UIX: BL²END offers diversity, inclusion and community for entrepreneurs

At BL²END (Business Leaders Linked to Encourage New Directions), young professionals of color connect with others, develop their professional skills, and add value to the community.
Grand Rapids was built on the banks of the Grand River with an abundance of natural resources. It was built by the industrial, automotive, and technological revolutions that continue to shape its story. It was built by furniture, by cleaning machines, and by beer.
Above all, it was built by people; immigrants and their children, mastering skilled trades and fostering modern startups and learning what it means to work together. With active citizens emphasizing community over corporate dominance, Grand Rapids has fared better than most cities during each economic downturn, from the Great Depression to the Great Recession.
That spirit of fellowship and communal support continues today in organizations throughout the city, particularly at BL²END (Business Leaders Linked to Encourage New Directions), where young professionals of color connect with others, develop their professional skills, and add value to the community.
The board of directors for BLEND.Incoming BL²END President Tiffany DeMyers previously served the organization as Vice President and Marketing Officer after first joining in 2013. DeMyers says although her role with the group has evolved over the years, solving issues of diversity and inclusion remain at the forefront of her work and BL²END's mission. Specifically, BL²END events are focused on bridging the gap between these two issues, which DeMyers believes may be separated by an intentional distance.
"I've questioned: What is the meaning and purpose behind diversity initiatives as they exponentially take place in the city of Grand Rapids?" says DeMyers. "And, why isn't legitimate inclusion a part of this new standard? I've concluded that some of the reason is the pressure behind the fact that diversity metrics can be measured. And, anything that can be measured can be put into a number-driven goals. Which is where the gap can take place."
Modern economies that don't rely on a large segment of minority-owned businesses for innovation and growth are not modern to begin with, and lack either benefit. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, there were 2.4 million black and African American-owned businesses in the country as of the last census in 2012, growing 34 percent from the previous count in 2007. While more apparent in Michigan's Southeast sector, the same growth can be found in Grand Rapids as well.
Diversity measurements provide a single statistic, and a myopic view of community, DeMyers says. Taking people into account as merely numbers may serve to outline diversity, but it doesn't provide for inclusivity, or define them as people. DeMyers offers a popular metaphor: diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being invited to dance.
BL²END's role in connecting diversity and inclusion is to alleviate inequities for young professionals of color. The organization has been creating intentional partnerships and leveraging strategic focuses for a decade now. And the ever-evolving themes and focus of monthly social networking BL²ENDers provide entrepreneurial growth opportunities for anyone interested in attending.
Young professionals find a sense of welcome and belonging in Grand Rapids through BL²END. In fact, it's that very sense that DeMyers says first attracted her to our city.
BL²ENDing in Grand Rapids
Success at BL²END is measured not in numbers, but by the stories young professionals involved in the network share with the board. DeMyers' story is one of those.
DeMyers says she grew up with the privilege of parents who were passionate about people, and educated to understand at a very young age that you have the right and it is almost your duty to be the best you can be, and to be extraordinary.
"It started when I was young," she says, but "getting deeper into professional development really took off in college."
Influenced by her education at Western Michigan University, and experiences at the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity, she began to focus on helping others reach their professional goals.
"A lot of people don't have that support network. A lot of people don't know their potential," DeMyers says. "So helping other people realize their potential was something I got excited about. I could surround myself with other professionals that want to do the same thing. They want to give back and they also want to grow at the same time."
After graduation, DeMyers was faced with a choice. Looking for a larger city to move to, she had decided on Grand Rapids or Detroit. It was Grand Rapids' unique combination of opportunity and engagement that won the decision, and with the help of BL²END, DeMyers was connected to other resources that helped her establish roots and grow in the community.
"Being a transplant to Grand Rapids, really not knowing where to go, how to penetrate this tightly networked city, and how to start a career for myself here, BL²END has created a reason for me to stay in Grand Rapids and helped me dedicate my time and passions to the city," she says.

But the same reasons she cites for coming to Grand Rapids can also prove challenging to outsiders. DeMeyers says West Michigan is very tightly networked, which is a hurdle for those looking to join right in.
"It would be nice if one were to come to Grand Rapids and found resources, people to connect with, and a place to feel valued," she says. "For people to feel valued in the community is something that I would change, and something we're actually working directly on with BL²END. It's to show people that their talents are valued. This is a place you can call home. This is a place you can grow, and this is a place you can invite your family and friends to as well."
Social Networking
BL²END's work focuses on three distinct strategic initiatives: social networking, professional development, and community outreach. For many who get involved with BL²END, a social networking event, or BL²ENDer, is likely their first point of entry for getting involved with the organization.
It's the "third place" young professionals of color talk about after home and work, DeMyers says, and offers a chance to meet individuals of all colors and creeds, linked by similar experiences. BL²ENDers are free and inclusive environments where anyone is able to participate and the focus changes to a different segment of minority owned businesses in Grand Rapids each year. This year, BL²END's theme is the "Color of Food," and the organization has partnered with Creston Brewery, and owners Molly and Scott Schultz, to provide a backdrop for stories of growth and entrepreneurship.
BL²END's theme last year was "Downtown and Local," intentionally chosen after more and more professionals of color had admitted they did not feel welcome in Grand Rapids' metro area. Partnering with minority-owned and allied businesses like Luna (Mario Cascante), Wheelhouse (Meritage Hospitality Group), and Social Kitchen & Bar (Zack Sklar), various BL²ENDers throughout the year were able to impress attendees with a new sense of where opportunities exist.
Professional Development
Several times a year, through partnerships with established and influential businesses like Gordon Food Service and Spectrum Health, BL²END holds speaker events with an educational benefit to participants. Professional development is another strategic initiative for BL²END, and it not only offers the chance for others to learn more, it provides insight into trends in the local economy.
The average attendee of a BL²END speaker event is between 21 and 35 years old, carries a bachelor's degree or higher, and is looking to invest in and improve their own community. They're part of a growing demographic, as well. In 2015, Fortune reported that the fastest growing segment of American entrepreneurs was African American women, who owned 74% more businesses than in 2007, multiplying the national growth average by 1.5.
In an interview with Black Enterprise, Monique Woodard, a venture partner for 500 Startups, a fund that focuses on supporting black and Latino projects, says people of color will be a majority in the U.S. by 2044. 
Those entrepreneurs are improving their cultural intelligence and navigating the business landscape of West Michigan with the help of BL²END's professional development events, and helping make the region a more inclusive place. If current trends continue, we should see this inclusivity spread.
Community Outreach
While increased membership spreads the word of BL²END's opportunities in part, the organization's third strategic initiative takes it into the community, quite literally. Through Community Outreach programs, BL²END brings manpower to projects already underway. The group has assisted nonprofits like Kids Food Basket with their work in providing our local school children with nutritious meals, and Well House, with their annual plant sale, raising money to end homelessness. 
"We're going to get in there and get our hands dirty with the community, making sure we creating awareness of those organizations, and actually contributing our time," says DeMyers.
It's through these experiences that young entrepreneurs are able to build their own stories, and inspire others through BL²END's network. Stories like DeMyers', who consistently shines during her day job in human resources for Spartan Nash and through her involvement in extracurricular programs like WMCAT's group of design thinking Community Catalysts, are vital to the nonprofit's sustained success with each new member. She is also a member of the distinguished service organization of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, through the Grand Rapids Alumnae Chapter.
The rest of the BL²END board of directors and advisory council contains no shortage of educational and professional accomplishments, either. As DeMyers steps into the position previously held by Mercedes Barragan, IS Social Business Community Manager for Spectrum Heath, there is no doubt her team will only grow through the transition, drawing on a diversity of backgrounds.
"We've heard so many stories from people, and those are what keep us going," DeMyers says. "Suggestions and feedback are always opportunities for growth, as well."
Invitation to inclusion
DeMyers makes it known that, while BL²END's focus is on young professionals of color, those interested need not be young professionals, nor of color to attend. BL²END events are inclusive, and offer anyone the chance to network with people of different backgrounds and grow professionally. A welcome call is put out to high school students who are looking to develop their acumen, as such skills only build on each other.
If you start early, you're going to get a leg up on some challenges," DeMyers says. 
And those challenges can affect us all, which explains BL²END's emphasis on inclusivity. Not just because it creates a comfortable environment, but because without it, the perceived successes of diversity fall flat. 
"There is a difference between diversity and inclusion and they have be mirrored together to be successful," DeMyers says. "It doesn't matter your color or creed. The most critical component, to us, is really having a similar passion or really wanting that opportunity to connect."
For more information on BL²END and DeMyers, visit http://www.grblend.org/

Photography by Steph Harding.

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]
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