ago in response to requests from those in the community who had had questions on the best way to help someone who approached them for money. "We all want to be caring people but wise stewards of money." Palmerlee says. She says the voucher program helps to not only direct someone to a place where they can have a meal, but also get additional help for whatever problems the individual is experiencing.

A $2 voucher can be used for a variety of services, ranging from the purchase of a full meal, storage in a locker for a week, a hair cut, a pair of warm socks, and much more.  Palmerlee says the staff in the Resource Office will work with individuals to find solutions to other needs they may have.

With the opening of ArtPrize this week, Palmerlee knows the city will experience a tremendous surge in visitors, so Degage is looking to be more proactive with increasing the awareness of their voucher program. The vouchers are available for purchase by contacting kim@degageministries.org or calling (616) 454-1661. You may also purchase them here by selecting "Purchase of $2 Vouchers" from the designation drop-down list and they will be mailed to you.

Besides making the vouchers available for purchase, Palmerlee says the the organization has provided several hundred of its Degage Vouchers to Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. Ambassadors so they can hand out to guests for their use.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
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