RapidChat: Jonathan Jelks on why entrepreneurship doesn't have to be a lonely road

As a true proponent for creation over competition, Jonathan Jelks—Co-Founder of GR USA, Ambiance GR, The Midwest Tech Project, and most recently, Motu Viget Spirits — confidently works with like-minded younger-generation entrepreneurs to bring diverse culture, businesses, and entertainment to GR.
Rapid Growth: What roles do you serve as co-founder of GR USA, Ambiance GR, Motu Viget Spirits, and The Midwest Tech Project?

Jonathan Jelks: I am currently involved in the day-to-day operations in each one of these entities. From marketing, to brand strategy, creative, product development — there isn't any area that I won't roll up my sleeves to contribute to.

RG: Which entity are you most involved with currently?

JJ: I am equally involved in each of these different companies. They all require my undivided attention in different ways. Obviously, with Ambiance GR Kitchen & Lounge being such an extensive new project, our team is extremely focused on its development. As one of the most anticipated new small businesses in the downtown Grand Rapids corridor, we want to create a space that embodies GR's metamorphosis from a big city with a small town mentality, into a diverse world-class hub for culture, business, and live entertainment.

RG: Are you working with the same people within each project — or are you the common denominator?

JJ: Each of the aforementioned companies has different partnerships; there is a lot of overlap and intersection in the leadership make up for some of these companies. It's been fun to work with like-minded younger-generation entrepreneurs who have a similar philosophy, ”skin in the game,” and are invested in the growth and evolution of Grand Rapids.

There is a great joy and camaraderie that we have experienced conceptualizing and executing these different ventures together. We hope to be a model for future entrepreneurs about how working together can expedite the process and triple your success. Entrepreneurship doesn't have to be the lonely road less traveled. It’s so much fun when working with your friends!

RG: Motu Viget Spirits has been working with St. Julian Winery. How did you first come into that partnership?

JJ: Motu Viget Spirits' partnership with St. Julian Winery was an organic collaboration that came into being through mutual friends from the West Michigan community. Our friend Mike Saunders, a legendary Grand Rapids creative and teacher at WMCAT, and St. Julian director of communications, Justin Weeks, were instrumental in connecting the Motu Viget Team with Michigan's largest winery. It was perfect timing for both parties because St. Julian's was in the process of expanding their footprint nationwide and we were looking to take advantage of the growing spirits business in Michigan.

Our respect for them being a heritage, 99-year-old family-owned business — and their respect for our tenacity, innovative marketing strategies, and growing business portfolio — made us a perfect match. My partner, international hip hop recording artist, entrepreneur, investor, and Grand Rapids native, Willie "Willie the Kid" Jackson, was hugely influential in this deal, as well.

RG: Where can Motu Viget Brut be found?

JJ: Our first release Motu Viget Brut will be available on the premises and at local retailers across the state of Michigan in July. Look for us at your favorite restaurant, venues, and stores. We are extremely excited for the community to experience Motu Viget Brut!

RG: What other craft beverages can we expect from Motu Viget in the future?

JJ: In the near future we will be looking to release a bourbon or whiskey. The team is going through a deliberation process now on what will be our next release.

RG: Where do you find inspiration for these various entities?

JJ: The inspiration for doing different ventures comes from the passion to create new products and to create new opportunities in the city we know and love. Grand Rapids is a great community — but it isn't the perfect city yet. When I evaluate the areas where the town is lacking the aesthetic that some of the bigger cities have, I see the opportunity to create what isn't currently here. The new generation of entrepreneurs whom I'm inspired by are taking it upon themselves to create the city they want to live and play in ... and it's working! 

RG: Does Start Garden provide you and your team(s) with any support?

JJ: Jamiel Robinson and myself started partnering with Start Garden in 2016 when we launched the "GRABB 5" Business accelerator, in collaboration with the City of Grand Rapids. Start Garden has been a great hub to help businesses access the resources available in West Michigan's entrepreneurial ecosystem. The synergy that has been created through partnering with Start Garden has been extremely beneficial to us from a networking standpoint and through the mentorship interacting with an entity like Wakestream Ventures that invests in prolific companies worldwide.

If we've needed anything, the SG team has made themselves available to support whatever businesses that we are working to launch. Usually, as we are learning from one another, [we are] sharing the information and indigenous knowledge with one another. Often times our findings are used to help other businesses in the greater community. In my opinion that's been the ultimate beauty of our symbiotic relationship.

RG: What is the current status of Ambiance GR Kitchen and Lounge?

JJ: Lott 3 Metz firm has just recently completed the architecture and design for Ambiance GR Kitchen & Lounge. The Ledyard Building (where we are located) is a historic site that has required a myriad of different expert solutions to accomplish the look and feel that we want Ambiance to have. We are also finishing up the permitting process now with the City. Once that process is complete, Honor Construction will resume our full demolition and build out.

Things are moving along at a very steady pace which is good, but we cannot wait to get open as soon as possible. Lacy Jones, Ambiance's general manager and CEO, is assembling a very dynamic hospitality and service team that will deliver a unique experience for Downtown GR. People can visit our website AmbianceGR.com for updates on our construction schedule, employment opportunities, and our upcoming grand opening later this year.

Jenna K. Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Jelks.
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