Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women plans to spread further into the lakeshore market to support budding entrepreneurs.
Backed by new financial contributions, the entrepreneurial support organization commonly known as GROW is in the process of hiring a full-time business development officer to work in Muskegon County and the Grand Haven area in neighboring Ottawa County. The new hire will enable GROW to build on prior efforts on the lakeshore.
“Our services are needed on the lakeshore, and they’re embracing us,” GROW CEO Bonnie Nawara told MiBiz. “It was just kind of the next logical step for us.”
GROW has been holding part-time office hours in downtown Muskegon at Grand Valley State University’s Innovation Hub. The center last year began hosting a marketing class GROW provides for small businesses.
Last summer, GROW also financially supported “pop-up” chalets at the Western Market in Muskegon that entrepreneurs rented to sell their products, and has “quite a few loans” on the lakeshore, Nawara said.
Of the 72 loans in GROW’s $1.6 million lending portfolio, 20 of them totaling $600,000 came from the lakeshore market.
GROW’s prior work in Muskegon provides a foothold to building a bigger presence in the market that Nawara hopes eventually could extend down the lakeshore to the Holland area with lending, training and mentoring. The organization wants to host more entrepreneurial classes on the lakeshore and cultivate a network of volunteers in the market “to move our programs and help our clients,” she said.
“We’re going to start out slow because that’s what you always do when you’re building something new,” Nawara said. “We’re going to start out small. We’re going to get that person on board and make connections and continue to develop those connections, and then continue to bring more and more of our training and programs to the lakeshore.”
GROW makes the move to the lakeshore after transitioning primarily into functioning as a small business lender that assists small business owners.
Nearly two years ago, GROW earned designation from the U.S. Department of Treasury as a Community Development Financial Institution, or CDFI. The designation allows GROW to tap additional federal funding and offer larger loans to borrowers who otherwise may not qualify for traditional bank credit because they lack a track record or adequate collateral.
Last fall, the organization secured a $125,000 federal grant to build the administrative capacity to handle loans of up to $250,000, five times the lending cap it has in place for the micro-lending initiative it started in 2014.
Backing GROW’s move on the lakeshore are a pair of contributions totaling $40,000, including $30,000 from the Community Foundation for Muskegon County and $10,000 from the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation.
The Community Foundation for Muskegon County awarded the funding to GROW “because of the possibilities it creates for prosperity and jobs here,” said President and CEO Chris McGuigan.
“Muskegon’s vision for itself as an economically dynamic and prosperous place depends on welcoming entrepreneurs and providing them the resources and tools to succeed. GROW helps Muskegon do that,” McGuigan said. “We support GROW because they open doors to people whose access to financing and business advice is otherwise very restricted or difficult. GROW helps the Foundation further its goal of creating an inclusive community where everyone with an idea or product, and desire, has a shot at receiving the training, information and financing to grow their business.”
Likewise, providing financial support for GROW to expand on the lakeshore was an extension of the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation’s mission to “help people reach their full potential,” said President Holly Johnson. She noted that many of the entrepreneurs GROW serves are low- to moderate-income individuals seeking to start or build their businesses.
“The community foundation exists to help people reach their full potential, and that shows up in many different ways,” Johnson said. “It’s really about helping to empower those who may not have all of the tools in their tool kit to be able to launch into their dreams.”
GROW hopes to secure additional funding to support the new lakeshore positions, Nawara said.
Once GROW gets established on the lakeshore, it also wants to expand its services in the Kalamazoo area, probably in 2019, Nawara said.
“We have big aspirations,” she said.