Organization Connects Professionals Of Color

April 13, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — A new organization of young professionals is looking to grow old in Grand Rapids.

BLEND — Business Leaders Linked to Encourage New Directions — is an organization geared toward 22- to 35-year-old professionals of color, but, according to Maxine Gray, communications chair and professional development co-chair, BLEND has members in their 50s as well as underclassmen who attend regularly.

“Any professional who finds their place in our organization, we definitely do not turn anyone away,” said Gray.

BLEND was started in August 2006 by Erayna Gamble and a few other recent Grand Valley State University graduates who were finding the transition from college to the Grand Rapids community difficult in terms of involvement. They quickly discovered many other young professionals were facing the same problems and decided to form BLEND.

“A campus is sort of its own world. You have everything you could possibly need; you have opportunities to get involved and to understand how to make your way through that campus,” said Gray. “When you begin to work and live here, it’s like starting all over. You have to get to know who the leaders are, especially young people who like to get involved and they want to network, and that was difficult.”

Since its inception two years ago, the organization has added more than 270 members to its e-mail distribution list and attracts more than 30 people to its events, which are held monthly.

“We get e-mails every day asking … ‘Please add me to your list; I’ve heard about you, I’ve heard about your event’ — from recruiters who want to be added to our list because they want to pass it on to their professionals of color in their organization, to young people who just hear about us.”

BLEND’s events are split between its three main focuses: professional development, community service and social networking.

“Out of those three focuses, we find a way to help other young professionals of color find their place in the community, find out how they can give back and begin to add value to their lives and to the community, as well,” said Gray.

The organization holds social networking events at local restaurants and bars and its members volunteer throughout the community. Some projects have included clean-up for a house that was set to be renovated, sprucing up the Baxter neighborhood with youngsters from the Baxter Community Center, and a drive to collect African-American hair care products for residents at a local shelter for battered women.

BLEND has also brought in a number of speakers from the professional world to discuss such topics as investments and ways to foster active leadership in the downtown community — topics Gray said can be difficult to get out to young people.

The organization’s most recent event was sponsored by Fifth Third Bank and hosted speaker Chris Macon, director of affirmative action and community relations for Fifth Third Bank of Western Michigan.

BLEND is led by a steering committee comprised of Jamon Alexander, Spectrum Health Foundation and Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Foundation; Janean Brown, GVSU Johnson Center of Philanthropy; Anissa Eddie, Cedar Springs High School; Jermale Eddie, GVSU Office of Multicultural Affairs; Erayna Gamble, Haworth Inc.; Ronnie Frelix Jr., Heart of West Michigan United Way; and Maxine Gray, Grayte Enterprises LLC.

The organization is going through the process to gain 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and is seeking out partnerships with businesses and organizations for guidance from more seasoned professionals in order to help BLEND make a lasting impact on Grand Rapids, said Gray.

“We just want to continue to serve as a resource to businesses and organizations who are trying to find ways to retain their young professionals here,” said Gray. “It’s a place of development where we’re concerned with developing professionally and personally, and finding out how we can make an impact in our communities. We’re a positive group of young people who are trying to do big things. We have big and dreams, big goals, and we’re definitely committed to this community.”

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