The growth in West Michigan’s small business and entrepreneurial community needs to be more equitable.
That’s according to a group of executives and community leaders who joined MiBiz for a roundtable discussion on the state of entrepreneurship in the region’s minority community.
While participants said they’ve seen improvements in recent years, many noted that it will take a full-on culture shift and stepping back from “West Michigan nice” before the region can expect broad, tangible changes.
Joining in the discussion were:
- Jonathan Jelks, co-founder of Midwest Tech Project, a Grand Rapids-based initiative aimed at bringing more diversity to the technology sector
- Jennifer Jurgens, president of SalesPad LLC, a Grand Rapids-based workplace software development firm
- Larry Romanelli, Ogema (tribal leader) of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians
- Raquel Salas, co-founder and managing member, Avanti Law Group PLLC, a Wyoming-based law firm
- Lewis Williams, co-owner of Grand Rapids-based Forty Acres Soul Kitchen, a soon-to-open restaurant, and a co-founder of parent company 40 Acres Lifestyles LLC
Here are some highlights from the discussion.
How would you describe the overall climate for women- and minority-owned small businesses and entrepreneurship in West Michigan?
Salas: I think that I’m pretty excited, as a business owner myself, to see this huge investment in all the social media information out there in order to inspire and get new entrepreneurs in the door. ... I don’t know if it’s because of Start Garden or because of … Shark Tank and all of those TV shows going on, but I believe that in the past three years, I’ve seen a huge investment, development of talent in order to get people in the door to start a business and to explore the opportunities that come (with) entrepreneurship. That being said, I’ve noted that there’s a lack of support for businesses that are already established. … There should also be support for those that are in business for a substantial amount of time in order for them to continue growing and continue being successful.
Jurgens: I would add to that: There are these things out there and opportunities to help the existing (firms) learn and grow, but there’s so many of them and they’re so spread out. If you don’t know somebody who knows somebody who has it all together, it’s really hard. It just seems like there’s a lot of opportunities, but to figure them out and get engaged has been the trick.
Salas: And I’ve seen a lot of collaborations form in order to put together the resources instead of everybody having their own show happening, which I think is very helpful.
Jelks: While I’ve been happy about the recent energy that’s transpiring here in Grand Rapids, a lot of the recent energy wasn’t birthed out of some revelation that fell out the sky. I think it came from immense political pressure. I think it came from the 2015 Forbes article that referenced Grand Rapids being 51 out of 52 worst cities for African Americans, some of the numbers that the Kellogg Foundation put out about there being about a 53 percent unemployment rate in the black community, the poverty rate in the Latino community being exceedingly high. These are things that I don’t think a city that is looking to be respected as a global community can afford to continue to suffer in the age of transparency. I think the ecosystem work that Start Garden is doing –– and we’ve been a part of that from the beginning –– (is helping). Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses was their first partnership that kind of got them focused on having a philosophy when it came to how can we incubate businesses at the neighborhood level. It was out of necessity and out of survival.
What are you seeing as far as the availability of capital for minority-driven entrepreneurship endeavors?
Jelks: What we’re finding is that there’s still significant problems with getting minority entrepreneurs resources. You have all of these different micro-lending organizations and economic service organizations that aren’t getting money out the doors to minority entrepreneurs. Traditional lending entities aren’t getting money out the doors to entrepreneurs. A person of color in the city can get $30,000 to $50,000 for a luxury car. I like luxury cars, but you can’t get $5,000 to $10,000 for your business. So you still have significant challenges here in the city of Grand Rapids when it comes to creating a culture of entrepreneurship that’s effective and works for everybody.
Williams: Being a restaurateur, one of the hardest things is financing. Banks don’t like restaurants anymore, and we just don’t have those avenues through micro-lending or anything like that. So you’ve got to get extremely creative in the investment opportunities and quite frankly, you’ve got to have a lot of experience to know how to navigate through this just to get the doors open. I’ve been in Grand Rapids for about 18 years now and it’s always been extremely difficult to just get something open. It just isn’t there. It’s who you know sometimes and I’ve dealt with things where you just don’t get the opportunities.
How do you think you create those opportunities?
Williams: Luckily, now, I’ve gotten the opportunities based off the climate. There’s an energy out there. It’s better than it ever has (been) before, but I’m always looking over my shoulder to make sure it’s concrete and it’s going to stay the way it has to stay. I don’t like feeling like that, but I have to be honest about that’s what the process is sometimes. We’re trying to create (the Forty Acres Lifestyle) brand that will help others, empower others, as we do this training and just showing them this is the way you can go about opening your business. That’s a huge part of our footprint of what we want to do. But definitely … there’s an energy out there like I’ve never seen before in 18 years. And it’s due to a lot of little things. People are a lot more socially responsible.
Romanelli: I’m seeing a renewed interest or a larger interest in what the populations are doing. I think I see more investing now. Where I see a problem mostly is in the startup businesses. If the business is up and running, they give more attention to ease your problem. But for Native Americans — primarily, because that’s where my focus is — getting the startup businesses (resources) is the hardest part, getting through that and getting recognition. One major issue that goes on (is that) Native Americans are listed as ‘other’ or not listed in stats on a regular basis and it’s just crazy.
I’ve been involved with the minority issues since the 1960s. … I just tried to do a little startup business just to see what the process is because I hope to become a mentor for other minority businesses. What I found was a bunch of roadblocks, and part of that was being listed as other or not even showing up on the radar. That’s really a major issue for me. But other than that, I see a lot of hope coming from minorities in seeing what we can do to increase business.
Could state tools be better used to ramp up minority entrepreneurship?
Romanelli: Yeah, I mean … you have the Start Gardens, which are the better things for me, and then you have the MEDC. You also have the Michigan Minority Supplier (Development Council). It seemed to fall real short for me. As a matter of fact, some of their literature is what I was referring to (that listed) ‘other.’ Do you realize that Michigan Minority Business Suppliers is funded and created out of the Small Business Association and if they themselves are putting it out incorrectly, it’s an issue.
Jurgens: It also requires such a specific skill set in my experience to do these types of applications if you’re a small business. … We have about 100 employees. But still, trying to find somebody to write for these types of things or discover these types of things or connect these programs like we talked about — we can’t dedicate somebody to going and doing that work and to be, for lack of a better term, a grant writer in some cases. It’s really hard.
Williams: I feel we don’t have a long history culturally of doing these things. Everyone has to get used to even doing this stuff. I moved here 18 years ago from Brooklyn, New York. I come from a place that was used to doing that. That was all in motion. I grew up learning that. I think we’re just living in a time where (African American businesses are) growing, but it’s still not the norm. I think what we want to get to is normal. At the end of the day, it’s nice to have a restaurant, but sometimes I think … you shouldn’t have to say it’s the first African-American full-service restaurant (with a liquor license in Grand Rapids). That should be the norm now.
How else do these built-in cultural norms affect minority communities?
Jelks: You look at an area like Wealthy Street and you have a robust business community, all kinds of restaurants, and it’s surrounded still by the African American community. I live right off of that street in that corridor. You can count the amount of African American servers that you see in those businesses. I just think that’s disgraceful. You have new business owners who I think are open to it, some of them just don’t know how.
Williams: Absolutely. I get calls all the time from people (saying), ‘I’m looking for people, Lewis.’ I say, ‘You’re not looking. They’re out there.’ Because in their mind, they’re looking for a certain thing. I always have to remind them there’s these programs. You have to look at everything. Second Chances, AARP, things like that. They’re there. I’ve used them and it works fine.
Salas: It’s interesting what you said, the part about people not looking. That has been my biggest issue with the legal (community), because there’s all these organizations about diversity and the law and this reporting going on. At the end of the day, if you look at the amount of minority attorneys being hired and retained by the law firms, it’s a joke. And at one point, I had eight attorneys full-time on my payroll and they all were minorities. So how can I find them but you can’t even hire them? Yeah, we see that happening all the time.
Given this need for awareness, how do you harness some of the momentum we’re currently experiencing and then make it so it’s part of the cultural norm?
Williams: I feel like I’ve got to lead by example. I feel like for me, I’ve got to open this place. I’ve got to show people how it’s done, so they have some reference to it. I feel like a lot of people just don’t have a reference to these things and don’t understand how it should go. I’m going to take that responsibility to kind of lead by example, show them what to do and then invite people in to experience that. To me, the best way to do it was through food. If you can experience and bring people together, food usually does the trick. That’s why this restaurant is going first in our whole plan.
Salas: In addition to lead by example, I think it’s very important to do mentorship and collaboration. In my office, almost every attorney that I’ve lost, they have opened their own firm. Mario Cascante was one of my attorneys. He now owns Luna Restaurant and Tacos El Cunado. So the idea of working together with those that are starting out and also helping them … even if they were to become your competitors is very important. At the end of the day, the only way that we can continue empowering others to go into business in addition to leading by example is to help them.
Williams: Yeah, and even with my purveyors, my vendors, I let them know from day one, this is the mission. You have to be part of that or I will go somewhere else. It’s just that simple to me, if I spend my dollars with you.
Jurgens: (It’s) starting a movement. But again, I would love to know how we could be more efficient in that, how we could do that better. (If) each year we didn’t have to go, ‘OK, where can we reach out to do the best work the fastest and most efficiently?’
Some of the local tribes have been starting up their own investment groups to create opportunities for tribal members. What’s the background on that trend?
Romanelli: With Native Americans, especially in Michigan, the belief is that all Native Americans have all kinds of money because they have these casinos. It’s not the truth. There are a couple of casinos that do pay out fairly decent, but the other ones do not and the Native Americans are just unrecognized. … We’ve tried to take some of that money and start our own businesses. … Now, I try to reinvest because we know casinos aren’t the only business in town and that we have to incorporate in different ways.
Lewis, the name of your forthcoming restaurant, Forty Acres, brings out some vivid imagery. (Editor’s note: The name refers to the broken promise that freed slaves would receive 40 acres and a mule once slavery ended.) Is that type of branding important to drive home the point about normalizing minority businesses?
Williams: Yeah, that’s the question I’ve been asked a lot from everyone. It’s about the education and it’s about (having) a conversation. We had to think of a way to have this conversation, let’s have it. We’re going to put in an African American restaurant. We’re going to have soul food there. Some people know what it is, some people don’t know what it is. So we want to have this conversation, not apologetically. We discuss some history, we discuss where the food comes from, how it entered your life and why it did. We wanted to have a conversation. So we said, ‘You know what? You call it Forty Acres, and we’re going to have a conversation.’
Jelks: My thought process is you have to be unapologetic and you have to be unrelenting. I think that’s the only thing that the city of Grand Rapids understands. We’ve been entirely too homogenous in our resources. We’ve been entirely too homogenous in who’s hiring. We talk about why aren’t more dollars and resources getting up to entrepreneurs of color and minority entrepreneurs. It’s because we don’t have enough minorities in the banks and in the lending institutions and so we’re fighting this kind of battle city-wide. The city of Grand Rapids, they got called out for some diversity issues and they’re working on recruiting more people from diverse backgrounds. That’s happening across the board here in the city and it’s extremely healthy and it’s long overdue. But I just don’t think that ‘West Michigan nice’ has gotten the job done.
How does that ‘West Michigan nice’ dynamic change significantly?
Jelks: We think that there’s two ways that we’ll be able to address some of the things that we’re seeing in the inner city. It’s building a strong business class and it’s getting people connected to be a part of the workforce of the future. Coding is the new blue collar workforce. It is the new manufacturing. … The Steelcases and the Big Three will never be what they once were, and so we’ve got to get people geared up for high-tech, high-growth industries. There’s a huge gap there and we need to get people thinking about that from an entrepreneurial perspective as well.
Jurgens: Sometimes I almost feel like the ‘West Michigan nice’ can hinder progress. After working nine years on the East Coast primarily in New York, I have to say to people in my office: ‘Do not expect me to perceive how you really feel about this.’ So in order for me to really know how you’re feeling about this, you have to tell me so I can get to work on overcoming that, because if you just sugarcoat it, it’s going to take three times as long and I’m never going to pick up on it. I’d rather hear it straight all day long.
Do you feel as though our educational system is doing a good enough job teaching entrepreneurship to minority students, or even in general?
Jelks: I think when you look at (Grand Rapids Public Schools), some of the public-private partnerships that they have there, other cities would die to have. So I think the investment is coming in, but it’s within the last eight years or so that Grand Rapids has begun the hiring system, so we haven’t really seen the harvest yet from these newer programs. But I think GRPS is on the right track as far as bringing in Spectrum Health and I think Open Systems Technologies has a really strong relationship with them, which is exciting.
Salas: I’m very grateful that I work a lot with entrepreneurs and a lot of organizations. I teach a lot of the classes and I’m able to know where the resources are and I’m able to anticipate but I have represented so many businesses that go out of business and I can tell you there’s two things that are key when businesses close. Number one, they take more debt than they can handle and number two, they don’t get the proper mentorship. They’re afraid to look for help all the time. They wait until it’s too late.
When we think about technology firms, how is West Michigan doing in terms of hiring women and minorities compared to some of the large coastal hubs?
Jurgens: Well, there’s different stereotypes depending on where you go. In Silicon Valley, you’re looking at a large Indian population, Asian population. Yeah, it’s definitely more guy-skewed, but I do see that changing, especially if you don’t just look at the coders. You look at the entire company, what makes up a technology company: Our top sales person is a woman. Our head of project management, all of our project managers for the most part are women. So, I think that when you look at a technology company, you’ve got to step outside of coding per se to get that full look at it. Could we be even more intentional about it? Absolutely, but there were just different stereotypes depending on the city.
Jelks: I think Detroit has done a good job of investing in tech and entrepreneurship across the board. They have a long tradition of political leadership that’s extremely diverse. It’s a city that has numbers. I think across the board getting people of color in tech is a big problem. In Grand Rapids, it looks like everywhere else in terms of that problem — maybe a little bit worse because we’re in Grand Rapids. But it looks really bad across the board.
How can your individual organizations make the push for more normalcy around minority entrepreneurship?
Romanelli: Just with my little tribe, our four attorneys are all female, which is great. I think that every group has their own biases and we’ve had our own within our own (group) where it’s just kind of crazy whether it’s the female focus or not in the Native Americans. We’ve had to deal with that understanding as well and come to a reality so we’re not absent some of those same issues. Even other races within Native Americans because for whatever reason –– and I don’t know if it’s because when you’re within a community and you’re struggling so hard and you have a tendency to lash out at everybody else –– but I think we have to be honest about that as well.
Jurgens: I think as we’ve grown, (we’ve) been able to pull in some different types of people into SalesPad in general. When you’re a small organization, it’s really hard to get any diversity, but as you start to grow, the more people that we’ve pulled in, the more listening we’ve been able to do, the more barriers we’ve been able to then address. But that scale takes time.
Williams: It’s just a different way to run your business now. You just have to put it out there. This is what we’re about. This is what we do. This is how we’re going to do it. You just have to be intentional. The conversation has to be had for everyone to understand. Because some people, they just don’t understand. If you’ve never dealt with something like that before, how would you know? Ignorance is bliss.
Romanelli: There’s just a new way of doing business. It’s a new mindset, which is good, and we have to get into that flow and keep it going. Strike while the iron’s hot. I think that everybody understands we’re just more of a focus now. I think next year, hopefully, the focus is that there’s been more collaboration going on not only within the different groups but also within the different businesses. That would be my goal.