GRAND RAPIDS — By hiring two economic development professionals who work with the minority community, Start Garden LLC looks to broaden its outreach to more entrepreneurs.
Darel Ross, co-executive director for nine years at LINC UP, and Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce since March 2015, joined Start Garden’s leadership team. They’ll work to reach out to and better connect Start Garden with entrepreneurs in the Hispanic and African American communities around Grand Rapids.
“In historically marginalized communities, there always has been this area of mistrust. It’s about who you know and who you trust,” said Gonzalez, who’s been involved with the Hispanic Chamber since it began 13 years ago.
“Darel and I had been working in the economic development ecosystem for many years now. We have the trust of the minority community,” he said. “Now, through Start Garden, there are programs and services where we can say, ‘Hey, here’s this.’ We can open up doors for them to be able to connect.”
Those connections can bring Start Garden to the “neighborhood level” and help to connect businesses with the entrepreneurial support and business networks it offers, Gonzalez said.
Ross and Gonzalez will work alongside Start Garden CEO Mike Morin and Chief Marketing Officer Paul Moore in what Morin calls “more of a collective, collaborative leadership model.” They will serve on an executive committee that directs strategy for the organization.
The transition brings to the table veteran voices in Grand Rapids’ minority community and builds on prior efforts by Start Garden to reach beyond its base.
While Start Garden previously worked with organizations such as LINC UP and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, including hosting a Spanish-speaking 5x5 Night, “we just recognized we were missing voices,” Morin said. “And over time we built relationships and then those relationships kind of culminated in a conversation about ‘what would it look like if we all did this together.’”
The initiative to reach deeper and forge better connections in the minority community represents another step in the evolution of Start Garden, he said. The organization launched in 2012 as a non-traditional venture capital fund investing in ideas that have potential to become high-growth businesses. Start Garden spun out the venture capital fund into Wakestream Ventures last year and now focuses on fostering entrepreneurism.
“We started out with this notion of making Grand Rapids a great place for people to start their own businesses and this is just a logical progression of our learning. In order for that to be true, it needs to be a great place for all people, in all neighborhoods, and working in all different types of businesses for it to be a great place,” Morin said. “It needs to be culturally a great place to start a business, not just programmatically.”
In announcing the transition, Start Garden cited U.S. Census Bureau statistics that show the Hispanic population in Grand Rapids grew 10 percent from 2009 to 2014. However, so did the group’s rates of poverty, low incomes and unemployment.
Start Garden also noted that “African-American entrepreneurship is more underrepresented in Grand Rapids than similar cities” and that Forbes magazine ranked Grand Rapids last out of 52 cities for wealth creation “measured against entrepreneurship, home ownership and average median income among African Americans.”
A FOCUS ON DIVERSITY
Diversity issues have gained greater attention in one key part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem — the venture capital industry — both nationally and in Michigan.
The annual research report published last spring by the Michigan Venture Capital Association included a section on diversity that noted several key findings. They include:
n24 of the 141 venture capital-backed portfolio companies in Michigan, or 17 percent, are led by people from underrepresented groups.
nVenture capital firms invested $6.8 million in 13 startups in 2015 led by people from underrepresented groups. That equates to 2.4 percent of the $282 million in venture capital invested in Michigan in 2015 and 18 percent of the 74 companies that received investments.
n8.5 percent of CEOs at startup companies backed by venture capital are minorities and 10 percent are women.
The MVCA’s diversity study indicated that “Michigan’s venture capital and startup communities generally reflect diversity in proportions greater than national averages, with significant populations of women and minority venture (capital) professionals and CEOs, especially in southeast Michigan.”
However, the report also highlighted the need for more progress.
“Beneath the surface, however, statewide funding data suggests these organizations led by people from underrepresented groups may be systematically underfunded, possibly due to embedded biases or lack of access to opportunities within the community,” according to the MVCA research report. “Identifying and overcoming race or gender biases to surface the most meritorious venture professionals and CEOs could be a profitable goal for the entire industry.”
A CHANGE IN MODEL
The change in Start Garden’s leadership structure essentially flips the operating model where strategic decisions and addressing “big questions” typically started without full representation from the community, Morin said.
Under the new leadership structure and the “new era” for Start Garden, those voices are now at the table and “bringing that diverse perspective to all of the activities of Start Garden,” he said.
“We’ve relied on the historical, dominant voices to all get together and say, ‘What’s the 10-step plan?’ And then once we have the 10-step plan, then let’s start to bring the minority community into the conversation,” Morin said “We’re starting the opposite. The starting point is taking diverse voices and diverse people and putting them in position of influence and power and authority where they have resources. From there, we will collectively define what it is that needs to happen and then we will execute it.”