DISMANTLING BARRIERS TO Economic Growth While Grand Rapids was named the #2 best city for small businesses in 2018, economic and social barriers still prevent growth for many. In 2018, Grand Rapids Community Foundation awarded more than $650,000 in grants to local nonprofits working to expand access to prosperity. Their work supports workforce development to increase career advancement opportunities and a sustainable living wage, improving longterm financial stability for families. Start Garden is one organization we partner with to provide opportunities for historically marginalized entrepreneurs. Start Garden’s 100 Ideas program seeds 100 aspiring entrepreneurs with $1,000 to compete in a Demo Day. Ten winners receive $20,000 to get their new venture off the ground. “The program targets those who have felt excluded, either through personal or social reasons. The 100 make up the most diverse set of businesses, ethnicities, education and income levels of any new business program in West Michigan,” said Jorge Gonzalez, director at Start Garden. We interviewed three winners to learn how 100 Ideas affected their businesses.
JANAY BROWER, FOUNDER, PUBLIC THREAD: “Prior to 100 Ideas, we did not have the financial resources to pivot into working on our product lines for Public Thread. Launching our own line of products was critical for us to diversify our revenue streams and ensure longer-term financial sustainability of the business. Investing in companies that need capital to launch, grow or pivot into new areas without having strings attached or requiring payback of the money at such an early and vulnerable stage of business development is game changing.” Public Thread is a cut-and-sew shop that uses upcycled and re-purposed textiles to disrupt the current textile industry with creativity and collaboration. They produce laptop bags, totes, business card holders and more. publicthread.co BRIAN LAI, FOUNDER, ONLY BEAN: “We were able to scale our business and gain exposure and credibility in the community. Start Garden has continued to follow up with us and make connections with very useful resources. 100 Ideas makes it easy for entrepreneurs to share their ideas and encourages them to turn ideas into reality. It provides an opportunity for people to kickstart their business and validate business ideas. Once businesses are built, jobs are created, innovation and competition increases, and our economy continues to thrive.” The Only Bean produces and sells a bean pasta packed with protein, fiber and antioxidants and made with 100% organic and non-GMO beans. theonlybean.com ARIANA WALLER, FOUNDER, ADORAA COMPANY: “From inventory to equipment for our sanitation processes, to mentors and relationships that have been built because of the competition, 100 Ideas was the fuel needed to take Adoraa Company to the next level. 100 Ideas helps to dismantle the issue of accessibility for underestimated founders and business owners. How can anyone build a dream without access to resources?” Adoraa Company is a mobile app and web platform that matches users with hair and beauty products. shopadoraa.com
These businesses are enhancing our local economy in many ways. They are occupying once-vacant physical space in targeted neighborhoods and doing business with other local entrepreneurs. They are also creating wealth and job opportunities for themselves, their families and local residents, which adds to the local tax base and creates more economic development. “By providing financial capital coupled with intellectual capital, social capital and infrastructure capital, [Start Garden was] able to create 10 viable businesses in Grand Rapids that are on the pathway to sustainability,” Jorge said.
Bringing the Community Together The Start Garden winners are examples of the innovative businesses that can be launched in our community with proper support. But, how can we continue to develop economic prosperity for all Kent County citizens? Brian asserts that collaboration is essential. “We need to continue supporting local businesses and encourage innovation by supporting entrepreneurs with great ideas. Bringing the community together and making helpful connections will create a stronger ecosystem leading to economic prosperity for all,” he said. A variety of supports are needed, from creating a financial safety net for businesses to have room to fail and try again, to a network of business mentors and connections, to backend supports allowing businesses to focus on growth while managing day-today needs. Start Garden shows us one way to support entrepreneurs through a simple, barrier-free process. The Community Foundation has been fortunate to partner with other community organizations working to address the need for equitable access to economic growth opportunities. While these organizations are making a positive impact, the question remains. How else might we as a community continue to cultivate opportunities for everyone to grow and prosper? H.G.F.