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The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s downtown Grand Rapids office. The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s downtown Grand Rapids office. Credit: Grand Rapids Chamber

In 6 months, GR Chamber program builds ties, belonging for minority-owned biz

BY Sunday, March 26, 2023 09:28am

When Laura Hopson moved her industrial supply business from Lansing to Grand Rapids in 2020, she had an “intentional strategy” to connect with the local chamber of commerce and leverage networking opportunities with like-minded business owners.

Hopson, who was born and raised in the Grand Rapids area and worked nearly three decades in the office furniture industry before acquiring EM Services LLC in 2018, says the strategy is paying off. 

She has made new business connections through the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Economic Inclusion, which launched in September 2022 to help lift up under-represented, minority-owned businesses in West Michigan.

As a minority business owner, Hopson also emphasizes that such connections are a “two-way street,” noting that business owners have to put themselves out there to capitalize on programs like the Center for Economic Inclusion.

“The Chamber, in my eyes, has done a really phenomenal job of being a community organization for all businesses. I can’t say that was always the case — I don’t know if it was the existing leadership, but something happened,” said Hopson, whose Grand Rapids-based company employs six people and serves customers with a variety of industrial supplies. “They’ve made a conscious effort to develop relationships with everyone.”

Participating in the Center for Economic Inclusion has connected Hopson with various commodities and I.T. suppliers as well as customers looking to diversify their supply chain. In 2022, Hopson’s company also gained “tremendous” exposure as the woman-owned business of the year in the Chamber’s annual Epic Awards. 

Hopson said participating in the Center for Economic Inclusion has brought advantages with “customers, suppliers, operations, education, leadership, awareness. It is a two-way street, for everyone who’s ready and listening. If you want to receive, you also have to give, participate and give your time, talent and ideas.”

Scaling up

Grand Rapids Chamber executives launched the Center for Economic Inclusion last year with an overarching goal to bring more prosperity and opportunity to minority-owned businesses. Chamber officials noted at the time that minority-owned businesses simply are not scaling in West Michigan. Less than 1 percent of Grand Rapids businesses bringing in at least $250,000 a year are owned by a person of color, while 98 percent of business revenue in Grand Rapids comes from white-owned businesses, according to the Chamber.

Omar Cuevas, vice president of investor and corporate relations at the Grand Rapids Chamber, added that Grand Rapids ranks among some of the worst U.S. cities for supporting African American and Hispanic business owners, even though the community has roughly 20 organizations that provide entrepreneurial and other business support.

“That was a wakeup call. When we looked at our mission of helping create a thriving and prosperous West Michigan for all, that gave us a reality check,” Cuevas said. “How could we be part of the change that could align resources to support a growing minority business community? One of the ways we decided to do that was through the Center for Economic Inclusion.”

The Center provides technical assistance, physical workspace at the Chamber’s downtown office, leadership development and skills training, and networking opportunities with other businesses. 

In the six months since launching, nearly 100 businesses have taken part in the Center for Economic Inclusion in some form, Cuevas said. He added that the Chamber hopes to track key performance indicators among the companies around job creation, revenue growth and access to capital.

“We want to have a proven model where we have this one-on-one case management and scale beyond Grand Rapids,” Cuevas said. “We want to share this model with our region.”

Most recently, the Grand Rapids Chamber and the Center for Economic Inclusion announced a new partnership with the Kent District Library that will open even more educational resources to entrepreneurs that are available at local libraries. This includes onsite librarians and researchers as well as software that can help owners perform market research.

“We look at projects like this as inflation busters,” Kent District Library Executive Director Lance Werner told MiBiz. “If we can support small businesses, we’re going to pick everybody up. We want to make people’s lives better. This is an effort to that end. We’re just fired up about this.”

Looking ahead, the Grand Rapids Chamber is in the early stages of piloting a procurement program that aims to make it easier for larger companies to source materials or products from minority-owned businesses.

Sense of belonging

One of the Center for Economic Inclusion’s key pillars is “ecosystem navigation,” Cuevas said. That means helping small business owners connect to a vast network of educational and technical resources, like-minded companies and, ultimately, customers.

“The goal with this pillar is: How do we provide a better experience for the entrepreneur in not having to go at it alone?” he said.

For Charlie Elwood, the connection with like-minded business owners was a crucial benefit to participating in the Center for Economic Inclusion. Elwood founded Holland-based data analytic and A.I. service provider SolisMatica LLC in 2019. 

“I think it helped me meet people from other backgrounds and gave me the confidence to think about how important A.I. is globally,” said Elwood, who is planning a trade mission to Thailand and Vietnam to bring technology overseas. “It’s important especially for small businesses. You’re always hesitant: This is my baby, and you’re afraid it will fail. The program has helped me meet other like-minded people.”

Elwood describes himself as a “halfie,” of Thai and Danish descent. He was surprised to learn about the Asian population growth taking place in West Michigan, and feels an obligation to “elevate Thai groups to make sure we all succeed together and help the state and counties grow and adapt to this changing dynamic.”

He added that his mixed race can be alienating at times, but that the Center for Economic Inclusion has brought some relief.

“I’m finding that because of my participation in the Chamber, I’m meeting more halfies,” Elwood said. “We’re stuck, typically, in a world outside of society. We don’t belong to any group, so where do we fit in? The Chamber — for them to listen to my story and bring me in — helped with my sense of belonging. No one had ever done that before. It gives us the confidence to know we have the support, belonging, and that we can excel.”

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