Making it in GR: A look back at the article that urged Grand Rapids to move forward

The 2015 Forbes article listing Grand Rapids as the second worst city in the nation where African-Americans were struggling sparked many conversations. Looking beyond the African-American community and observing the minority-owned business climate as a whole, one can find both challenges and opportunities. Organizations such as Local First, One World Diversity, and Start Garden are rising to the challenge and providing resources and programming to help promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the small business community.
“It was heartbreaking. I am a lifelong resident of the city,” says Grand Rapidian and Local First Marketing Manager Mieke Stoub.

One World Diversity Partner Sammy A. Publes says, “It was absolutely devastating to me, but at the same time I think there is an opportunity.”

Stoub and Publes are referring to the results of a much discussed 2015 Forbes article.

In 2015, Forbes published an article listing Grand Rapids as one of the worst cities in the nation where African-Americans are struggling, second only to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The report stated that in these cities, African-Americans “earn on average $10,000 to $15,000 less than their counterparts in Atlanta. Self-employment rates are half as high as those in [their] top 10 cities.”

As the second-largest city in the state, it is clear that Grand Rapids is made up of a diverse mix of individuals and business owners. With this diversity comes unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to building and growing businesses and the economy. This article acted as a wake-up call for some organizations in Grand Rapids who were already working to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

One World Diversity, creators of inclusion and diversity initiatives, was formed by Partners Publes, Michelle Urbane, and Todd Lewis. Their focus is on “[working] with companies around equity and inclusion, using theatre as a medium,” says Urbane. This form of experiential theatre showcases unique scenarios and promotes an open-forum for discussion around various sensitive topics.

“All three of us come from a theatre background so it allows us a little artistic freedom to touch on subjects that people might be uncomfortable with through the medium of theatre,” Publes says.

Sammy A. Publes

Publes has experienced his share of challenges within the business community. “Being a man of color, sometimes the challenges I see are the lack of resources and cultural resources. If I am doing something new, where do I go? Mentorship is always an issue, particularly for people of color,” he says.

One of the resources that can be a challenge is funding. “Certain members of the community have different resources. When they take the risk to start a business, if it doesn’t work out, they have family members or opportunities from different types of loans that will give them the privilege to not succeed right away,” says Stoub.

This is not the case across the board, however. Unlike their non-minority counterparts, minority business owners may not have the privilege to fail. “Minority-owned businesses are risking a little more,” says Stoub.

After the article, Start Garden, an entrepreneurial ecosystem and unconventional venture capital fund, took a look at where their funds were going. They noticed that very little of their funding was being awarded to women-owned or minority-owned businesses. In light of that, and responding to the results of the Forbes report, Start Garden reevaluated their structure and determined how to grow and expand their focus.

Jorge Gonzalez of StartGarden.

Their goal was to determine how to “align the entire ecosystem…to provide the same opportunities for everybody,” says Director Jorge Gonzalez. Part of that initiative included the hiring of Gonzalez and his counterpart Darel Ross—both of whom have actively served diverse populations of the community. "If a minority is running a business," says Gonzalez, "it's often assumed it's too small to make a difference or that it's a hobby. That's the kind of idea we want to shift."

Well-known for their 5x5 Night, Start Garden has begun offering this pitch competition at other locations including LINC and in Spanish. This has resulted in “10 of the last 12 winners [being] either minorities or female,” says Gonzalez.

In addition to the capital infusion, winners have the opportunity to attend networking events and utilize complimentary coworking space at Start Garden. “So what you see [at Start Garden] now is more diversity—more females, more ethnicities. We’re providing the same opportunities to everybody,” Gonzalez says.

Start Garden is working to ensure the long-term sustainability of their initiatives by meeting regularly with other local entrepreneurial support organizations. These meetings serve to ensure minority business owners are receiving the support they need. They also serve to eliminate the duplication of efforts and resources as well as overlapping services, shares Gonzalez.

According to their website, Local First “has a passion for people living and working together in [a] sustainable community.” They too have made efforts to continue changing and advancing the mission of their organization.

Mieke Stoub of Local First.

Upon review of their Annual Report, from 2015 to 2016, Local First saw a seventy-percent increase in their minority-owned business members. They reached out to their member base to gain a better understanding of what they were looking for and used that information to launch their Good For Grand Rapids campaign.

Launched in January 2017, the Good For Grand Rapids campaign “is an initiative that brings together and celebrates companies that are using their business as a force for good,” shares Stoub. This initiative looks at the social, environmental, and economic impact businesses are having within the community and rewards them for it. It also offers resources and best practices for sustainability and social good.

In addition to Local First, One World Diversity, and Start Garden, minority business owners have other resources at their disposal within the community. These include: the Latina Network, Business Leaders Linked To Encourage New Directions (BL2END), and Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB).

Looking beyond businesses, individual community members can play a role in helping to eliminate barriers and encourage inclusion as well.

“I would challenge people to have real honest conversations with an open mind,” says Publes.

“You’ve got to get uncomfortable and you have to be humble. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture,” says Stoub. Even small steps can lead to a big impact in the long run. “Instead of going to a grocery store that you’re used to, get out of your comfort zone and go to a part of town that you might not have before. Talk to the owner of the establishment, hear their story and why they [went] into business,” Stoub elaborates.

Gonzalez comments on the potential ripple effect of proactively addressing these issues. He says, “At the end of the day, making sure that we have thriving, successful neighborhood business districts is a win-win for everyone. It comes down to economics. If we have a thriving Latino business district and a thriving African-American business district, it will assist us with wealth creation for families, employ community members, and create wealth for those neighborhoods…and the city.”

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Gold Leaf Designs LLC, has over 12 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. Through these organizations, she assists businesses with creating strategies for growth and sustainability through: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management solutions and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees. Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected].

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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