Embracing diversity of thought, culture, and experience: One business owner's perspective

Detroit-native and small business owner Zena Patillo shares her story of overcoming obstacles, building social capital, and pushing for continued growth. She shares insights on the changes she’s seen over the past 30 years, as well as opportunities for further advancement when it comes to intentional inclusion within the community.
A Detroit-native, Zena Patillo came to Grand Rapids over three decades ago to attend Grand Valley State University. Utilizing her master’s in human resources, with an emphasis on training, Patillo launched a consulting firm, Training Paradigm, LLC, which provides human resources and organizational development training, project management, and strategic planning assistance. Securing contracts in Michigan with organizations including: the State of Michigan, Michigan Rehabilitation Services, and the Juvenile Detention Center, as well as subcontractor roles with the city of Dallas, Patillo and her team are no strangers to working on larger opportunities.

Despite this, it hasn’t been an easy journey and Patillo says she’s still not where she wants to be. “I have not yet grown to the state that I would like to. I still need to grow. Because you are small and you don’t get some of the contracts you want, it’s always a constant grind,” she says. Due to the nature of small business cash flow, sometimes this may be taking a step back and focusing your attention elsewhere so you can continue investing in your business.

“You have to make money. You have to sometimes stop and go be employed somewhere so that you can have an income because you’re not getting those contracts.”

Challenges to pursuing larger opportunities

When it comes to pursuing contracts, like many small business owners, Patillo has often second-guessed herself or received pushback from the potential clients. Not having access to the same resources as larger businesses has also been a struggle.

“Sometimes I’ve felt like I was too small to even bid on some of the bigger contracts or my brand wasn’t well-known enough,” she says.

“I went for a diversity and inclusion contract and [the company] thought that we were too small to be able to handle the volume that they had. What they didn’t know was that we had a whole team of subcontractors.”

It can be easy for small businesses, especially new businesses, to be overlooked during these processes. “It’s like when you first graduate college [and] no one will give you a job because you don’t have experience. But how do you get it, if no one hires you?” says Patillo.

As a minority business owner, Patillo has also seen where her lack of social capital was detrimental.

“When I came here from Detroit, I didn’t know anyone,” she says. “It’s a lot of ‘know, like, and trust’ – that’s just how business is done. Minorities may or may not have that same social capital. I still have a very well-connected social group in Detroit. I can go there and do things that I can’t do here. I live, work, and play here. I want to be able to work in my own community.”

Shifting mindsets

Having been in Grand Rapids for several decades now, Patillo can see the changes taking place, as well as continued opportunities for growth.

“What amazes me is that I’ve been here 30 years and we’re still talking about the same thing as it relates to diversity. But diversity is not inclusion. Inclusion is something that you have to be intentional about. I think that it is the right thing to do. There are noted benefits to business and community that diversity brings.

“As long as I’ve been here, [Grand Rapids has] been trying to recruit talent but they don’t stay. The difference in Detroit is that they will use [a minority’s] skills and talent and pay you for it. They realize that there is value in the diversity of thought and experience and culture.”

Patillo is not the only one to feel this way. A Forbes article defines inclusion as “a call to action within the workforce that means actively involving every employee’s ideas, knowledge, perspectives, approaches, and styles to maximize business success.”

With today’s workforce being comprised of multiple generations, seeing an increased reliance on technology and additional worker knowledge, the article pinpoints one of the focal points within the business community should be “moving from diversity initiatives alone to creating a culture of inclusion," which will “assist companies in catering to the needs of the diverse workforce while impacting a company’s capacity to compete.”

Patillo adds, “What I think would be helpful is if people wanted to see innovation in the community or their business, have the inclusion. Whatever percentage of [minority] representation you have in your community, try to hire that [same percentage] in small business. If you can start with some of the small businesses and small contracts and build a reputation with them, it just adds to the greatness of your community. If contracts could reflect that, that would be huge. Think about what that does for your community.”

Patillo has become actively involved within the community and challenges others to do so, too. Currently serving as a facilitator with SpringGR, this is one of several organizations Patillo sees helping to make a difference. “SpringGR and Partners Worldwide have done so much to help bridge that gap. They seek to build trust, especially with the smaller minority businesses, as it relates to relationships and the social capital that they help [people] attain. They empower [people] and make sure the right people are around the table. SpringGR makes it a safe place for all of us to have real conversations.”

Overcoming obstacles

Even having the right people at the right tables does not solve all of the problems. Sometimes the onus lies with the individual to step out of their comfort zone and seize the moment – and think beyond just selling.

“Go out and about! Go to [events], join [groups], you have to meet people. [Get involved] with things where you can build relationships with people. Don’t seek something from [people]. Build a relationship. What can you give them? Don’t be in ‘sell-mode’ all the time,” Patillo encourages.

Another challenge may be getting out of your own way, Patillo argues. As your social capital develops and your network grows, sometimes the first step may be vocalizing your issue or need. “Don’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes we’re so prideful. We don’t know how to do something [but] we don’t want people to know we don’t know how to do it because then it looks like we don’t know what we’re doing. Then you miss an opportunity when you’re afraid to let someone help you or you’re afraid to trust. As small business owners, we have to stop doing that. We have to speak up. Through your networking, you can possibly find someone that can assist you. If not, [take advantage of] some of the entrepreneurial programs [like] GROW [and] SpringGR where people are going to stick with you and work with you.

“You have to put the time in if you want it. That’s the bottom line. We’ve had jobs and we were working 60 hours a week because that’s what it took for that time period. If you want it bad enough, you have to put the time in and not give up.”

If you have taken on outside employment or are still working full-time to help fund your business, Patillo says you are in control of what happens next, regardless of your size. “Decide early if you want [your business] to be part-time or full-time. [Then] you can decide how to work yourself out of your full-time job so you can give yourself the time you need to grow your business and scale it. You absolutely have to network to start out on a good foundation. Then you’re ready for the contracts that do come. A lot of people are scared to leave their full-time job but if you plan it out properly, [that] gives people confidence.”


Building Bridges is a series focused on the diverse entrepreneurial community within the West Michigan region. Throughout the year, the series will highlight the unique problem solvers and change makers who seek to positively impact the growth of the economy and local ecosystem. Building Bridges is supported by Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW).

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Gold Leaf Designs LLC, has over 14 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, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!

Photos by Chantal Pasag of Pasagraphy.
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