From lemonade stand to CEO: Six GR business leaders recount how they paid their dues

Few of us forget our first job—or, at least, the most unpleasant job we’ve had to perform. A few of Grand Rapids' successful business leaders recall their first jobs and the dues they paid to get where they are today.
When we talk about successful people, we typically refer to them in the context of their most socially acknowledged achievements: employment and title, academic credentials, professional awards.

What we rarely talk about, however, is the body of work and experience these individuals have accomplished before they achieved social recognition. The first jobs, the hands-on dirty work done for minimum wage while working through college, the middle school business ventures.

Few of us forget our first job—or, at least, the most unpleasant job we’ve had to perform. We close our eyes, and remember the hard work, the long hours, the challenges like they were yesterday. And while high ranking title and awards earn the most glory, it’s so often these early mentally or physically backbreaking experiences which prepare individuals to succeed professionally.

Jennifer Pascua, photo by Mod Bettie- A Grand Rapids Portrait Boutique.

Jennifer Pascua, local television host and anchor for WZZM13, began her career in media as a newspaper carrier at the age of 12, waking up to roll her papers at 4am. She framed her first paycheck.

Later, Pascua pulled a grueling gig as a hotel front desk clerk, which included “cleaning up vomit, picking up dirty diapers, and [cleaning] overflowing toilets.”

But even broadcast television itself isn’t always as glamorous as it seems, she points out. “Imagine having to do live shots out in the blistering West Michigan winters, trying to keep snot from freezing on your face! Or, trying to juggle a tripod, camera, while wearing heels in a dress, and falling flat on your face in front of a crowd. Better yet: forgetting your makeup/hair essentials and having to do makeup with a sharpie in a live truck and a fork to comb the flyaways!”

Learning to wake up early, she says “gave me critical people skills; getting to know the early-risers in their neighborhood was my favorite part of the job.”

Broadcast news, she says, “has given me an appreciation for everyone’s own individual journeys. It’s also very humbling, because thanks to viewer emails that criticize my personal appearance, inability to pronounce baseball names, and tripping over my words every now and then, my ego always stays in check.”

But Pascua’s spirit is irrepressible. All this, she says, has simply “taught me the beauty of being flexible, learning how to deal with people from all areas in life, and pushed me to embrace my imperfections.”

Justine BurdetteJustine Burdette, Vice President of Technical Services and MMTC-West Regional Director at The Right Place, worked for her parents in middle and high school, doing shipping, receiving, inventory, cutting, cleaning, and a host of other jobs for the family’s apparel manufacturing company. “I learned that there will always be tasks you do not enjoy, nor are good at, but that are necessary for the health of your business.”

After college, she snagged what she thought was her “dream job” at a high end art and antique gallery. “I truly thought working in a gallery was my dream job—but it wasn’t for a variety of reasons…After the experience, I interviewed prospective employers a lot differently, and would encourage others to take more than one internship if possible.”

“It took me a while to craft that ‘dream job,’” Burdette says. “With a lot of process of elimination thrown in! Without these experiences, I do not think I would be where I am now—in the right role, with the right organization, leveraging my capabilities for the right goals.”

Scott AyoteScott Ayote, Director of Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity & Equity at Grand Valley State University, recalls coming back to West Michigan from a summer as an associate with one of Europe’s largest mergers and acquisitions investment banks in London, to a job as a bank teller in a grocery store in Jenison, where cold sales comprised the majority of his job.

“I remember my first day, I was tasked with wandering through the frozen food section trying to entice individuals to open checking accounts at our branch. Effectively, it was a sales position. This was certainly a change from my life in investment banking.”

In high school, Ayote worked in a warehouse doing equipment inventory and setup for $8 per hour.

“These positions had a profound impact on the professional I am today,” Ayote says. “I learned the value of hard work, team collaboration, and how important the people you work with are. As a retail banker, I really learned how to work with people, understand how individuals think… When you’re trying to convince someone to sign up for a credit card or set up online bill pay features while their ice cream is melting, you have a greater appreciation for people.”

“My experiences allowed me to have the confidence and gumption to approach people, work with individuals, and adopt the mentality of ‘you don’t get what you don’t ask for.’ It’s been a key to my professional growth, and something I try to pass on to young professionals.”

Tami VandenBerg

Tami VandenBerg, co-owner of The Meanwhile and Pyramid Scheme and Executive Director of Grand Rapids nonprofit Well House, was selling lemonade to golfers at the golf course adjacent to her house when she was 10. Then came babysitting, then working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, then perhaps the most visceral: “cleaning the offices and bathrooms at the Kent County Health Department, and working as a home health aid—changing adult diapers, and cleaning up lots of other bodily fluids.”

VandenBerg recalls her parents “had me paying for half my clothes at a very early age, which I am grateful for…At KFC, I worked primarily with people recently out of prison and recent immigrants from Mexico. I loved working side-by-side with people who grew up in different places and situations from me. My early jobs taught me humility and appreciation for everything that I have now.”

Gayle DeBruyn

Gayle DeBruyn, Chief Sustainability Officer and Chair of Furniture Design, Collaborative Design, and MA in Design at Kendall College of Art and Design, began her career working in a kitchen at a retirement community, which she says “helped to shape my empathy for others.” In college, she worked summers on Steelcase’s fabrication lines doing spot welding, painting, and cleaning.

“I appreciated the experience of working in production because it provided me an understanding of the manufacturing process. I love furniture. All furniture. And although this was hard, hot, heavy, dirty work, I certainly appreciate the understanding of how craft happens and the impact of the design process on manufacturing and vice/versa. There is great value in stepping into others’ shoes to fully understand the impacts of design decisions.”

Derek Coppess

Derek Coppess, owner and founder of 616 Development, started his own company in the 5th grade, called “Lakeside Lawncare.”

“I asked for a riding lawnmower for my birthday. I obviously did not have a driver’s license, so my dad and I made a trailer that could attach to my mower and haul my essentials: extra gasoline, push-mower, weedwacker, broom and a cooler w/ juice and treats—hey, I was a kid!”

But what started as a way to earn pocket change soon grew its own life. “By high school I was playing three sports and had to hire some neighborhood kids to pick up my slack. I made $40 per lawn per half hour, and paid the kids $10 per lawn. That was quite a life lesson on how great people can help free you to do what you are actually good at.”

Later, in college, Coppess did trash pickup as a maintenance worker for a large real estate company. “Trash stinks,” he says. The job, however, “ultimately connected me to the owners, who mentored me in what I do today. The trash was a great way to learn the industry.”

Coppess says these experiences have given him a strong work ethic, tenacity, and both the freedom of “living in a cage with the door wide open,” and the responsibility of ownership:

“The owner is always ‘the net.' When my neighborhood kids didn’t show up, guess who was mowing yards with a flashlight after football practice?”

Ultimately, it was that 5th grade investment that shaped his career.

“Without an early lesson in the freedom a business can provide, I would have never spread my business wings as a young entrepreneur.”

From spot welding to live coverage of inclement weather, it’s clear that while respected titles, degrees, and awards may gain all the glory, it’s the experience of hands-on grunt work that builds the foundation for that success. Humility; empathy; tenacity; self-respect; an awareness of how the world around us works; these are the skills which lead to moral and sustainable leadership. Yet these aren’t skills one can major in, or glean from a workforce development program. They can only be obtained—as with all the best things in life—through hard work and hands-on experience.
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