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Little Space Studio changing their approach to creative co-working

If you were view Little Space Studio’s (LSS) original plans for their first two years, founder Alysha White would have have simply called it a workshop space.

“It’s one thing to just host a workshop –– it’s another thing to design a space where people can just come in and host their own workshops, or host their own meetings or events,” says White. “We thought it was so clean-cut to be say, ‘Here’s your workshop space, here’s where you actually do your work, here’s your desk,’ but there’s so much grey area there.”

“We were so surprised at how many different ways we would have a meetup and how many different ways we could host a workshop. And we’re not scared of that, but it does take a lot of consideration –– everything from liability to someone’s comfort level, to just making sure the space is readily available for anyone. There’s just so much design and thought and consideration in that process, that we just had no idea.”

Reflecting on how the city has changed over time and how the population engages with these changes, has also been one of the catalysts for how LSS would approach their work.

“I feel like two years ago, there was already this energy to try to change the organic community,” says White. “You saw the energy there, but you didn’t see a lot of that cross-pollination or bridge-building happening, and I still think we struggle with that.”

So, as many businesses tend to do, LSS has shifted its purpose of being more exact in how they want to serve the creative
community of Grand Rapids.

Since opening its doors in 2016 at 401 Hall St., their team has migrated to 111 Division Ave S. –– a multi-level, industrial-like space with more than enough room to dream big. By the end of the summer, the first floor will be open for use by members and the general public, where the most engagement will incur through co-working, programming, and the general opportunity for connecting with others. A fully-functioning sound studio will be installed, which White says will allow guest podcasters and guest broadcasters to engage with their space.

Reconstruction of the third floor will follow after, where various conference rooms and studios will be located.

Although there will be an emphasis on the visual appeal and resources the space will offer to its patrons, a special focus will be placed on allowing a diverse crowd of people to find their niche at LSS. Simple things, White explains, from integrating arts and technology into their programming, to providing a choice in snacks between ramen noodles and gluten-free muffins, are humanistic details that have pulled the variety of people who have participated in the space to continuously return. 

“I’m hoping that LSS becomes a go-to space in the Grand Rapids community to connect with whatever industry they’re in,” says White. “We’re not industry specific, but we are specific to the mindset of, ‘I am a creative person, this is how I define myself,’ and whether that is through coping, painting, or anything else, we want people to feel like they can get the beat of Grand Rapids [by] coming to our space.”

Photos courtesy Little Space Studio.

LOFT fulfills niche for tech software aftercare

Each day, the tech industry is bustling with new ideas, paired with individuals who are eager to craft them into tangible and useful platforms. These platforms, ranging from applications to software systems, are built from the ground up, in hopes of making a progressive contribution to the world. However, such platforms require a continuous amount of nurturing and aftercare at their core –– a particular set of skills that may not be as prominent in the individuals who initially created the platform. This is where the company Lots of Freaking Talent (LOFT) steps in to give a helping hand.

LOFT Vice President of Sales Brian Anderson describes their niche in the tech landscape as property managers. “When you think of support, it’s easier to think of what it’s like to rent an apartment or house, and if you think about what property managers do with the owners of property, that’s what we do for software systems,” he says.

“Someone that’s building either internally when they’re a startup and they’re running it or they’ve acquired it, and they want someone to manage it and support it for them so that they don’t have to take all the calls from the tenants and all of the flashback; they can focus on the big picture and we can just provide them with support.”

Anderson, who grew up in Grand Rapids and studied computer information systems at Western Michigan University, has long held an interest in the tech field. Over time, he has worked with companies such as Nusoft and OST, until eventually moving into the CEO position of Augusto Digital, a tech company more focused on the initial development end of software. LOFT was then borne out of Augusto Digital, launching in 2018 to help tech companies elevate and maintain the core functionality of their software over time.

Anderson says he and his team identified the need for tech support amongst their own projects when they realized it required a new set of processes, and an overall way of engaging.

“...those people are going to go from one project to the next, one build to the next, and they’re trained to build something over and over again, whereas [with] support, you have to be reactive,” says Anderson.

LOFT offers two tiers of support: the first maintaining the general wellness of the software, and the second, working toward actively improving what already exists.

The end result is one that satisfies an overlooked discipline in the aftermath of a new software, and also lends software developers the freedom to focus solely on the innovation of their platform. Ideally, this will allow these tech companies in Grand Rapids to quickly and effectively push new concepts forward, and to extend their network of skill sets beyond the initial startup of their platforms.

Images provided by LOFT. 

 

Recognizing Muskegon's bright, entrepreneurial future

Over nearly two decades, Muskegon has seen an upward progression in its economic climate. More recently, in the last three or four years, Grand Valley State University's Muskegon Innovation Hub has intentionally reached out to the community, offering themselves up as a resource to push forth the tools necessary for self-starting success. Since then, the hub has seen their clients establish and sustain their own businesses, investing their ideas back into the Lakeshore. Such investment has born measurable change within the community, expressed through the frequency of shops and restaurants found revitalizing the area.

As a result, the Hub has declared 2019 as the first year that will celebrate a Lakeshore Innovator of the Year, a ceremony recognizing and awarding the creativity and innovation present within their community. Nominations will be open to single-person entrepreneurs, small or large companies, and non-profits.

“This first year, we’re casting a wide net,” says Muskegon Innovation Hub Director Kevin Ricco. “It’s speaking to anything innovative that hasn’t been done or hasn’t been brought up before, that has that creative and innovative drive attached to it.”
Ricco described downtown as once being “a giant sandbox,” but now, “You go downtown today, there are cranes constructing large six-story buildings, and older buildings being renovated to house new businesses.”

However, the type of businesses Muskegon’s landscape is able to foster continues to reshape, as well.

“Longer Days, a company that graduated here from the Hub a couple of years ago, is a company that focuses on virtual offices,” says Ricco. “They have a central location in downtown Muskegon, but their clients are all over the globe, quite literally.”

Overall, Ricco says during the last couple of years, there has been approximately $5 billion worth of projects either planned or in action for the greater Muskegon area.

The Hub will be taking nominations up until January 31 (nominations can be submitted here), then in February, their advisory committee will narrow down the nominations to five finalists, with one selected winner. On March 14th, the ceremony event will be hosted at the Hub facility, where all five finalists and the winner will be recognized.

“The number of people who have graduated from our program, continue to contribute to the Muskegon community, and now are renting all this space — we’re starting to see some of the fruits of that effort,” says Ricco.

Images courtesy of Muskegon Innovation Hub.

Students address "wicked" problems in Wege Prize competition

Since 2013, the Wege Prize competition has awarded teams a cash prize for their solutions for solving “wicked” problems –– problems, the competition describes, that are "considerably resistant to resolution." These are issues that, once under inspection, unveil an entirely new network of issues that must be resolved as well.

“Wicked problems are systemic, which means they both affect and are affected by a broad diversity of people, places, institutions, and fields of knowledge,” says Wege Prize Organizer Gayle DeBruyn. “The more you broaden your perspective, the better you will be able to understand and address these complex problems.”

The competition is broken into four phases: the first phase consists of two essays, one describing an entrant’s desire for entering the competition, and the other outlining the research plan of the problem being addressed. The second phase is the project summary first draft, or the means by which the solution will be brought to life. The third phase is a revision of the summary draft, and the fourth phase is the final draft and presentation to judges and a live audience.

Each year, the competition receives between 50 and 80 applicants, and have more recently allowed participation from graduate students and students attending university internationally.

“Due to the educational nature of the competition, we accept all qualified teams and encourage them to move forward through each phase, using the judges’ feedback to grow their understanding and develop their solutions,” says DeBruyn.

Each team is comprised of five members who choose a world issue they want to solve. This year, the teams, which were announced on December 6, will create a business model based on a circular economy.

“A circular economy is restorative by design,” says DeBruyn. “It is globally recognized as the most viable alternative to the linear economy, and is powered by the same transdisciplinary approach required of Wege Prize teams.”

In a circular economy, products should maintain their highest utility and value as a way to maximize their output, saving both money and energy. In this same way, businesses and services mirror the same model and overall, create an efficient work cycle, from the perspective of monetary value and eco-friendly operation.

In comparison, the linear economic system, which is the primary business model seen in practice today, relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy. In this model, natural resources are used in abundance but very rarely restored, taking away from the long-term sustainability of our present economy.

Following the model of the circular economy, the 2018 Wege winners generated a solution to eco-tourism in Mexico, protecting the environment and the rights of indigenous communities, all while creating fiscal gain. 2017 winners created a food and beverage processing plant which converted organic waste products into animal feed and fertilizer. Outside of the competition itself, DeBruyn says it’s encouraging to see teams develop their ideas beyond the Wege Prize.

The 2018 first-place winners are currently rolling out their online platform to real-world customers, and the 2017 first-place winners are currently selling the product they developed.

“Wege Prize participants are empowered with a bold new way of looking at and tackling problems that may seem impossible to solve,” says DeBruyn. “The more people there are who not only believe that a better future is possible, but who are actively equipped to help us get there, the closer we get to making that future a reality.”

Photos courtesy of Wege Prize. 

Lessons in creativity and entrepreneurship with Carbon Stories

Carbon Stories, the creative agency focused on storytelling through photo and video, has grown in size, audience, and content in only three years. As the company continues to shape its identity, learning at a young stage what it takes to be better, more innovative each day, there is one thing that is certain:

“There are times where I’ll sit here and just watch videos about cameras or about lighting or about process, but really, in order to grow, I have to be producing it,” creative director and founder Erik Lauchié says. “I could watch these videos all day, or sit in a class all day, but our field is what you’re creating, so I’ve got to create more.”

Carbon Stories’ monochromatic space sits on Bridge Street facing the road, where large windows pull in just the right amount of sunlight. A friendly husky named Bella strolls around the front room, waiting to be tended to. Only four of the 10 Carbon employees are physically in the building, not counting the reservoir of 17 creators called upon for projects. Lauchié says, “On an average day, there’s something going on in the studio, people in here working, and [there’s] always stuff outside, shoot-wise.”

Carbon creator Allayah Quinn says one of her favorite things about being at Carbon Stories is that someone is always there creating.

“You could come here at 6 a.m. and someone will probably be here until 2 a.m.,” Quinn says.

This approach to the workplace is one of many elements that makes Carbon Stories stand out. It allows freedom for each employee to develop their skills the best way they know how, fostering their creativity in whatever form it may come. Additionally, their can-do attitude forms a team of people comfortable with where they lie on the spectrum of creativity, and pushing forth the mantra of constantly evolving.

“Creatively, something I feel that you should always have as a mindset at Carbon is that you’ll never stop evolving,” says Quinn. She says she always tells her story, especially to the younger generation who wants to work in a similar field, that she “never touched a camera until she came here for college.”

In the beginning, the company pulled in clientele by personally going business-to-business, person-to-person, handing people their business cards and telling them what they do. Lately, most of their clients come from word of mouth, like a domino-effect: one well-executed project leads them to another handful of clients, and so on.

However, Lauchié says, one thing he has learned is that the process of establishing new clients and successfully completing projects never ends. It is a constant process, but has gotten easier as Carbon Stories has become an integral part of his life.

“I remember when it first started, I just didn’t think about it that way,” he says. “...but I’ve learned you’ve got to be ready to talk about it, you’ve got to be ready to answer questions about it, and think through things. All the time, even when I’m just talking in conversation with someone, they’ll ask me something that I may have a good surface answer to, and then I’ll go back to it and go, 'Well wait, how do I address that?' [I am] always needing to find more solutions and continuing to grow.”

Over just the past year, the company has opened more doors of opportunity to experiment with the true meaning behind what entrepreneurship and creativity mean in terms of Carbon Stories and the Grand Rapids community as a whole. They have been more avid of direct involvement with the community, hosting various workshops for content creation and the use of photo equipment and software, as well as using their name as a platform to provoke and inspire. In just the past couple of months, Lauchié participated in an influencer panel at Madcap Coffee Company, spoke at Start Garden, and almost every week as a team, they go to the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) to give students feedback and assistance on their video projects — Lauchié even went on to produce his own podcast called Create Daily, where he explores ideas of what art means to other creatives.

For each month of this year, the group has been able to travel out of state for client work –– something they were only able to do twice in 2017. Earlier in the year, they were donated a truck they named Mobile 1202, which they use as a mobile photo studio and hope to change the way they do business with clients, both inside and outside of Michigan. In addition, every Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., they host a networking night through an organization they are part of called PLUG (People Learning, Understanding, and Growing), which they use as a tool to connect with other creatives in Grand Rapids. Eventually, the collective wants it to be a space where they have resources available to people to use, such as a photography studio or a sewing station for clothing.

“It’s still in its baby stages, but that still answers that question of how do we connect,” says Lauchié. “There’s a board of five people who run it and I knew it was bigger than Carbon because this is something that crosses industries.”

To learn more about Carbon Stories as the company continues to learn and grow, visit their website at http://carbonstories.us/.

Images courtesy of Carbon Stories.

Gr8 Lks: Time is money in an effort to clean and preserve the Great Lakes

For business owners under oath of their mission statement, the basis of their discipline is derived from the type of future they envision for their community. As this new age of consumers shift, and business owners are encouraged to use their principals and values as the face of their company, entrepreneurs are becoming more comfortable with allowing their cause to be at the forefront of their business model, as opposed to championing marketing that caters to money and consumption alone.

The newly founded Gr8 Lks apparel company based in Muskegon, co-owned by Andrew Mann and Pete Gawkowski, centers its ideals around the environmental well-being and sustainability of the Great Lakes. The clothing is constructed from both organic cotton and recycled materials, and for every consumer’s dollar that is spent, a minute of time is matched dedicated to cleaning up the shore lines and waters of the Great Lakes. Despite being a for-profit company, the partners pride themselves on their incentive to put their money toward a greater cause — one that can be monetized on a visible scale.

“Yes, we’re a for-profit, we are chasing the dollar because we’re chasing a sale, but you’re seeing it in action,” says Mann. “We’re not just telling you we’re donating, you physically see it because our business and our company is built on proving to the consumer that we are following through on our word.”

The idea for Gr8 Lks, Mann says, was a culmination of many things, ranging from his background in retail, and their overall interest in environmental sustainability.

Mann explains that although the Great Lakes are strongly associated with Michigan, one of their long-term goals is to bring awareness to other states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, and even Canada who, like Michigan, have an identity connected to the Great Lakes, but that is often left out of the conversation.

The number eight within their logo, Mann says, unintentionally represents the eight states connected to the Great Lakes; however, they hope to stretch their efforts beyond that.

Aside from their promise of matching every dollar to every minute, their goal is to continue pushing the agenda of environmental education, and to “bring in a group of people that’s big enough, so that we can make a big dent in this issue,” says Gawkowski.

Though the apparel-brand is still in its early stages, its impact is already evident — the reaping of an idea slowly coming into fruition.

“Last year, if my oldest son would’ve walked past a piece of trash, he probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it but now, if I walk down a street or the beach and he sees a piece of trash, the first thing he says is, ‘Dad can we pick that up?’” says Gawkowski. “I think that little things of just him learning that this could make stuff better in the future is a pretty big thing for me.”

Images courtesy of Gr8 Lks.

$50K contract renewal fuels Local First's goals of inclusion and equity

In July, it was announced that the City of Grand Rapids Economic Development Corporation (EDC) will renew its contract with Local First, the non-profit organization that works with businesses to develop their core values, reflecting that of the greater surrounding community. The contract renewal doubled the EDC’s commitment — from $25,000 to $50,000. These funds will be allocated toward the organization’s Good for Grand Rapids campaign.

Good for Grand Rapids is an initiative designed to develop and sustain progressive practices within local West Michigan businesses. One of their main approaches to beginning to integrate these practices is the Quick Impact Assessment, a tool that measures the type of social equity present in the workplace, and how it can be improved.

Through these newfound connections, Local First plans to work with larger employers to identify where they invest their money, and to maximize goods and services on a local level to circulate wealth and resources within the community.

“...addressing that systemic change is gonna create a big, huge wave effect, I think, and [will] start getting money in the hands of people who need it most, and who have businesses that they’re being intentional with,” says Local First’s program and fund development manager Hanna Schulze.

One of the focal points of the Good for Grand Rapids campaign is intentionality in all forms: financial, environmental, social, and more. Schulze says she recognizes a shift in consumer behavior, in which more people are becoming concerned about the moral makeup and practices of the businesses at which they spend their money.

“We have a huge amount of businesses that are owned by white, middle-aged individuals, and we don’t have a representative percentage of businesses owned by people of color, by veterans, by women, by the LGBTQ community, etcetera,” says Schulze. “That’s something that we’ve recognized through our work with locally owned businesses … We’re not only trying to change that by putting capital resources and social resources in the hands of communities of color, women entrepreneurs, etcetera, but also to address the businesses that already exist — how they can be more intentional with what they’re doing?”

She notes that although economic development is important, it is necessary to ask if the businesses built out of these already disenfranchised communities will be empowered or further excluded.

Using the results and resources gathered from the Quick Impact Assessment and Good for Grand Rapids campaign overall, Local First strives to make businesses more conscious of these issues, with the hope of putting more ethical practices into motion.

Despite the disproportionate amount of businesses and organizations that do not accurately represent the demographics of the Grand Rapids area, Good for Grand Rapids has slowly begun fostering a community of diversity and inclusion over the past few years. This includes assisting companies in their path toward becoming B Corporations, certified institutions committed to extending intentional practices beyond the workplace.

“Since Local First’s quick impact assessment and related programming began in 2014, the BCorp community has grown from three BCorps to 19 in the west Michigan community," says Schulze. "The community of BCorps was strengthened in part by the resources and engagement opportunities provided to the businesses by Local First.”

The sentiment behind this movement of social equity and intentionality is optimistic, as one of the goals within the agreement between the EDC and Local First is for half of the businesses in Grand Rapids to take the Quick Impact Assessment within the next five years.

“We have people throughout the city helping us with that goal, but that is one of the deliverables,” Schultze says. “We have specific deliverables: inclusion and equity. This means the intentional employment of people from the Black, Hispanic, and underserved populations, and that specifically is referring to a certain census tract that has higher unemployment rates and a lower per capita income rate.”

However ambitious of a goal this may seem, the consensus is that, because consumers are seeking out businesses whose moral ideals are in alignment with their own, it is forcing the head of businesses to evolve with their audience. Schultze explains that this idea of a world in which employer practices bleed into the real world, outside of the workplace, is “no longer conceptual.” More specifically, tools like the Quick Impact Assessment are providing businesses with the honest insight they need to become more sensible to the world changing around them.

Images courtesy of Local First.

Muse GR renovates an idea: From adult bookstore, to photography studio, to interactive art gallery

For the past 50 years, the building at 727 Leonard St NW housed a windowless, closed-off adult bookstore, of which its neighboring community was not a fan. However, over the past year, the building was purchased, renovated, and transformed into an interactive art gallery, now known as Muse GR, by Stephen Smith, who owns photography company Executive Visions and works in Grand Rapids Public Schools, and Taylor Smith, writer for the marketing and communications team of World Renew. The ribbon cutting was held on Friday, May 18th at 12pm.

Originally, Stephen says, the sole use of the building was for a photography studio that would be broken into three different spaces in which to conduct photoshoots.

“We saw the need for that because all the places [photography studios] that were open would close down after a while,” says Stephen. “I would interview the owners and they would say the overhead was too high. So that’s kind of how we got the idea—if we can leverage the cost by actually buying the property, as opposed to renting it out, then we wouldn’t have to be worried about closing down.”

Additionally, the couple wanted to create a space where everyone would feel comfortable.

“The need, I would say, came out of us being a part of different studios around the area and Stephen doing photography, and not feeling like we were always welcomed,” says Taylor. “Or, feeling like there wasn’t a community feel to these different spaces. We felt limited. We don’t want people to feel like they’re excluded.”

Throughout the process of reconstructing both the physical appearance and the conceptual use of the space, the two took business classes to perfect their business model, sought out an architect and construction company who best complemented how they wanted to bring their vision to life, and surveyed different photographers about their thoughts on the space.

Many of the resources and support they received were from local organizations, including Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, who lent advice about navigating city policies and the commercial side of real estate, and Start Garden, who recently awarded Stephen and Taylor funding from their 100 Ideas pitch contest.

Eventually, the primary focus of the space shifted from being used as a photography studio, to being used for an art gallery and a place to hold events, workshops, classes, and more. Stephens says they want the community to generate ideas for events to host in the space in the future.

In the near-future, they are looking to collaborate with various artists, both local and national, to create a platform for pop-up art, live art, and speaker series.

Additionally, they hope to change the community’s perception of how they are able to create something of value to themselves and their community.

“There are things people want to change in the city or to add to the city, and they have the ideas, but they don’t realize they have the power to do it,” says Taylor. “So I just hope it encourages other young people to do what’s in their heart.”

On June 1, Muse GR will open its doors from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. to the public.

SLSA Creative Agency seeks to push the agenda of creativity

Last month, clustered in a sector of the Rising Grinds Café, were a handful of dreamy-eyed entrepreneurs and creatives, eager to learn about the outline, or as SLSA Creative Agency titled it, The Blueprint, of steps necessary to pursue your career. SLSA founder Shayna Harris talked about how the organization’s target audience—creatives, entrepreneurs, and millennials—often lack the funding for full branding of their ideas. Additionally, Harris invited speakers to share their takes on brand development, including founder of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses Jamiel Robinson, and GRNow founder CJ Devries.

With the Blueprint, the first of many in a series of workshops in brand building, she aims to provide others with a foundation of skill sets for pursuing their career. However, The Blueprint is only one of a multitude of ways in which SLSA is trying to serve the community of Grand Rapids.

SLSA Creative agency is an organization functioning much like a public relations firm, focusing on the branding and marketing, creative design, and event production of persons pursuing a career in the creative field.

“The name, SLSA, is our promise to our clients that we work on the branding and marketing side, that we promise strategy to prolong longevity, style, and ambition,” says Harris. Simply put, the mission “is to keep creatives, creative.”

The idea for SLSA was born out of a need to pave the way for more creative pursuits in Grand Rapids. She explained that because there are a lot of creatives in the city who do not have access to resources for developing their brand, the organization strives to become that resource which, at times, is challenging.

“There’s no other businesses to really collaborate with,” Harris says. “When you’re the only one creating an agency that says, ‘Hey, I just want to support you,’ you’re doing a lot of digging.”

“This is what Grand Rapids lacks, so I just finally decided [on starting the organization] because I’ve seen a lot of my friends leave to go to L.A. and Chicago because there’s just more opportunity there for creatives. Whether you rap, you sing, you write, you paint—whatever it is—there’s just no lane for it here.”

The team is made up of three women, Harris included, who hone in on the organization’s ideology of versatility and diversity. Harris takes on the responsibility of meeting with clients and coming up with strategies to figure out what direction their brand needs to go in, another visually brings to life the campaign for the brand, and the third typically handles the demands of human resources and business development. Together, the three range in skills, physical appearance, and age, in order to create a triad of perspectives.

“We want the creatives in our community to feel supported, so when I bring people to my table for SLSA, I want that represented and I want our clients to see that represented, and I want the creatives that we highlight to feel welcome, even if they don’t look like me,” Harris says.

In the next couple of months, SLSA seeks to extend their efforts into a physical space, where they hope foster an environment for collaboration amongst other creatives within Grand Rapids.

Photos courtesy of SLSA Creative Agency.

Working in the City: Angela Nelson

As we get into the full swing of this new year with our new resolutions and goals we at Rapid Growth are set to continue to bring you stories from the heart of our city. 

We kick off this year with a powerful woman who keeps a blistering pace of work and activities throughout the city. We were able to chat with Experience GR and 616 Grand Production’s Angela Nelson about how she spends her days, what she is working on, and get serious with career talk.

RG: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

AN: I’m a proud native of Flint, Michigan—born and raised. When I moved to West Michigan in 1998, I knew very little about this side of the state...I’ll always be a Flintstone.

I’m a lifelong learner and will always have a love for problem solving, but early on in my career I knew I equally had a passion for people. This passion eventually led to a career change and I discovered a role that would change the course of my career for the better.

RG: Where do you work and how are you involved in our local community?

AN: I currently work at Experience Grand Rapids, an organization that markets Grand Rapids as a destination to visitors, which includes the leisure traveler, group tours, and conventions attendees. This past March, after working at Amway for ten years, I was hired as the first Vice President of Multicultural Business Development. I am primarily responsible for leading our community relations, workforce development, and diversity and inclusion initiatives.

My dear friend, Milinda Ysasi-Castañon encouraged me to apply and said, “Angela, it’s as if they wrote the job description just for you.” I applied, and the rest is history, literally and figuratively.

My community involvement has always been a function of my jobs, but it goes much deeper for me. I really enjoy coalition building and supporting community initiatives that make sense given my passions and skill sets. I’ve begun to really focus my talent, time, and treasures on issues advocating for women and girl empowerment and voter empowerment/get out the vote efforts. 

I co-chair a non-partisan collaborative called PROACTIVE, which stands for People Reaching Out and Coming Together Increasing Voter Engagement since 2004. We bring other non-partisan groups together during major election cycles to do voter registration, education, and engagement.

I am also the President of the Grand Rapids Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. We are a black letter Greek organization whose mission is committed to the constructive development of its members but with a primary focus of social change in the black community. Our local chapter will be celebrating the 50th year of our charter in November. 
It’s a very exciting time for the work that I’m doing, but I stand on the shoulders of so many in this community that I’d be remiss to think that I’m doing this alone or without the understanding that so many have come before me.I simply see that what I’m doing is continuing the work of those silent and not so silent giants in this community.

RG: Why did you decide to start your own business?

AN: 616 Grand Productions is my baby. I announced the start of the company on June 18, 2016, but the first event, which was wildly successful, didn’t take place until July. 616 Grand Productions is an events management and production company that produces fun and affordable experienced-based events. We strive to create experiences that you can readily create on your own, integrating the latest and trendiest technologies like our Silent Disco event during ArtPrize last year. Each event always has a giveback element where either proceeds from a ticket or a flat donation amount is given to the selected charity. One day I aspire to compete as the only minority and woman owned production company in the city.

The reason that 616 Grand Productions even came to be is because after leaving Amway, I made so many amazing community connections during my grant making and community relations tenure at Amway, and I simply didn’t want to let them go.

RG: As a woman of color (WoC) what current issues are most pressing to you?

AN: As a young black woman in Grand Rapids, I have been relatively successful in my career. But I’ve been dealt my share of obstacles, road bumps, workplace microaggressions, and more. However, I have been able to overcome these things by focusing on the one person I can control, which is me. 

A few thoughts, mantras, quotes I live by:
  • In the recent words of Oprah during her acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards, “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” I’m learning to not only speak my truth, but to live my truth.
  • I want women of color to better support each other, especially black women. We are often the most vilified group of people, so the last thing we can afford is not to support one another. I love the work that Shannon Cohen and Pat VerDuin are doing with Sisters Who Lead and their work to “amplify the longevity, wellness, and leadership of female leaders of color within West Michigan.”
RG: What has been your career path, growth, and obstacles?
AN: Some would wonder how does one make such a drastic switch, and I will say each time it was in God’s plans for me. He’s opened every door that I’ve been able to walk through.

My technical undergraduate degree coupled with my MBA and my solid 15 years of work experience has equipped me to do my current job.

My first career job was at Mercantile Bank. I worked there for a total of five years in a combination of roles from the IT intern to Customer Service Rep back to a technician in the IT department.

I worked at Amway for a total of 10 years, starting as a grant maker, responsible for managing the funding local non-profits to my last job as an Assistant Brand Manager for the Amway Brand Opportunity in Amway North America.

The most valuable lesson that I learned while working for Amway was to be more strategic about my professional development. Hard work doesn’t go unseen, but it’s the smart workers that get rewarded.

The last stop on my career journey is now with Experience Grand Rapids. And I’m loving it. I value the relationship I have with the leadership team and the staff. I’m looking forward to seeing the fruits of my labor come to fruition this year.

As for obstacle, generally the only obstacle I’ve ever faced is my own feeling of inadequacy. The fear of not being good enough or smart enough in comparison to my competition. But each time that I’ve leaped into my next role, I leaped with only my mustard seed faith. I was reminded by a friend that, “God does not call the qualified. He qualifies the called.” When I heard that, I immediately began to thank God for increasing my territory and putting me in the path to receive what he’s already blessed me with. 

This level of confidence is new for me, but I’m embracing one day at a time.

RG: What plans do you have for your business this year?

AN: 616 Grand Productions is still a startup business that requires much more nurturing. I am ready to take it to the next level. I’ve jotted down some goals of launching a website this year and hiring a few interns to support the bandwidth of work that I’m just not capable of supporting. I have to decline work because I simply don’t have the personal bandwidth, so it’s time to bring people that can help execute my vision for the business but also add their own spin on things.

Anyone can follow 616 Grand Productions on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @616grandprod. As well as subscribe to a newsletter via Facebook.

This Friday, January 12th Nelson will be hosting a Girls Night Out private movie screening of Proud Mary in partnership with Magic 104.9 and Celebration! Cinema. Come out this Friday at 6:00 pm for the pre-party in the wave room with the movie starting at 7:55 pm. Tickets are on sale now at www.celebrationcinema.com or email info@616grandproductions.com for more information.

Experience GR hosts the largest events calendar on www.experiencegr.com. They can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat @ExperienceGR  and on Instagram here. Lastly, be sure to read the blog The Insider Experience for a great way to keep up to date on all the great places to eat, stay and play in 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.

Images courtesy of Angela Nelson.

StartUp Spotlight: Wodul

Quiet giants are the companies that find themselves in niche markets and carve out a space for themselves to grow into slowly. Search Engine Optimization is how local West Michigan company Wodul is making their bones in the entrepreneurial tech space.

Wodul’s team is comprised of Eric Hendrickson, Geraldo Gonzalez, Tim Charron, and Thom McGuire. Two years in development and six months after their launch Wodul continues to grow.

We sat down with Wodul’s Founder & CEO Eric Henrickson to talk a bit about the company’s purpose and what they are currently up to.

RG: How did the Wodul start?

W: My background is in lead generation through digital marketing, which I've been involved in since 2006. At one time I managed over 800 landing pages (one-page websites) that received thousands of visitors and generated hundreds of leads daily for health insurance agents all over the country. After Healthcare Reform passed, agent commissions dropped by nearly 70 percent and as a result, agents could no longer afford to purchase leads. My focus then shifted toward helping all types of business generate more customers online by maximizing their search visibility on Google, Bing, Yahoo and 70 plus other digital endpoints. (Waiting for founding date)

RG: What was the inspiration behind Wodul?

W: In February 2016, Google changed its SERP (Search Engine Result Page) display to eliminate PPC (pay per click) based ads on the right rail, which sent many marketers into a panic. Business owners would now have two choices for getting found online: buy ads on Google or pay an SEO firm $2000-$5000 per month to help optimize their web presence. I saw a better way, and a game-changing opportunity to leverage my skills and resources to essentially level the playing field for local business through a responsive microsite chassis that leverages content credibility to improve the search rankings of a business—which resulted in the creation of Wodul™.

Wodul™ delivers a smarter approach to getting businesses found online. Each microsite employs the latest SEO best practices to optimize and index content independently to web crawlers while leveraging the power of our trusted domain to achieve top ranking on major search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo sooner and without the need for any technical background.  

RG: What is Wodul’s mission?

W: We are focused on helping Michigan local businesses utilize Wodul™ Microsites to maximize online search visibility and connect with more new customers. In addition, each month we're hosting a half day SEO workshop where we teach attendees winning online marketing strategies that can be tremendous in helping boost a company’s bottom line. 

RG: Where is Wodul headquartered and why?

W: Our offices are located in downtown Grand Rapids. I was born and raised in the here in Grand Rapids and there is an excitement, innovative culture and buzzing nightlife that makes downtown such a fun, inspiring place to work.

RG: What is on the horizon for you and your team?

W: Our plans are to slowly expand our footprint to other major cities with offices already starting in Indianapolis.

RG: What has been the most difficult aspect of this business so far? What has been the most rewarding?

W: Our most difficult challenge is finding enough talented people to keep up with the insatiable demand for our services. There is nothing more frustrating than having to tell someone we are backlogged one to two weeks before we can start their project. The most rewarding part of what we do is taking a business from minimal search visibility to outranking their competitors' sites and seeing how empowering it makes them feel. It's just amazing!

You can find Wodul online here.

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.

Blaquebox - A new way of #buyingBlack and boosting the economy for all

As Black Entrepreneurship month wraps up, we want to share with you another way members of our community are addressing lack of economic capital and empowering their communities through something as simple as a “Blaquebox,” a subscription box of products sold by black-owned businesses delivered to your door in a black box.

Sonja Forte, resident of Grand Rapids and founder of “Blaquebox,” is using her entrepreneurial skills to build wealth within the black community while creating an easily accessible opportunity to buy from black-owned businesses. According to Forte, the long-term impact for the Blaquebox is a mindset change.

“Unfortunately, Black people have been told and often times, convinced that they are subpar, unworthy, not enough, and incapable. The goal is to restore and rebuild confidence, pride, and faith in our community. The mindset change will spill over to the economic arena,” says Forte.

According to a 2015 study from The Pew Research Center, based on an analysis of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, black individuals earn about 75 percent of what white individuals earn per hour. In other words, for every $1.00 a white man makes, a black man makes 75 cents. The wage gap is even greater among women: white women on average earn $17 per hour and black women are at a $13 per hour. When using our economic capital to buy from black-owned businesses, we help employ more black people and consequently, become a part of wealth-building for communities who have been systematically excluded from accessing equitable economic capital.

For the cost of $44 dollars every other month, subscribers receive three to five products to their doors. Each box has a specific theme for that time of the year.

“May was a brunch-themed box (there are a lot of Mother's day brunches) which included a Waffle Mix from Alaska, a Lapel Pin, Organic Honey, Fennel Seeds, Wax Melts, and a Chicken Fry Mix (what are waffles without chicken?),” says Forte.

Customers can also purchase special, one-time boxes at various price points. Products are sourced from across the globe, including from the city of Grand Rapids. Additionally, folks can find out through social media information about various black-owned business, causes, and community initiatives.

“My hope is that the Blaquebox can be a go-to source when it comes to black-owned businesses: be it discovery through knowledge or experience. We want to grow to be a trusted source,” says Sonja Forte.

To find out more about Blaquebox and how you can subscribe, visit www.blaqueboxsubscription.com.

Michelle Jokisch Polo is Rapid Growth's On The Ground Editor. To connect with Michelle, you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Images courtesy of Blaquebox.
 

MetaFi: Local App developed to track mental health

There’s an app for that! We have all heard it, and while most new apps are finding elaborate new ways for you to pony up cash through an addictive game, there are still new apps aimed at bringing traditional services into the digital age.

The co-founders of MetaFi, a self-awareness app that supports mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and body awareness, are looking to bring some aspects of counseling to the digital age. Rapid Growth caught up with both co-founders Benjamin Reisterer MA, LPC and Tom Engelsman to chat about their new app and how it works.

The duo chose to build an app around mental health and emotion tracking because of experience, a frustration, and desire to help.

Reisterer says, “I am a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice here in Grand Rapids at Mindful Counseling GR. I was noticing that a common theme that, regardless of background, reason for coming in, etc., most of my clients were engaging the vast majority of their experiences from the neck up. Most people had very little awareness of how their body experienced emotions, relationships, day to day activities, etc. So I often found myself helping clients cultivate and be more aware of their own mind/body connection and then being able to take that information to spur positive change in their lives.

The body can often give us clues before we are cognitively aware of what is going on. It's kind of like foreshadowing in a book or movie; it's not outright telling you what is going on, but if you pay attention, you can get a pretty good idea. So through doing this work, I found myself looking for effective tools and didn't really find much that I was liking. So the idea for the app was born through that.”

With such a complicated subject matter as emotions, it can be difficult to find an easy way for users to learn and effectively use the app, yet MetaFi has found a way.

Engelsman states “Via a simple interface, you can identify your primary and secondary emotions, and visually locate where they are causing a sensation on a map of a body. You then apply tags for categorization, and can also attach notes. Over time, this collected data is visualized into a complete picture of your history of emotions, in the form of graphs and heatmaps. You can also filter by dates and compare time periods.”

Learning to help ourselves can seemingly add more work to our day, but Reister says that there is a benefit to tracking your emotions. “Many of our problems stem from our reactionary (knee-jerk, unconscious, etc.) behaviors, thoughts, and feelings," says Reisterer. "The more we can cultivate self-awareness around how we are reacting, the more ability we have to make an intentional and authentic response to something."

Both co-founders have ambitious goals for their new venture as Reisterer says, “I think the biggest goal for MetaFi is that it becomes a well known, reliable, and personalized tool for people to begin to cultivate self-awareness and approach themselves and their lives more mindfully.” 

An app that could have the potential to be heavily used and gain notoriety would send most teams to Silicon Valley or New York, but Reisterer says if the app gains popularity, the team would stay based in Grand Rapids. “The biggest reason is that this is home. I am married with three kids and we want to provide some stability in a part of the country that we feel is beautiful and that we have made some great relationships in. Additionally, I love the way my career as a counselor in private practice has been built here and the clients that I am honored to sit with every day,” he says.

The MetaFi team is already hard at work for their latest update of features. “In the near future we plan to expand the analytics side of MetaFi, allowing more comparisons to real-world events; for example, an upcoming feature is the ability to correlate emotions with weather patterns. In the long-term, we aim to become the gold standard for emotion tracking and mindfulness,” says Engelsman.

You can find the app available for download here on iOS and Android devices

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.

Pop Up Shop: Can't Knock The Hustle

With nearly six months under her belt, entrepreneur Tova Jones has successfully launched her concept business that targets the e-commerce retail market.

A brick and mortar store for online retailers who want to offer a showing of their items, but either cannot or do not wish to rent a permanent space, The Pop Up Shop is a common occurrence in major markets, and Jones has taken the concept and added her own approach as she brought it here to Grand Rapids.

When asked what inspired Jones to create the Pop Up Shop, she responds “I got the idea actually from owning a plus size e-commerce clothing business. I noticed that when I was a part of vendor opportunities I made more money because the consumer could feel the product, try it on, and meet the face behind the brand. I looked high and low in west Michigan, actually Michigan period to find storefront space that could be rented out to sell product short term, and had no luck. So my husband and I decided to be the change that we wanted to see. We found a great downtown location and the Pop Up Shop became a reality.”

Jones’ location at 315 S. Division places the Pop Up shop right in the Avenue for the Arts along many other local businesses. She says the Pop Up Shop has hosted “...bridal pop up shops, bakery pop up shops, a Detroit-based African Clothing brand, lularoe pop up shops... we've had CD releases, handcrafted jewelry, and even a dog Treat Pop up shop! We also have community meetings in our space and small listening parties.

The options are limitless. We are hoping to attract businesses who are looking to add pop up shops to their branding and business model. And more artists, we would love to see our space used as a small gallery. Our goal is to help expand the brands of e-commerce business owners artist and musicians.”

Although the location offers a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs, it also gives Jones the opportunity to interact with an array of different businesses. “I love seeing the excitement in their faces when the talk about their businesses. I love bouncing ideas about how to have a successful pop up shop and even easing some of their concern. I just love the synergy,” says Jones.

The Pop Up Shop is now taking bookings for June-August. To schedule a walkthrough, you may visit their website at www.popupshopgr.com or you can email the team at grpopupshop@gmail.com with any questions.

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.

5x5 Night: On the road at The Downtown Market

If you haven’t made your way out to a 5x5 Night by now, I feel bad for your back; it’s been achingly supporting the rock you’ve been living under for the last 5 years. Truly painful. We have some great chiropractors here in the city that can take a look at that.

This past Tuesday was another installment of Start Garden’s 5x5 Night: On the Road series. The team headed down to the Downtown Market with five contestants to hear their pitches, rub elbows with the entrepreneurial community, and to of course eat and drink amazing offerings from the market.

This installment had a bit of everything. The pitches included a board game, a community development, a fashion line, a food company, and a mobile app.

Nathan Straathof presented his idea “Unlabeled: Blind Beer Tasting Game” where cards were matched to flights of beer to taste and show off your fledgling Cicerone skills.

Maurice Townsend presented his vision for “Motown Square,” a community of affordable and mixed-use housing on the southside of the city.

Rhoda Klomega presented her business “Delasie,” a fashion line emphasizing fitted clothing that lifts your confidence.

Hannah Johnson presented her business “Spera Foods,” a nut-alternative food that uses a tasty root vegetable called the tigernut.

Jeffrey Boore presented his untitled idea for an app that provides meal planning and grocery shopping, and is also a cooking guide.

Each presenter drew the audience in with their charisma, and impressed everyone with market research, but it may have been the fashion model line up that did it for Klomega and her fashion company, Delasie.

The judges awarded Delasie with the coveted check for $5,000, provided by Start Garden, and an additional $5000 in legal services from Varnum LLP, a Michigan law firm based in Grand Rapids. The $5000 in legal services will go a long way in helping this fashion startup grow as they seek to hire new staff due to continued demand and growth.

If you missed this installation of 5x5 Night you can’t afford to miss the next one. Be sure to stay updated here for the next event!

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.
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