GRAND RAPIDS — Despite the many accolades for West Michigan’s economy in recent years, prosperity hasn’t necessarily reached all people in the broader community to the same extent.
Spurred by significant disparities revealed in socio-economic data, economic developers and entrepreneurial service organizations have launched new initiatives to close the persistent wealth gap in the region’s African American and Latino communities.
“There’s an overwhelming body of evidence that shows that the strongest and most flourishing economies are ones where there’s diversity,” said Mike Morin, CEO of Start Garden LLC, the entrepreneurial service organization that administers the city of Grand Rapids’ SmartZone tax incremental financing (TIF) mechanism.
Along those lines, the newly launched Midwest Tech Project aims to encourage more diverse participation in the region’s economy.
Founders Jonathan Jelks, 32, and Alvin (A.J.) Hills IV, 27 — both African Americans who hail from Grand Rapids — say they were motivated by a January 2015 Forbes article that listed the city as one of the worst in America for people of color, who had an unemployment rate above 50 percent at the time.
With Jelks’ background in economic development and Hills’ experience in mentorship, they created the initiative to close some of the socioeconomic gaps in the region’s nascent technology industry.
“It’s the industry with the most jobs available, with a great starting salary and there’s a huge need for diversity in the space,” Hills said. “For us it’s about getting communities of color connected … and ‘democratizing information’ and demystifying ways to get into the space. And we’re hoping to eliminate some of those barriers for communities of color.”
That’s a mission that rings true for Joe Jones, president & CEO of the Grand Rapids Urban League who also serves as city commissioner for the Second Ward.
“Our challenge is to turn those numbers upside down,” Jones said at an event last month hosted by the Midwest Tech Project.
Start Garden and local tech firms including Atomic Object LLC and Open Systems Technologies Inc. have provided support for the initiative.
“People have really embraced the program,” Jelks said. “We consider technology to be the great equalizer. It allows for people to access and democratize information. It’s something everyone is consuming, something everyone is utilizing.”
Over the next several months, Jelks, Hills and a variety of partners will work with between 15 and 25 young African-American males between seventh and 10th grades to build a website for a university in Kenya. The cohorts aim to teach all aspects of the technology sector, including coding, cybersecurity and attracting investment.
The initiative will launch with a focus on historically at-risk black males, but will be expanded in the future to include female students, according to the founders.
Jelks said Midwest Tech Project developed its programming specifically to help participants learn the skills needed for the current advanced manufacturing industry in West Michigan.
“We feel like (this is) essential because there’s so much trepidation about the changing workforce,” Jelks said. “Since deindustrialization, the black and brown communities haven’t been able to find their footing, so we tried to identify the industry that’s going to anchor the economy moving forward and bring resources, relationships and connections directly to the people.”
Midwest Tech Project founders and Morin at Start Garden noted that initiatives in Grand Rapids oftentimes fail to create tangible results, which they hope to avoid by creating measurable benchmarks — metrics the partners say they’re still determining at this early stage in the initiative.
“This isn’t a program for the abstract,” Jelks said. “It’s all geared to create tangible and very practical results in the community and show what West Michigan’s tech ecosystem has to offer.”
For its part, Start Garden has sought to increase diversity within Grand Rapids’ business community. In January, Start Garden added to its leadership team Darel Ross, co-executive director for nine years at LINC UP, and Jorge Gonzalez, who served as executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce since March 2015. The two executives plan to reach out to and better connect Start Garden with entrepreneurs in the Hispanic and African American communities around Grand Rapids.
While Rick DeVos initially launched Start Garden as a $15 million venture capital fund, the organization last year spun off its investments into Wakestream Ventures as it focused on providing entrepreneurial services.
Ultimately, Morin believes that attaining more diversity and inclusion will help the region’s economy reach new heights.
“The tendency is to look at this as a ‘haves and have nots’ mentality, and we need to go help the Latino and African-American (communities),” Morin said. “I think that’s totally the wrong perspective. The primary focus — and why we’re doing this — is because Grand Rapids will be a better place with a stronger economy and a better place to live when we have diversity in our business economy.”