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Summer science camps: Van Andel Education Institute makes learning fun for local students

We are rounding that spring corner, and before you know it we will be right in the middle of summer! If you found yourself scrambling this spring break for educational activities for the little ones, we are here to make sure you are prepared for the summer. The folks at the Van Andel Education Institute have a plenty of programs to help fill up your kid’s, and entire family’s, summer.

“Kids love hands-on science. They enjoy getting messy, seeing how things work, and exploring,” says Terra Tarango, director of the Van Andel Education Institute.

The institute will be offering two summer camps geared towards students in fourth through seventh grades.
The fourth and fifth graders will be joining the “Animal Survivor: Pill Bugs, Newts & Geckos, Oh My!” program.

As part of this week-long day camp, students will explore the world of animal adaptations, including studying animal behavior, observing structural traits and discovering what helps animals survive in the wild. Plus, the youngsters will have the chance to learn about a variety of species, including invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles, through hands-on exploration.

“The students love getting to interact with the different animals we have in the lab,” Tarango says. “They have seen geckos and bearded dragons, but most of them have never been able to hold them, so they can’t wait to get their hands on them and learn about their survival mechanisms and habitat preference.”

There will be two sessions held, with the first running from June 26 to June 30 and the second starting July 17 and wrapping up July 21.

The sixth and seventh graders will get to dive into the “Environmental Forensics: What’s in the water?” program.
As part of this, students will “explore solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental concerns,” the institute explains.

Also a week-long day camp, this program will allow the children to “discover how oil spills, chemical contamination and other threats to water quality affect our environment.”

By using hands-on investigations, learning water monitoring techniques and working with peers, students will brainstorm how to protect Earth’s water.

“In this camp, students study real-world challenges to our water resources, giving them a strong foundational understanding of water quality and environmental influences,” says Tarango.

There will be two sessions held for this as well: one from July 10 - 14 and the second from July 24 - 27.

The cost for each of these summer camps is $185. For more information, head on over to the VAEI site for registration.

Not ready to take the full dive just yet? The institute has a great weekend option for you and your little ones to dip your toes into. Science on Saturday provides a great exposure to science for those who might not be ready to take the plunge. The program is $20 for teams of a student and an adult, but financial assistance is available. Space is limited to 16 teams per session, so be sure to contact the institute at information@vaei.org or call 616-234-5528 to register.

There will be a session for first and second graders at the end of this month so be sure to reserve your spot as they tend to fill up quickly!

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.
 

To address racism in hiring, poverty & more, Grand Rapids launches Racial Equity Initiative

Grand Rapidians often hear their city’s stories of success: the beer industry that’s bringing in tourists from around the country, the manufacturing sector that’s making a comeback, the almost endless string of accolades naming Grand Rapids as one of the best places to raise a family, buy a house, and more.

 

But there are other stories that aren’t as often heard, even though they’re being told: those of the city’s residents living in poverty. Those of the people struggling to find work. Those of the families who can no longer afford the rent for the home in which they’ve lived for years, or decades.

 

More than a quarter of Grand Rapids’ population -- 26 percent -- lives at or below the federal poverty level (about $24,000 for a family of four), and that number climbs even higher in communities of color, according to statistics from the U.S. Census. About 45 percent of the 42,000 African Americans residing in the city live in poverty. The unemployment rate climbs to about 53 percent in predominantly black neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Approximately 35 percent of Hispanic residents are living in poverty and are facing a 27 percent unemployment rate.

 

The staggering unemployment and poverty rates for people of color has led to Grand Rapids being ranked as one of the worst cities for African Americans in the entire country. While the median income for white individuals in the city is about $77,000 per year, it is $22,000 for black residents. Of the nearly 16,000 businesses in Kent County, just 5 percent are owned by individuals who are black, according to the Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses.

 

“Grand Rapids continues to be a tale of two cities, where neighborhoods in 17 census tracks -- home to roughly a third of our city’s population -- have 48 percent of their residents living in poverty,” Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said during her State of the City address last month. “These neighborhoods are more racially and ethnically diverse than the city as a whole. These neighborhoods are economically unstable with low median household incomes and high unemployment.”

 

To address racism and racial disparities in the city, Bliss and the city officially launched the “Grand Rapids Racial Equity Initiative,” which the mayor announced during her State of the City and which has landed $300,000 in support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF).

 

The city announced this week that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation will provide a three-year, $300,000 grant for the initiative that aims to increase job creation and employment and create an action plan for racial equity in the city. The program will focus on the 17 census tracks cited by Bliss during her March speech. These communities are identified by WKKF as “neighborhoods of focus,” or areas that are facing higher rates of poverty and unemployment than the rest of the city. The neighborhoods included in these census tracts include Madison Square, Baxter, Garfield Park, Roosevelt Park, the South East Community, and Heartside, among others.

 

“The initiative will convene stakeholders to create specific action steps that increase equitable employment and reduce racial disparities in the city, create a digital Racial Equity Dashboard for community transparency and accountability, and identify ways for community stakeholders to work together form community-wide impact,” the city says in a press release issued this week.

 

With this initiative, Bliss said the city will “work hard to strengthen our partnerships” with such organizations as the NAACP, Urban League, Hispanic Chamber, Greater Grand Rapids Racial Equity Network, The Right Place, The Source, WMCAT, GROW, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the West Michigan Small Business Development Center, and others.

 

The WKKF funding will cover the costs of hiring a facilitator for the initiative and hiring an “evaluation and data partner to track and publish program outcomes,” according to the city. Additionally, it will cover the costs associated with trainings, strategic planning sessions, community roundtables, and other public outreach.

 

“The Grand Rapids Racial Equity Initiative will strengthen our efforts to eliminate racial disparities in our city,” Bliss said in a press release. “We know that without racial equity we cannot be prosperous as a community.”

 

Dr. Bill Pink, the vice president and dean for workforce development at Grand Rapids Community College who will take over as the school’s president on May 1, will serve as the co-chair of the initiative with Bliss.

 

“This effort is something that’s been a growing initiative from the mayor’s office and the city of Grand Rapids wanting to make sure, from the city’s perspective, we’re doing all we can to promote racial equity in our city,” Pink said in an interview with Rapid Growth.

 

The soon-to-be president of GRCC said the data that stems from the initiative will not only help to inform the city on matters of racial equity (including, for example, how racism prevents people from being employed), but it will help the college as well.

 

“Some of our students are in these neighborhoods, and this gives us more information so we can make more informed decisions,” said Pink, who has long done equity work, including chairing a national conference on the future of African-American education in the U.S. and conducting equity and diversity training for teachers and organizations. “This will give us more data for us to find out more about our community… This is the work that will inform us enough that we can make lasting change.”

 

Part of that lasting change will stem from some honest and difficult conversations about racism and racial bias in the Grand Rapids community, including dialogue about policing after five unarmed African American boys were stopped at gunpoint by police last month.

 

“Anything in terms of what we see in Grand Rapids that we want to address will be on the table,” Pink said in regards to community conversations about police bias. WKKF noted that racial equity work not only strengthens communities but makes policing more effective.

 

“Police forces that reflect the diversity of their communities can improve communications and foster cultural understandings that lead to both safer neighborhoods and stronger police-community relationships,” WKKF wrote. “There is more opportunity for trust and transparency when the community sees a police force that includes members of their community.”

 

While the WKKF grant will last for three years, this work must be at the forefront of city policy -- and continued by residents throughout Grand Rapids, officials said.

 

“It’s not just a task force or initiative that drives changes; people drive change,” Pink said. “The folks who are a part of this great city are the people who will be the main players in this.”


“This is all of our work; this is how we take care of each other,” Pink continued. “This is how we take care of our city. It’s ambitious for us, and it’s a positive move. But it won’t mean a thing if we as a whole can’t grab a hold of this.”

Streamlining passion: Good Ink is making fundraising a whole lot easier

They say there is an app for everything, whether it’s ordering a ride through Lyft or now getting a quick mortgage approval through Rocket Mortgage. No problem is too big or too small for internet entrepreneurs to tackle.

 

The team at Michigan Awesome , a screen printing shop based in Holland, Michigan, found themselves working with friends, family and the community quite often on the same kind of project. People would come into the shop and bring t-shirt designs for a fundraiser they were hosting. There would be a back and forth on design implementation, logistics, and payments that would add stress to the whole process. It wasn’t simple; it wasn’t letting their customers concentrate on what they were passionate about: the causes for which they were fundraising.

 

After helping dozens of clients with fundraising campaigns for adoptions, schools, teams, youth groups, and more, they realized they could serve a greater number of clients if the process was streamlined.

 

Team member Kevin Watson recalls it best. “Organizing campaigns, designing shirts, spreading the word, collecting funds and delivering shirts was a lot of work,” he says.

 

So, the team of four got to working on creating a platform that would automate and simplify the stresses of running a t-shirt fundraising campaign, and just like that Good Ink was born.

 

When asked what is at the heart of Good Ink, Watson replies that “Good Ink is set out to simplify the t-shirt fundraising process. We want to remove the roadblocks and make it as easy as possible to turn your good intentions into a huge success. We all want to make a difference, but have limited time.”

 

Watson says that a process that would take 20-plus hours of an organization’s time now just takes a few minutes on the Good Ink website. “No more collecting checks and driving around town to deliver shirts. No more fronting a lot of money in hopes of a good return,” Watson says in regards to how the website really takes care of everything.

 

Good Ink is free to use for organizers, and the purchase/donation process wrapped with the individual delivery makes it easier to sell more products and make more money for the causes closest to your heart.

 

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.


Comcast partners with Boys & Girls Club of Grand Rapids to bridge city’s digital divide

With every passing year, access to the internet becomes more necessary for daily life. Whether it is for work or personal use, a lack of reliable internet access places a person or family at a distinct social, and potential economic, disadvantage.

 

Comcast Cable (Xfinity) has been taking action to mitigate this problem with its “Internet Essentials” program.

 

This Comcast-funded initiative offers low-cost internet access for a little under $10, plus monthly tax; internet ready computers for about $150, in addition to monthly tax; and free digital literacy training. Michelle Gilbert- VP Public Relations, Comcast Cable Heartland Region says “Internet Essentials is our answer to helping bridge the digital divide, which is arguably a high priority for our country. The more families we can help get access to the Internet at home, the more possibilities we open up for them.”

 

The program was originally created to meet the needs of families with school-aged children with at least one child eligible for the National School Lunch Program, a federally subsidized program that provides free and reduced-price meals to students from families living at or below 130 percent of the poverty level. For example, 130 percent of the federal poverty level translates to a $2,633 monthly income for a family of four. In Grand Rapids, nearly 16,000 Grand Rapids Public Schools students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available, according to state statistics.

 

This past July, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Comcast announced that public housing and HUD-assisted residents living in Comcast’s service area would be eligible to apply for the Internet Essentials program.

 

As part of the Internet Essentials program, Comcast in West Michigan partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth to host five free digital literacy classes for local residents that aim to bridge the digital divide.

 

This first digital literacy class will teach students the importance of social media privacy settings, how to react if approached by a stranger online, and how to recognize and report cyber bullying.

 

Gilbert adds that, “social media is a big part of our kids’ lives, so it’s important to teach them how to use it safely and responsibly”

 

It will be held this Thursday, April 6 at 1:30pm at the Boys & Girls Club of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth, located at 235 Straight Ave NW. For more information about the class, contact the Boys & Girls Club at 616-233-9370 ext. 110.

 

The Internet Essentials program was launched in 2011, and since then Comcast has connected more than 38,000 homes in Michigan, including 5,200 in Kent County, to the web. Internet Essentials doesn’t require a credit check, installation fee or contract. The service provides speeds of up to 10 megabits per second, and in-home Wi-Fi is included.


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.

Human trafficking in West Michigan: How Ferris State University is fighting modern-day slavery

Human trafficking is a deeply rooted problem that’s growing in Kent County, and throughout Michigan, according to human rights advocates. As an increasing number of people are forced into modern day slavery, leaders across Michigan, a state that has more trafficking victims than almost anywhere else in the country, are determined to combat this epidemic.

The Ferris State University Coalition Against Slavery and the Professional Convention Management Association Student Organization are holding a two-day public “Conference on Human Trafficking Awareness” from April 5 to April 6 at the FSU University Center, located at 805 Campus Drive in Big Rapids, Michigan.

FSU conference attendees are welcome to register for one or both days and will learn more about trafficking, signs of exploitation, root causes, the trauma experienced by a person who has been exploited, and tips for keeping family and friends safe through cyber security.

Day one will be held on Wednesday, April 5 in the University Center Ballroom from 7:00pm-9:30pm. It will include a presentation given by Jason Otting and the Women in Cyber Security Student Organization titled “Fighting for the Silenced: How Cyber Security Can Curb Human Trafficking.” The evening will conclude with a screening of “The Long Night” by Tim Matsui and Media Storm Productions.

Day two will be held on Thursday, April 6 in the University Center from 9am to 4pm. For a small fee ($15 for students; $30 for non-students), registrants will attend breakout sessions, enjoy a catered lunch and participate in a panel discussion with guest speakers, including Carmen Kucinich, FBI Victim Specialist; Nikeidra Battle-Debarge, Wedgewood’s Manasseh Project Coordinator; and Jane White, Chair of the Michigan State Human Trafficking Task Force.

Human trafficking: A growing problem

The FSU conference comes at a time when there has been a nationwide push to address human trafficking. In the last weeks of his final term, former U.S. President Barack Obama declared January 2017 as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline’s website defines trafficking as “a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against his/her will.”

Human trafficking continues to be a growing problem in Michigan. In 2016, 246 human trafficking cases were reported in Michigan alone, The National Human Trafficking Hotline saw a 37.5 percent increase in calls in 2016. Of those 246 cases, 191 were sex trafficking cases, 30 were labor trafficking, eight were sex and labor, and 17 were not specified. The majority of the victims, 216 individuals, were female, and 29 were male, according to Polaris, an organization that works to eradicate human trafficking.

While 246 cases were reported in Michigan last year, advocates say the actual number of trafficking victims is far higher. It’s difficult to gauge how many people are being trafficked in the region, but Women at Risk International, a Wyoming, Michigan-based nonprofit that’s working to eliminate human trafficking, reports there could be as many as 2,400 minors who are currently trafficking victims in West Michigan -- and that number doesn’t take into account the women and men forced into slavery. People of all ages are subjected to the horrors of trafficking, though the U.S. Department of Justice states that the average age of a victim of sex trafficking in the country is 13, with 12 being the average for a boy and 14 for a girl.

Trafficking touches all corners of Michigan, and the group Hope Against Trafficking notes Michigan was ranked as the second highest state for the number of sex trafficking victims in 2015.

“Over the last decade, criminal dockets have detailed tragic accounts of children sold for sex at truck stops, servants held in captivity and forced to clean for free, and women forced to enter the sex industry and provide profit for their traffickers,” Michigan’s Human Trafficking Commission states in a 2013 report. “From urban centers like Detroit and Grand Rapids to rural communities in the state’s Upper Peninsula, reports of trafficking have made headlines. Cases like these vividly illustrate the need for a comprehensive response to this crime.”

While Michigan has strengthened its laws regarding human trafficking in recent years, communities such as Kent County is facing a growing problem, according to the Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force, which first convened in March 2015.

“Like others, our community possesses characteristics that can be easily exploited by traffickers in what is, at its core, a highly lucrative commercial enterprise,” the task force writes, citing West Michigan’s agribusiness sector as a draw for labor traffickers and truck stops and rest areas dotting well-traveled highways as “attractive places for sex traffickers to sell their victims.”

“Our local hospitality industry has grown as our region becomes an increasingly popular location for large-scale events and national conventions,” the task force writes. “Hotels — filled with guests frequently coming and going and often unfamiliar to hotel staff — provide convenient, temporary cover for traffickers looking to service sex workers.”

Additionally, the task force notes that “the socio-economic conditions that can make people vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking in the first place are widespread in our community.”

“The economic growth Kent County has experienced in recent years remains stubbornly out of reach for thousands,” the group writes. “One in six people in our community lives in poverty. With few economic options, adults and children alike are often coerced into dangerous situations to simply put food on the table and a roof over their heads.”

How you can help

As an everyday citizen, there’s much you can do to help fight human trafficking, from lending a hand financially to just keeping an eye out for signs that someone may be a victim.
 
  • There are numerous signs that may show someone is being forced to have sex or work against their will, a list of which you can see here and here.
  • If you are a victim, or you think you know someone who is, call the Kent County Human Trafficking hotline, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 616-726-7777.
  • You can also call the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
  • There are numerous groups in West Michigan that support human trafficking victims, many of which accept donations and/or volunteers. You can see a list here.
  • Increase awareness by talking to your friends neighbors about trafficking, donate items that trafficking victims and their children need, and more. See the numerous ways to help at the Wyoming, Michigan-based Women at Risk International.

The Conference on Human Trafficking Awareness will be held April 5 and 6 at Ferris State University’s University Center, located at 805 Campus Drive in Big Rapids, Michigan. Pre-registration is required and will close Monday, April 3 at 11:59pm.

Additional reporting by Anna Gustafson

Straight from the farmer’s mouth: Support local agriculture at Saturday’s Growers Fare

Coming this weekend is the farmer’s market to end all farmers’ markets.

The West Michigan Growers Group, a consortium of farmers that became a nonprofit in January, is partnering with Michigan State University Extension and the Downtown Market for the 2017 Growers Fare: CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] Open House, which will give our local residents a chance to connect with, and support, area farmers. The third annual event will bring a coalition of more than 10 farms to the Downtown Market’s second floor banquet ballroom from 10am to 1:30pm this Saturday, March 25.

Market vendors will offer food samples that have used local farm produce. Along with being child-friendly, the event is geared to families seeking to support locally grown food. Those who attend Saturday’s gig will be able to get more information about, and sign up for, CSAs, programs that allow residents to purchase fresh produce from local growers. Along with produce shares, select vendors will also be offering milk and egg shares as part of their CSAs.

Farmers will provide demonstrations and be eager to field questions from any newcomers to the CSA model. The farms range from distances as far away as Kent City and Ada and as close as the south side of Grand Rapids.
The farms that will be represented this weekend include:
The event will be a great chance to ask farmers about their practices, pricing and products they offer. All WM Grower’s Group farms are committed to bringing sustainably grown products to their local communities.

While the Growers Group is a relatively new nonprofit, it has operated as a farmer-to-farmer organization since April 12, with the group meeting for monthly potlucks and farm tours in order to exchange ideas, tools and organize shared labor and other costs.

Be sure to come on down to the Downtown Market this Saturday and poke your head in and learn about the food that is being grown locally right from the...farmer’s mouth.

For more information about Growers Fare, visit www.wmgrowersgroup.org.

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.

Citizen Labs: How a group of data geeks, developers & designers are making GR more transparent

During a time in our country when the topic of government is in most headlines, there is a group in Grand Rapids that is connecting everyday citizens with civic data. Started by an all-volunteer group of developers, designers, data geeks, and others, Citizen Labs was founded in June 2016 with the mission to connect Grand Rapidians with open data and open source technology to improve their communities.

Founding members Jace Browning, Max Dillivan, Traci Montgomery, Lee Mueller, Brandon Klotz, Joel Anderson, and Allen Clark formed Citizen Labs to provide a greater transparency to the civic data -- data from public institutions, like the city government or the police department -- that often feels tangled within inaccessible formats, such as what can be convoluted city websites.

The team has successfully finished two projects in its short existence. The group provided a short description of the completed projects:

Open Budget: Grand Rapids: Launched on June 6, 2016, the Open Budget project promotes a deeper understanding of the city budget of Grand Rapids, so that citizens, officials, and other stakeholders can engage in more informed dialogue about how the city of Grand Rapids currently works and how it should in the future.

Grand Rapids Parks & Recreation Investments: The GR Parks Project launched September 2016 and uses open source OpenStreetMap and data from the city of Grand Rapids to show the parks of the city of Grand Rapids, the tax dollars invested in each park thus far, and details of updates made. The investments in our parks were made possible by dedicated property millage for capital and pool operations, and major repair and rehabilitation of parks and playgrounds that residents of Grand Rapids voted in favor of on November 5, 2013.

Currently the group is still looking over possible projects to take on as a team in 2017. Meet ups are used to work on personal projects or to pitch group projects as well.

The group meets every other Tuesday inside The Factory; these events are free and open to the public. Members say that newcomers do not need to have robust tech experience, but rather have a desire to use data to help our city.

The membership now consists of programmers, designers, planners, community leaders, data geeks, and idea makers, but they encourage diverse backgrounds. Citizen Labs understands that diversity of thought is necessary for innovative solutions. Clark mentions that, “We are looking to grow and connect more with the community for sure in the upcoming year.”

Being technology inclined, a majority of the group’s work is done outside of the meeting times. Their projects and information can be found on their Github page, or you can join the groups conversations on Slack.

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.
 

Well Design Studio has big plans for the future, but they won't forget where they came from

Tucked away in a small office inside the Ledyard Building in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids is the home of Well Design Studio.

Recently, Rapid Growth had a chance to sit down and chat with the Well Design team to talk about the origin story of this design and communication studio that focuses on working with nonprofits and small local businesses.

RG: How did Well Design Studio start?

WD: Well started January 2015. The founding team was just Josh Leffingwell and Amar Dzomba, and in October 2015 we brought Tyler Doornbos in as a partner. He was owner of North Sea Studio, and he brought his clients to our company. That is maybe when Well started in its current form as a full service creative agency.

RG: What drives the studio? What is Well Design’s mission?

WD: We are all pretty entrepreneurial, so we really try to bring that mindset to the orgs and businesses we work with. When we work with an organization or company we like to get to know the organization as if we are the executive director or CEO. We learn about the funders, the donors, the constituents, and stakeholders. We really take the time to understand what produces for the client — what their constituency needs are, what they respond to, how they think. We can sometimes come off a bit imperious, I think — we kind of assume an opinionated role, where we are constantly asking the client, “if it’s not producing a benefit for you, why are you doing it?”

From that we begin to craft a plan, develop messaging and identify productive channel, and create beautiful design. It is that in-depth process that I think makes our company unique. We aren't looking at a campaign just for the campaign, we’re understanding it from the various perspectives and taking that approach to creating everything we do.

RG: There can be rough waters out here for smaller design studios. How have you had to adapt?

WD: Well started out as an agency that focused exclusively on nonprofits. The goal was to help nonprofits and the community through better design and communications.

We knew that nonprofits were struggling by usually only having pro bono designers work on their work. We knew that pro bono often means work that is temporary... it doesn't understand the needs of the organization or more importantly; it doesn't understand the organization's constituents. We wanted to help them create design and messaging that understood the people they serve. That level of market research is very rarely done at the non-profit level, and it's not because of money... it's often because they don't know that they need it.

We learned that if we can better speak to the audience of the client, they can do better outreach to their constituents and further serve the community.

However, over time we realized that nonprofits are not the only ones who support the community... seed, small and medium-sized growing businesses are important for any region. So we started working with for-profit businesses that are looking to grow and bring jobs to their community. We quickly learned they are similar to nonprofits in budget and their need to understand their audience.

RG: What kind of work does the studio do?

WD: We do back-to-front communications. We do design, messaging, marketing, web development, user experience and user interface design, human-centered design… our studio wants to do it all — in large part because of that entrepreneurial mindset. Plus, we have a small but crazy good team of designers, developers, and copywriters who are really talented with a really diverse set of skills. Those diverse skill sets make our team really collaborative and allows each person to have a hand on nearly every project.

RG: What is the culture like around the office?

WD: In our work, our culture is to push our clients. We get excited when a non-profit is willing to move past what people expect of them. Nonprofits are safe by design. They don't want to offend anyone because that person may be a donor some day — and non-profits often get flack for taking risks or challenging the safe day-to-day operational model that people expect. We understand that, but we also know that every nonprofit (and for profit for that matter) is fighting for air time, for funders or customers, for volunteers or talent, so they need to stand out. You can't have a traditional annual report, you can't use traditional fundraising asks — you can't just expect what is failing before to work just because you have someone polish it with better hierarchy and type. You have to challenge yourself to look beyond what you've done, or what your peers are doing.

We get excited about helping all of our clients push past what other comparable organizations are doing. Whether that is through design or messaging, we help them to stand out and most importantly, produce the outcomes they’re looking for.

Around the office, it's kind of a mix between laid back and intense. There’s a really collegial culture… everyone in the office is a friend, obviously due to our intensive team building program of arcade basketball and video games (okay, really just FIFA). None of us have worked for another studio so we don't know what it's like elsewhere, I guess. We’ve always been people that wanted to do our own thing. We all really like it, or at least we think the employees do, because everyone sticks around.

RG: The design field in Grand Rapids is really lacking diversity and inclusion. Thoughts?

WD: If firms are going to be able to compete in the long-term they will need to have diverse teams, because all of our communities are more diverse. Agencies need to value people of color. If you're hiring a copywriter and that person is Latinx and speaks Spanish, they not only bring more value from a work perspective, but they also bring a new perspective to the agency — they deserve to be paid according to the huge value they bring into the firm.

We work with a number of black-owned businesses, and nonprofits that serve people of color. Every design or tech company likely does. We understand that we have a responsibility to work with a team that understands those communities. For instance, when we do messaging for the Latinx community, we know that we need copywriters who not only speak Spanish, but understand the specific vernacular used by the people we are speaking to. Most firms speak about “translation” — we talk about Spanish-language copywriting.

RG: What do the next five years hold for the studio?

WD: We want to grow a lot in the coming years. We are looking at doubling this year, and again next year. Once we break through the current growth ceiling, we have aims to be counted among the top boutique design firms in the area.
On the side, the agency also runs a few projects like Beer O'Clock GR (the best damn happy hour site in the world) and Featherlight (hands-off websites that help professional academics build their personal brand affordably).

We plan on these projects experiencing considerable growth in the next 12 to 18 months. We are serious about building a culture and company that values entrepreneurial thinking and produces projects that expand what we do beyond just a fee-for-service agency. Plus, getting out of our collective comfort zones makes us better at producing results for our clients at Well, since we learn an enormous amount by doing on our side projects.

RG: What is right around the corner?

WD: We are always excited about working with some of our long-term clients like the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Kids Food Basket, HQ, and Challenge Scholars (Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Grand Rapids Public Schools).

But we also are doing all the design for AIGA West Michigan’s Design Week (March 25 to April 1) and we'll be doing all the design for this year's Friends of Grand Rapids Parks' Green Gala.

We have a big campaign rolling out for Friends of Grand Rapids Parks shortly that we can't talk about yet, but we are crazy excited about that. FGRP told us to create a fun fundraising campaign for them and let us run with it; that is the kind of work we love.

This amazing city of ours continues to produce hard working and talented professionals like the team at Well Design. Let’s hope this becomes the new norm, instead of the exception.

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.

Job hunting? These tips will help your search

Searching for a new job? The prospect of a new job can be exciting (and daunting), so here are some tips to aid in your search for your new gig or career.

These recommendations can be applied pretty much across the board, no matter what job level you’re seeking or the type of career you’d like to land. Whether you’re an aspiring yogi, programmer or recent college graduate, having a method to the madness that is job hunting will always give you a leg up on the competition.


Just like any good athlete will do and tell you: don’t get ready; stay ready! Be sure to always have a current resume, always be building new contacts and strengthening old ones. As well as always learning and seek growth opportunities.

Be present in the work you are doing. You never know when you will have to ask for a recommendation. As the saying goes, find the work you love and you will never have to work again. This is very true. Although you may feel pressured to take the first high paying job that comes across, remember that a job is not necessarily a career -- and a career must cohabit with your personal life.

Increase your network. It’s not all about business card swapping; rather, aim to build meaningful relationships with a greater diversity of people. These relationships will help when searching for and securing new job opportunities. A cursory search into famous business, movie, or historical figures will show you that. Grand Rapids groups that can help you with networking include Equity DrinksBLEND and Drinks & Digital.

Do you have a mentor, coach and sponsor? Do you know the difference?

Non-profit organization Catalyst states it elegantly: “A coach talks to you; a mentor talks with you; a sponsor talks about you.”

A coach will help guide you through your career development. You can have more than one coach, and they do not necessarily have to be from your same career field.

A mentor is there to help you navigate your career choices. This relationship is often limited to fewer people, and many people often settle on one person as their mentor. Your mentor does not necessarily have to be from your career field, but having one that does often deepens the relationship and the wisdom that they provide.

A sponsor is like your promoter; they are someone in your career field that has a senior or influential status that can speak on your character, skills and experience. A sponsor must be in your career field to be effective in promoting who you are to other higher level professionals.

These relationships must be built over time and are driven by you. It can take time to find a mentor, whereas coaches can be found by asking a senior professional directly. A mentor will take time and energy to build and show that the relationship will benefit both parties. Finally the sponsor can often take more time, especially if you are still in an early development stage in your career. The first step starts with asking.

This may seem intimidating or formulaic at first, but it is a natural consequence of successful people. To add to the saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” it was also definitely not built by a single person. Behind every successful person there are countless people who have helped along the way, whether they are coaches, mentors, sponsors, contemporaries, or friends. The importance of knowing that you are not alone, and that you cannot do it all alone, is the first step in the right direction.

Volunteering, internships and side jobs are a great way to build skills, networks and experience, with the latter allowing you the extra income to build up a savings. To learn more about volunteering opportunities in and around Grand Rapids, you can go here and here for internships.

Nothing is more awkward than a cold email to a loose contact for a recommendation letter. It’s not about being a wanderer or a job nomad, but rather always following your passion and building yourself up. Some jobs will help add to your skill set, others to your network, and most to your experience, while some others are missteps. It’s OK to have a plateau where you gain your bearings and just maintain your career; life isn’t all about work. Life is meant to be lived!

Check out some of these local job boards and see if they pique your interest. If you are searching your mind for who your coach, mentor, or sponsor could be no need to rush. It takes time to build.

StartUp Jobs

City of Grand Rapids Jobs

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.


Smashing glass ceilings: The women running Grand Rapids

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington have called for a “Day Without a Woman” to coincide with an international women’s strike. This united effort is meant to recognize “the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system -- while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job security,” as the Women’s March website states.

“We recognize that trans and gender nonconforming people face heightened levels of discrimination, social oppression and political targeting,” the website goes on to say. “We believe in gender justice.”

Similar to the Day Without Immigrants and the Women’s March, the event is a chance to stand up for those in our society who have been, and continue to be, marginalized and oppressed. As part of the event, individuals can participate by: women taking the day off from paid and unpaid labor and all people supporting small, women- and minority-owned businesses.

“Let’s raise our voices together again to say that women’s rights are human rights, regardless fo a woman’s race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age, or disability,” the organizers write.

The women of our city are indispensable, and without them our very functioning would jolt to an immediate full stop. Let us take the time to recognize and honor the amazing women of our city.

Just a few of the remarkable women that work tirelessly to run our city government include: Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, Second Ward Commissioner Ruth Kelly, Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear, Economic Development Director Kara Wood, Planning Director Suzanne Schulz, Managing Director of Administration Services Mari Beth Jelks, 311 Custom Service Manager Becky Jo Glover, City Clerk Darlene O’Neal, and City Attorney Anita Hitchcock.

Below are more brilliant women who are not always in the spotlight but help shape, run and push our city forward every day. This list, of course, could go on almost endlessly, and we’d love to hear from you about the women who aren’t on here in the comments below.

Adriane JohnsonChief
Creative Director at Rebellious Creative, Membership Director at AIGA West Michigan

Andrea Napierkowski
Owner of Curly Host, Founder/Host at Doc Night

Anel Guel
Community Engagement Organizer at the City of Grand Rapids

Breannah R. Alexander
Director of Strategic Programs at Partners for a Racism Free Community

Denavvia Mojet
Board Member of Equity PAC

Heather Duffy
Exhibitions Curator at Urban Institute for Contemporary Art, Founding President of Throwbactivists

Kelsey Perdue
Program Manager at Grand Circus, Co-Chair of Equity PAC

Keyuana Rosemond
FitKids360 Program Coordinator at Health Net of West Michigan, Board Member of Equity Drinks

Kiran Sood Patel
Managing Editor of The Rapidian

LaTarro Taylor
Community Relations Coordinator at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

Lis Bokt
Executive Director of The Geek Group National Science Institute

Lisa Ann Cockrel
Director at Festival of Faith & Writing, Managing Director at Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.

Lorena Aguayo-Marquez
Adult Education at Grand Rapids Community College

Lydia VanHoven
Creative Team Leader at Meijer, Adjunct Professor at Kendall College of Art and Design, Co-founder of Grand Rapids Feminist Film Festival

Michelle Jokish-Polo
On The Ground Editor at Rapid Growth Media

Milinda Ysasi-Castanon
Executive Director of The Source, Cofounder at The Latina Network of West Michigan

Rebeca Velazquez-Publes
Director of Programs at Health Net of West Michigan, Board Member of Equity Drinks, Cofounder at The Latina Network of West Michigan

Samantha Przybylski
Welcome + Inclusion Specialist at HQ

Shorouq Almallah
Director of Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation

Steffanie Rosalez
Program Director at Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities - Cook Arts Center

With women still earning on average 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, there is still much work to be done -- even if the gender pay gap has shrunk over the decades. Grand Rapids can count itself lucky to be the home so many talented women.

Let's continue to recognize, honor and work harder for all the women in our lives who have given so much, been denied more, and have been compensated even less. The time is now.

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.


The little space that could: Snow Monster Studios aims to make GR a hub for filmmakers

If you were to walk down South Division on First Fridays, a monthly event on the first friday that is aimed at promoting businesses in Avenue of the Arts down Division, you might just miss or stop short of an amazing little space doing a great many things. In the words of the android David in the 2012 mystery sci-fi film “Prometheus,” “Big things have small beginnings.” No other phrase is more apt once you get the opportunity to tour and speak with a little team with big ideas.

The location is 222 Division Ave. South, and the team is Snow Monster Studios. This handful of young creatives from around the city and country have one thing in common, media. David Prindle, co-founder of the studio and co-working space, describes it best when he says, “We are a bunch of people trying to make awesome stuff; I make movies; other people here make podcasts, film in VR (virtual reality); and we have someone that makes props.”  

A quick look around Snow Monster’s space shows the DNA of the team. This is not the place that you bring your $8 coffee and “update your blog.” This space is raw and functional, with a secret compartment room for quiet work.

“Snow Monster Studios is the film division of our group and Snowball Studios is the podcast and marketing arm of our space,” Prindle explains.

Prindle himself teaches at Kendall College of Art & Design, runs the Snow Monster space, and works on his own projects that include an ambitious, fully immersive animated VR film. A natural maker with curiosity, Prindle sees the film industry as antiquated and full of middlemen that impede the process of innovation and art. He hopes to secure funding for his film project soon, and when asked to explain why he chose such a complex project, he replies, “Because it’s hard, no one has done it before. That’s what excites me. I can have fun figuring it all out, and still make an awesome movie.”

His ambition does not end there. Prindle aims to grow Snow Monster Studios into a bigger space that he hopes to design and build himself: a place with an audio and film studio, a co-working space, and a learning environment. He wants to get the knowledge that he has into as many hands as possible. His dream is to help make Grand Rapids a hub for filmmakers, but he is acutely aware that the makeup of the industry needs to change.

“When we don’t bring in different people, we lose out on talent,” Prindle says, describing the homogeneity of the film industry.

“I want things to change; I want to bring jobs to our city; I want to make sure people learn new skills,” Prindle adds as he talks about his vision for Snow Monster Studios.

The space is currently available for memberships, although some have already moved in, and some of the benefits of joining the space are as follows:
 
  • First consideration for hire when Snow Monster Studios receives paid work.
  • Powerful rendering machine
  • Motion capture software and system
  • Access to film equipment
  • Reservation of studio
  • Photography space
  • Event space reservation

With memberships on a six-month or 12-month agreement and price ranging from as low as $30 for students and $250 for 24/7 access, the studio is highly competitive given the co-working landscape in Grand Rapids.

Snowball Studios itself will be having its launch party this Thursday, March 2nd from 6-9pm and will be a great chance to meet the entire team and tour the amazing little space they have literally carved out for themselves on South Division.

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.
 

Game on! National sports event to draw tens of thousands of visitors to Grand Rapids

The 2017 State Games of America host title could have gone to sunny San Diego or Virginia Beach, but the Great Lakes State showed up to claim that moniker this year.

On its 10th anniversary, West Michigan Sports Commission President Mike Guswiler and the rest of his team are bursting at the seams with excitement to bring this event that draws tens of thousands of visitors to Grand Rapids. This national event will replace the 2017 Meijer State Games- Summer Games.

The State Games of America is a biennial four-day event that will run from Aug. 3 through Aug.6 and attracts well over 12,000 athletes from more than 40 states and Canada. Athletes who have previously won medals at their own respective Summer Games state competitions are invited to this national event. These athletes participate in over 50 sports competitions throughout the course of the games, with spectator numbers tripling at 30,000 spectators. This single event has the potential to impact our region’s economy to the tune of an estimated $9.5 million.

“This year we’re combining our State Games with the State Games of America, and that’s going to bring three to four thousand more athletes on top of our regular 8,000. It’s like the Olympics for sports in our state, and the premise is that all ages and all abilities can participate,” says Guswiler.

While the two primary venues will be the Van Andel Arena (which will host the opening ceremonies) and the DeVos Place Convention Center (where the event’s “Athlete Village” will be), athletes will be competing at venues throughout a multi-county area. As we all know with hungry athletes come hungry bellies, and our city’s extensive food variety should be prepared to take the onslaught of an army of 12,000 people who have spent their days doing everything from synchronized swimming and soccer to judo and kickball. Armed with tamales, tacos, barbecue, gyros, ramen, and kielbasa, our region’s local restaurants can expect a good summer.

The event registration will be open to all ages and abilities, although team sports will require athletes to register as teams. Registration info will be coming soon.

With all this coming excitement to the region you might ask yourself, what is the West Michigan Sports Commission? Well, it is a non-profit that, according to a press statement, “works to identify, secure, and host a diverse level of youth and amateur sporting events to make a positive impact on the economy and quality of life in the region.” The WMSC, founded in 2007, has booked 568 sporting events and tournaments that attracted 880,000 athletes and visitors, generating $240 million in direct visitor spending to the region.

Although the group operates in Kent, Ottawa, and Muskegon Counties, its primary focus is in the Kent County - greater Grand Rapids area. Michigan had the Great Lakes State Games in the late 80s and 90s, which were bolstered by government and some private funding, but the model was unsustainable and it shuttered.

The National Congress of State Games, which runs the State Games of America, started when governors sought to activate their populus formed, but the government funding dried up as handoff from one administration to another became difficult and the vision for the games became cloudy. Through all this history, the WMSC and many other states have formed a resurgence in youth and amateurs sports throughout the country.

Even with the securing of the 2017 State Games of America, the WMSC team is still hard at work to bring even more events to our region. The work never stops, and here are just some of the events that are already booked for the rest of the 2017 year:
 
When asked if WMSC is looking to expand their reach into less traditional sports, Guswiler states “Oh yes, we have looked into BMX, standup paddle-boarding, even drone racing and e-gaming sports. It’s all on our radar. Our effort is to market this destination for youth and amateur travel sport.”

So, be sure to lace up those sneakers, find all the spandex in your closet, and start warming up for this summer’s State Games of America coming to Grand Rapids.

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.

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
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