Building connections and communities: The first 30 years at GROW and hopes for what’s next

Greatness can start from just an idea. In February 1989, eight women held a steering committee meeting. The following month, Grand Rapids’ first economic development organization was founded. Based on an idea from LeAnne Moss and under the leadership of first president Mary Alice Williams, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) was officially underway. Now GROW is celebrating 30 years of positively impacting individuals, the community, and the region.

“As a nonprofit professional, I was attracted to GROW's reputation for excellence ... I grew up in a family-owned business, and have an affinity for supporting entrepreneurship,” says Elizabeth McEwen, communications and development coordinator for Girls on the Run of Kent and Muskegon counties. She served as an administrative assistant turned project coordinator with GROW from 2014 to 2017.

GROW staff meet and mentor budding business owners.Filling a need in the region

“I wholeheartedly believe that women are frequently underestimated, and historically have been systemically excluded from access to resources frequently available to men. GROW is all about empowering women and supporting them through their journey with top-notch resources and access to funding,” says McEwen.

Jack Keller has also found value in the assistance GROW provides to local, early-stage entrepreneurs – assistance which they may not be able to find elsewhere. Initially becoming involved with GROW because of their microloan program, Keller has now been involved for over four years, serving as a board member, committee chair, and instructor for their Small Business Growth and Planning Series, or Small Business GPS clusters. As a commercial lender with Lake Michigan Credit Union (LMCU), he has been able to leverage that assistance for both prospective and existing credit union members. 

Jack Keller“It’s been my philosophy as a lender for years. I don’t like saying a flat ‘no.’ I like to have options available,” he says. “GROW’s microloan program and part of GROW’s mission is to assist and support entrepreneurial women that can’t get conventional or traditional funding. When I get calls from prospects or members that would not qualify for [LMCU’s] lending parameters, then instead of simply saying ‘no,’ I have a source to send them [to]. And GROW is that source.”

Seeing the personal side

Back in 2011, Rebecca Dutcher, current board president of AMA West Michigan, began teaching marketing-related classes for GROW. Since then, her involvement with the organization has continued to blossom. In 2013, she was recognized as their volunteer of the year, after which, she joined the GROW board, on which she still serves.

Rebecca DutcherVolunteering with GROW has led to even more for Dutcher. “In 2016, I was at a board breakfast meeting with Bonnie Nawara, CEO of GROW, and a fellow board member. It was there that Bonnie encouraged me to ‘hang out my own shingle.’ I'd worked for a couple of agencies and had an incredibly loyal client base – she saw something in me [that] I didn't see in myself,” she shares. And now, Dutcher has owned RED66 Marketing for the past three years.

For McEwen, it was a tragic situation that helped her really see the large-scale impact of the organization. “It may sound strange, but not long after I came to GROW, we suddenly and tragically lost a staff member (Tom Heinz) to a heart attack. It was a very emotional time for our staff, and I was the person who was frequently breaking the news to clients as they called in to talk with him. I was so touched by the client response — stories of how Tom and GROW helped them work towards their goals, tearful memories of ‘a-ha’ moments as he walked alongside them in their journey and their shared celebrations. That tragedy is what really showed me the power of GROW. [It] was not just in classes and loans, but in the connections and communities they were building,” she says.

Internal expansion and client growth

In addition to helping clients with growth, GROW itself has changed over the years. “[GROW’s] expanding. We now have an office and a representative covering the lakeshore, who’s there to help both north and south of Muskegon. There are needs [from] startup businesses. Entrepreneurial women are not just relegated to Grand Rapids, but Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, [and] Allegan counties. We have been getting plenty of interest outside of Grand Rapids and in West Michigan and we’re reacting to that,” Keller says.

“It’s not just [that] we want to get a company up and running. A mature business that is seeking out advice or direction, they can come to GROW. GROW has the tools available to help that company figure out what to do next. We’re there every step of the way for a company. That’s what makes us unique.”

Though providing assistance to women was the initial focus, Keller points out this is no longer its sole mission. “The microloan program and our class can be open to both [women and men]. If a male-owned business was to seek out assistance with GROW, they would not be turned away.”

Even as a former facilitator herself, Dutcher has been able to benefit from the resources available through GROW. “I've been a part of GROW's EmpowerHER program for second-stage companies looking to increase and improve their business. I've had an executive mentor to meet with each month, setting goals for the business. She's helped me improve operations, with things like an employee onboarding process, creating a handbook, policies, new business goals, processes, and more. Since I started with her, I've added two more employees and business has improved significantly. The program was only $150 to apply [for] and has been incredibly valuable to me.”

Though Dutcher has experienced a lot, formed new connections, and created numerous memories throughout her years of involvement, overall, one moment stands out above the rest. “Of course, the best memory is getting the nudge and support to start my own business. It's been life-changing for me and my family,” she says.

Hopes throughout the next 30 years

Dutcher hopes more people are able to take advantage of these resources. “I want more people to realize all that GROW has to offer. It seems like some [people] have an idea, but rarely have the full picture. West Michigan is incredibly lucky to have this organization and their resources here.”

“I want to see us continue to grow our visibility … I’d like to see us expand into the minority areas more. We are already doing a fine job; I’d like to see us increase it. As good as we’re doing, there’s still room for improvement,” Keller shares. He would also like to see the nonprofit expand its geographic footprint. 

Looking even bigger, McEwen says, “GROW intimately knows our communities, and can be tremendously helpful in creating connections and a support network within each community, and within West Michigan as a whole. Add to that the micro-lending program, and there is no doubt that GROW holds a special place in the landscape of economic development! In a big world that is getting smaller every day, it's imperative to our communities to have GROW acting as a bridge to the networks and resources available regionally and nationally.”

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 14 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management, and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!

Images courtesy GROW.
Signup for Email Alerts