Utilizing tech, talent and connections during Tech Week GR and beyond

The technology you keep in your pocket is only as good as the network that supports it. The same follows on an industrial scale, and the network that supports the tech industry in Grand Rapids is accelerating workforce development faster than nearly every other city in the country.

The Right Place recently released its 10-year tech strategy with the goal of creating jobs and making Grand Rapids an even more attractive place for tech companies. A big part of that strategy is hosting live events that bring together technology employers with local talent.

Their signature event, Tech Week GR, shows just why Grand Rapids has been recognized nationally as one of the four best cities in the United States to start a tech career. The regional drivers in helping that workforce growth were all on display at the inaugural event, held during Art Prize and leading up to Confluence.

That timing was intentional, says Jen Wangler, vice president of technology at The Right Place. Instead of trying to compete in that space, "we wanted to bring forth an event and an experience that would complement the great things and culture happening through Art Prize and Confluence," she says.

Examples set in other cities throughout the United States and world — SXSW, CES (Consumer Electronics Show), #ProductCon, etc. — have been followed by expansion in the regional tech workforce and culture.

"There are so many great technology influencers and leaders coming into West Michigan," Wangler says. "We need to be able to tell their story as well as the story of the companies that they are trying to build here."

In addition to The Right Place and The Right Place’s Technology Council of West Michigan, Tech Week GR was developed in partnership with the city of Grand Rapids Economic Development Department and Smart Zone, Grand Valley State University's Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI), Midwest House, Software GR, Spartan Innovations, Start Garden, techni/color/ and West Michigan Tech Talent.

The group put on a three-day experience dedicated to technology workforce development and promoting Grand Rapids as a technology hub.

From the Thursday morning "Hi Tech Brunch" to the Confluence lineup on Saturday, including music showcases Friday and Saturday night, attendance was free at any of the events throughout the three-day experience, though several required an early RSVP and were filled to capacity. The highlight for Wangler was the tech trade show where emerging technology companies in West Michigan showcased their work.

Leading up to the event, Jeremiah Gracia, director of economic development, says there was a lot of excitement to be participating.

"Tech Week GR is the culmination of many years of success, put together with one of the most signature events known in Grand Rapids, Art Prize. All [of] our partners are focusing on tying together both our tech, music and the quality of life that West Michigan, and specifically Grand Rapids, has to offer."

As contributing partners, the Economic Development Department and Smart Zone supported each of the events throughout Tech Week GR, "whether [by] moderating a session, contributing to panels, marketing the events, etc." Gracia says.

"The partnership that has come together for Tech Week GR is helping to promote regional and local economic development partners that are focused on high tech, high growth companies in Grand Rapids," Gracia says.

"Now, we as partners are already looking at ways that we can grow this in 2023. The response and validation and support we received for this inaugural year has been outstanding," he adds.

It amplifies the important work of Gracia's department, investing tax increment revenue into the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Grand Rapids. “This is a great alignment with the Smart Zone investments for years to come for high tech, high growth and direct contribution and alignment with the regional tech strategy," he says. Additionally, it fits with the city’s “wheelhouse of helping entrepreneurs proper and have a more inclusive network.”

With partnering groups techni/color/ and West Michigan Tech Talent & Friends, the city sponsored the Hi Tech Brunch. Gracia says the aim of the event was to bring together a diverse group of technology professionals for networking and professional development, helping increase the high-tech workforce, in turn.

And many connections were made.

“It was a joy to lead Tech Week with a sold-out crowd — attendees spanned all generations, genders, ethnicities and geographies," says techni/color/ founder Jeremy Evans-Smith. "It’s this expression that represents the best of techni/color/ productions.”

Ushering in a new frontier of opportunities

Evans-Smith organized techni/color/ in early summer 2022 as a three-day diversity and tech conference.

About 400 people attended the inaugural event, which kicked off on 616 Day, June 16, with a proclamation from Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.

techni/color/ was sponsored by local tech companies, including Atomic Object, OST, Tech Defenders, The Right Place, GVSU CEI and many others. Its origins are just as much part of Evans-Smith's own coast-to-coast career path as they are an answer to a more regional question.

"As someone who grew up in Grand Rapids and wanted to work in tech several years ago, I didn't find many opportunities at the time in the city,"  Evans-Smith says. "I moved to New York City first and then eventually to the Bay Area where I spent almost seven years or so working in tech and knowledge."

Evans-Smith wondered why similar tech opportunities could not benefit people in West Michigan, just as they did 2,500 miles away.

Part of the answer involves changing the prevailing way of thinking.

"I see a lot of programs and I think Grand Rapids is very program rich, but integration poor," Evans-Smith says. "We have a lot of programs but many of them exist individually or in a siloed manner or in a nonintegrated manner. That's what people in Silicon Valley or in startups spaces will call a solution in search of a problem. People think that there's this really cool idea we should do … and they're nice ideas but they're not really clear on the problem that they're solving and for whom."

A self-described "perpetual optimist," Evans-Smith went into Tech Week GR with a lot of hope.

He had the opportunity to connect with a number of local startups though Spartan Innovations, another Tech Week GR sponsor. Several of those startups have been acquired and funded by investors. In conversations with those founders, Evans-Smith says he's found a community of problem solvers who are dedicated to building a better future through technology and intentionality.

"A lot about what we're trying to do with techni/color/ is focused first on the problem. That is a foundational part of the hope that I have," he says. "I think there's a new generation of decision makers that care about problems that have been overlooked for a long time or are underestimated as not worth investing in, and they're beginning to recognize that investing in those is really where the next frontier of opportunity lies."

Building the future of technology together

West Michigan Tech Talent was another one of the organizers of the Hi Tech Brunch and sponsors of Tech Week GR. WMTT's mission is to grow, develop, recruit and retain tech talent in the region using state and federal training dollars that are channeled into employers to build the workforce.

WMTT founder John Rumery says involvement in techni/color/ and Tech Week GR aligns with the events-focused initiatives undertaken by The Right Place Technology Council of West Michigan, another Tech Week GR sponsor made up of local technology CEOs and CIOs who are working with The Right Place to build the technology industry in West Michigan — and create an ecosystem where leaders and influencers can come together to support each other while building their companies.

"That was kind of a natural evolution of West Michigan Tech Talent — focusing on events that signal to the greater community that Grand Rapids has got a lot going on in the tech scene and that it would be a great place to work or relocate," Rumery says.

In 2021, WMTT connected about 75 tech professionals to over 1000 students to talk about careers and, through Beer City Code alone, added about 150 new professionals to the community. Throughout the summer of 2022, WMTT helped organize tech happy hours in Grand Rapids and Holland and sponsored Beer City Code. Rumery says WMTT is now building a community database of technology professionals who can work within the K-12 school systems and help students with career exploration.

Kyle McGregor, director of health innovations and venture creation for Tech Week GR sponsor Spartan Innovations says the event proved to be a good opportunity for different service organizations and entrepreneurial groups to come together and highlight the work that's being done in Grand Rapids.

"We wanted to come together to show our community, the state and the broader region that we have a lot of amazing things happening here," McGregor says. "We are starting to figure out how to work together and play off each other's strengths, making sure that any and every group that is either in Grand Rapids or might want to consider coming to Grand Rapids has more than they need to be able to spin up a business and make it successful."

Spartan Innovations is now partnering with Start Garden for The 100, a no-strings-attached funding competition, continuing to support techni/color/ and is involved in Confluence.

"I think we kind of see ourselves as that interstitial glue that holds all this stuff together," McGregor says.

During Friday's "Tech Brunch," Spartan Innovations’ focus was on education.

"It's hard to deny our educational roots and backing," McGregor says. "One of the things we care a lot about is making sure that either founders or potential founders within the community have that education and experience."

Tech Brunch saw attendees gain knowledge on generating and developing relationships with potential funders. From these interactions, people were able to gather "some good, targeted, honest feedback from funders in the area," McGregor says.

Spartan Innovations also led Tech Week GR attendees though tours of a new incubator space that will open in December. McGregor describes it as a "love letter" to the city.

"There are so many things happening here," McGregor says. "This is our opportunity to show that you don't need to leave for Detroit, or Chicago or Indianapolis to go do some of this stuff. You can do it right here. We can build all this stuff together."

Attendees to Tech Week GR 2022 learned about the companies and the people trying to build the future of technology in West Michigan, and event organizers learned what a modern tech city might look like.

"This is not a zero sum game — especially not in the entrepreneurial community. It's not a competition for startups," McGregor says. "We all do different things and if we can figure out how to work together and truly collaborate, we can grow this pie so large that carving out slices becomes almost unnecessary. I think that we're starting to head in that direction."

The future is here, even if just in person for a weekend. There are email and Slack options to keep everyone in touch until the next event, but the turnout at each of the Tech Week GR events this year shows the community is actively building stronger network connections — and greater potential for the industry to scale.

This series seeks to highlight tech organizations and employers throughout Greater Grand Rapids that are delivering innovative programs and addressing talent pipeline challenges and seeking to develop, attract and retain quality talent in West Michigan. This series is underwritten by The Right Place.

Photos courtesy of Autumn Johnson, Bird + Bird Studio.

Matthew Russell is a writer and maker living in West Michigan. Matthew has over 25 years of experience as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in two books about Grand Rapids history, and is currently improving his skills as an amateur apiarist while building a sustainable microfarm in West Michigan.
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