VanderVen Keeps Cooking

November 27, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Rita VanderVen says she has an idea for a new business “about every 10 minutes.”

So it is no surprise that VanderVen, with twin passions for entrepreneurship and for helping others, is focused on teaching people the skills to start new businesses through her position as executive director of Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW).

“When I saw the ad (for the GROW job), I told my husband, someone has written this about me,” said VanderVen, who 20 years ago launched a catering business called Gourmet to Go.

Today, VanderVen oversees a nonprofit with seven employees, three to five interns and more than 100 volunteers, and a budget of about $400,000. In 2005, according to the organization’s spring 2006 annual report, GROW clients launched 40 new businesses and created 270 new jobs. GROW provides classes, training and counseling to help women (and a few men) launch and run small businesses and learn economic literacy. In 2005, 35 percent of 2,391 GROW clients had extremely low or low incomes, but VanderVen said the classes are open to anyone, and even people with master’s degrees in business administration have attended to learn the finer points of running a small business.

VanderVen, armed with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, sociology and education from Hope College and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Western Michigan University, found herself struggling financially as a young wife and mother in the early 1980s. She and her husband both lost their jobs when the company they worked for went bankrupt.

“I totally understand the feeling of the people in Michigan right now — that uncertainty,” she said, because despite a high level of education, “I wasn’t sure how we were going to buy milk. We had nothing.” Nothing, that is, but two preschoolers and a baby on the way.

“I thought, I’ve got to figure out something I can do with the skills that I have,” she said.

One thing VanderVen could do is cook. She loves cooking and did a lot of it at restaurants while working her way through college as well as at her parents’ Oceana County farm, where paying guests would stay for a week at a time. She and a high school friend once riled the school’s lunch service program by selling homemade strawberry mini-pies for the same price as a school lunch. So VanderVen became a cook at a preschool, providing lunch and snacks for the youngsters.

“I loved it,” VanderVen said. “I was a teacher, too, so I would bring the kids into the kitchen.” She would show them how to cook and teach them about the origins of the food.

Realizing that, as the offspring of busy parents, “these kids lived on macaroni and cheese and hot dogs,” VanderVen decided to earn enough money for a family trip to Florida by offering to make dinners that parents could cart home from the preschool. Twenty families signed up immediately and soon even people without children at the preschool were asking for VanderVen’s dinners.

“People kept saying, ‘You should do this for a business,’” she said, and so she did, opening a store in Ada, across from then-Amway Corp., with a $21,000 investment from herself and a partner. The catering end of the business started when she was asked to cater an event for a Van Andel party. Eventually her business became a catering enterprise and VanderVen bought out her partner.

“My background was in psychology and sociology, and I ran a business that way,” she recalled. “We had our share of challenges. If I would have had the slightest bit of business training, we would have saved ourselves a lot of heartache and loss of major money.”

Challenges came, for example, in managing personnel and in picking price points for products, she said.

More challenges came in raising her children while running a busy company. VanderVen said she would pick up and drop off her children in the company van, dressed as a chef. Her son would fib about his schedule to make sure she showed up at his soccer games on time instead of her perennial 15 minutes late.

“I thought that I could still be with the children and do this,” she said. “It was very demanding, very physical. People thought that it was glamorous and I was making beaucoup bucks. There was a point when I calculated I was making five cents an hour. The expenses were so astronomical.”

So in 2000, VanderVen sold Gourmet to Go to spend more time with her nearly grown children. The VanderVens became licensed foster parents in order to take in an acquaintance of their daughter’s, and eventually two teen-age refugees from Sudan joined the family. The six children now are ages 21 to 25.

But three months after the sale, VanderVen said she was getting restless. Then she saw the ad for her current job, which she has held since June 2000.

“I see so many people, especially in this economy, who take their nest egg, get excited about picking a name, painting a room and picking a location, but have no idea how to run a business,” she said, noting that 85 percent of small businesses fail within two years.

GROW offers classes in money management, business training and support services, such as help with business plan development. VanderVen said the ability to create a business plan is a skill people can apply to every aspect of life, from a marriage to an education. VanderVen, who taught business skills to women in Ghana two years ago, said she’d like to expand business skills programs internationally.

“There’s so much to do and so little time,” she said. 

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