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Jon VerLee, director and entrepreneur in residence at Calvin Startup Garage. (COURTESY PHOTO) Jon VerLee, director and entrepreneur in residence at Calvin Startup Garage. (COURTESY PHOTO)

Calvin University launches Startup Garage business incubator backed by $500K donation

BY Tuesday, September 13, 2022 02:56pm

GRAND RAPIDS — After selling the church management software company he started in 2014, Jon VerLee decided to put his money into assisting other entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.

VerLee donated $500,000 to Calvin University to start the Startup Garage business incubator with a goal “to create 100 Christ-centered companies in the next 10 years.”

Calvin Startup Garage will offer space, mentoring and assistance to prospective student entrepreneurs who want to build a business. A Holland native and Calvin University graduate, VerLee also committed to volunteering for four years to serve as director of Startup Garage and entrepreneur in residence.

“This is really, truly rooted in our faith,” said VerLee, a former youth pastor who started Breeze LLC in 2014 as a side business. “We want to see companies flourish, and because those companies are flourishing, we want to see the customers that they’re serving flourish and we want the employees to flourish.”

VerLee, who started Breeze by writing his own code in the evenings and on weekends, left his job as a youth minister in 2015 to focus on running the company. After growing the company to about 50 employees, he sold Breeze a year ago to Nashville, Tenn.-based Tithely, a global provider of technologies to churches.

At the time of the sale, Breeze was working with 9,000 churches, mostly in the U.S.

In deciding to provide funding to launch Calvin’s Startup Garage, VerLee told MiBiz that he considers business as “a powerful tool of redemption” that can “further God’s kingdom.”

“Business, when it’s run right, when it’s run well, when it’s run with Biblical principles, is an incredibly powerful culture shaper and force,” he said. “While I started Breeze with similar desires to create an impact in the world through a company, now it is shifted to saying, ‘How can I not just create a company — how can I create a machine that creates redemptively-minded companies?’”

Calvin Startup Garage is rooted in a conversation over coffee that VerLee had years ago with Calvin professor, Tom Betts, when he sought advice for Breeze. Years later they began discussing how he could support entrepreneurism for students at the Grand Rapids-based Christian university.

VerLee and his wife, Kerrie, eventually decided to support the formation of a business incubator at Calvin that launches next week, aims to help students start companies and will then extend to entrepreneurs across West Michigan.

“Startup Garage creates that opportunity for students from every discipline at Calvin to be equipped to create a business around a passion that they have,” said Jim Ludema, dean of Calvin University’s new School of Business. “The idea is that students can start and grow businesses that deliver real value in the marketplace and also serve as agents of renewal in their communities.” 

VerLee’s $500,000 gift supports the business incubator’s startup costs and an endowment fund that Calvin hopes to grow to $2 million to make the Startup Garage financially sustainable.

Startup Garage will prepare entrepreneurs “with the skills and the financial resources to get companies off the ground by providing these entrepreneurs with funding, mentorship, and community,” Ludema said. He also hopes Calvin alumni will become involved in the business incubator as volunteer mentors.

Startup Garage will host weekly meetings with VerLee and connected with a team of Calvin alumni mentors who formed, ran and sold businesses, as well as host a pitch competition for students to compete for seed capital.

The business incubator also will offer participants up to $2,000 to “get their idea off the ground,” VerLee said.

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Read 2040 times Last modified on Tuesday, 13 September 2022 15:05
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