The innovative people making GR a city for entrepreneurs

“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable startup-friendly community. This Start Garden funded series covers everything from the art of the pitch to entrepreneurial financing, to diversity in tech and education.
“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable startup-friendly community.

Lessons in crowdfunding

Grand Rapids entrepreneur Don Rhoads is Owner/Inventor of At Last Industries (At Last), which created the BedBud Alarm. He is also Head of Development at Cut Through Creative. Rhoads shares his progression from having an idea through the development and launch of his Kickstarter campaign—and the insights he learned along the way.

Jonathan Jelks, left, and AJ Hills IV, right, founders of the Midwest Tech Project.

More diversity in tech means starting with education

Grand Rapids has a lot going for it in terms of growth and technology. According to numbers published by The Right Place, West Michigan's IT industry is one of the fastest growing in the nation, boasting a growth rate of 18.5%, 6.5% above the national average. In such a promising industry, in such a rapidly growing city, Kelsey Perdue, Program Manager at Grand Circus in Grand Rapids, believes "The (tech) industry should look like the community we live in." But it doesn't.

According to Perdue, while the overall workforce is made up of 60% women, in the IT industry it's only 25%. And while the number of women in computing jobs peaked in 1991, (according to a 2016 study) it's been on a steady decline ever since. Grand Rapids was also ranked one of the worst cities in the country for African Americans and there is only 53% employment within the African American communities.

While these numbers are discouraging, they also create potential. Combine the rapid growth of the tech industry and the low employment numbers for women and minorities and there's a potential to create change. To truly create that change, tech training needs to be available to everyone regardless of sex, race, neighborhood or economic status. These are some of the groups in Grand Rapids working to make that happen.

Katarina Samardzija pitches her company Locker Lifestyle LLC at a business pitch competition.

Speak to the head and the heart: Creating connections through your pitch

Merriam-Webster defines pitch as: “advertising, especially in a high-pressure way or attempting to persuade, especially with a sales pitch.” According toChic CEO, a site providing complimentary resources to women entrepreneurs, pitch competitions are defined as “seminars created for entrepreneurs with new business ideas who are in need of seed money. The entrepreneur and his or her team present, usually quickly, their idea for a new company, as well as their need for investment and future goals."

These ‘pitches’ are presented to a panel of CEOs and investors with subsequent assessment of the company’s investment potential.” Though these definitions do hit on some of the key elements that make a pitch and what the corresponding competitions are, one can argue they have grown well beyond these definitions

Josh Naramore, Mobile GR and parking manager for the City of Grand Rapids.

Problem solving with real-time data: GR on the road to become a Smart City

Described by The Wall Street Journal as a sweeping change in the way cities are run, Smart Cities are changing the way people interact with the communities in which they live. While the term Smart City might paint a picture that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie or comic book, Smart Cities are a much more concrete and realistic venture and the idea behind them is simple: Smart Cities use data to solve problems.

Data is at the center of the Smart Cities movement. Between satellites and smartphones, we've got a lot of data available that shows us how we go about our lives. Things like where we travel, which streets get the most foot traffic, and which areas get the most congested with traffic at rush hour. Though, that information by itself, according to Michael Lomonaco of Open System Technologies (OST), "is worthless. But," he says, "when we can compile it and use it, that's the power of data."

Compiling that data to solve problems and transform the way cities work for and with people is the objective at the heart of the Smart City movement. Solving modern problems, such as traffic congestion, air pollution, and parking, requires a modern solution. It requires a new way of looking at a city's infrastructure and the data collected from new technologies allows us to do just that.

Daaron Fleeger and Huntington Bank are committed to SBA lending.

Financing your dream: Entrepreneurs tap local and diverse resources

Small business owners generally utilize a mix of sources to fund their ventures and growth. These can include: personal savings, contributions from family and friends, personal credit and traditional bank financing. Despite the fact that lending opportunities exist, it is not always easy to secure funds when needed. According to the National Small Business Association’s 2016 year-end report, as of January 2017, 31 percent of small businesses are unable to access adequate financing. Despite challenges, local entrepreneurs find financing in nontraditional methods like micro-loans, SBA lending, and pitch competitions. These are their stories of success.