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Published in Small Business
Pack Elephant founder and CEO Winsome Kirton. Pack Elephant founder and CEO Winsome Kirton. PHOTO BY KATE CARLSON

Pack Elephant helps local, diverse artisans scale their business

BY Sunday, May 23, 2021 05:10pm

GRAND RAPIDS — When Winsome Kirton worked in advertising, she was often disappointed by executives’ uninspired corporate gifts that didn’t match the company’s values. 

Kirton saw a business opportunity in improving the quality of corporate gifting and helping companies fulfill supplier diversity goals, while also elevating small businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans, and LGBTQ people. 

Kirton opened Pack Elephant Inc. about two years ago as an online market that sells curated gifts sourced from diverse small business owners. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic last December, Kirton also opened a storefront in downtown Grand Rapids and is one of the anchor retail tenants at Studio Park.

“We service consumers that come into the store or find us online, but we do a lot of corporate gifting — that’s really our bread and butter,” said Kirton, Pack Elephant’s CEO and founder. “A lot of corporations have supplier diversity goals or they have mission statements around diversity, equity and inclusion. We want to be able to help them demonstrate those and put their money where their mouth is when it comes to gifting.”

Incorporating diversity, equity and inclusion in corporate gifting is a seemingly benign way to make a difference, but it can have a direct positive effect on communities of color, Kirton said. 

Connecting with Pack Elephant has made it possible for many small makers to scale their businesses, she added. Many vendors at Pack Elephant specialize in home goods, decor or wellness products and previously relied on seasonal artisan markets for in-person sales, or costly third-party services like Etsy.

“We get orders sometimes for 1,000-plus gifts at a time,” Kirton said. “That’s how you’re able to introduce artisans who don’t typically get that kind of volume to scale. Making it easy for customers is part of the puzzle, but this is also making sure the businesses themselves have a sustainable channel for sales.”

As a Black woman, Kirton can relate to some of the additional obstacles her vendors from diverse backgrounds face when trying to break in and “be on the list,” she said.

“That’s a difficult thing for anyone. You have to have all of these credentials that cost money and take a lot of time in order to get those badges of approval,” Kirton said. “For a lot of new businesses, they are looking for their first shot. If you’re not on the list, you’re not on anyone’s radar. That’s why a lot of businesses have trouble identifying and finding women or diverse-owned businesses to partner or work with.”

As for corporate gifting, companies are typically last-minute shoppers that haven’t taken the time to thoughtfully source gifts, or they don’t know where to find diverse suppliers, Kirton said. 

“Having a platform to tap and a cohort of artists that have already been vetted is super helpful,” Kirton said.

Moving into the Studio Park space during the pandemic was a challenge, but Kirton received a $67,500 grant from Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. to help cover rent. Acrisure LLC, which is in the process of moving into its new headquarters in Studio Park, recently announced that it’s a platinum sponsor of the Arts Marketplace at Studio Park, which is anchored by Pack Elephant.

With the addition of the physical storefront in Studio Park, customers are also able to purchase products from Pack Elephant individually. The physical space for the business also functions as a showroom so companies can come view products in person. 

“We really love being here,” Kirton said. “The location is awesome and also gives our artists and artisans that are West Michigan-based the opportunity to have a downtown presence.”

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