Diversity issues challenge efforts to enhance commerce

June 7, 2009
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Grand Valley State University recently published a report about the state of entrepreneurialism in Grand Rapids. One of the key elements to strong entrepreneurialism, the study states, is diversity. It also points out that Grand Rapids ranks high in cultural diversity. What it does not measure, however, is inclusiveness.

A recent Center for Michigan discussion held in Grand Rapids tackled this issue. Those involved in the discussion, attended by Business Journal reporter Jake Himmelspach, noted diversity in leadership and inclusiveness as essential components for a more economically sustainable region — and those components, according to the conversation, are lacking in West Michigan.

Other cultural inclusiveness topics came up. One professional who had moved to Grand Rapids from the Chicago area talked about how “nice” she initially thought West Michigan was. Now she describes West Michigan as “polite,” with racism taking place in quiet forms — for instance, having trouble being served in local establishments or even getting in the door. Startling statements were made in the conversation: that Michigan ranks in the top five states in terms of the number of hate crimes reported and is home to the largest number of Ku Klux Klan members among U.S. states.

A recruiter in the audience spoke up saying that the trouble is not in attracting talent and diverse bodies to the region, but in keeping them here because of such negative reoccurring instances.

Some pointed to commonly held facts: that Michigan is a leading state in minority-owned businesses and home to some of the nation’s best universities. However, most of these facts are sustained by the east side of the state where a new study called Global Detroit is looking at how immigrants can vitalize the economy — immigrants being much more likely to start businesses.

Attendees also mentioned the “value of people who don’t look like traditional leadership” as something that helps retain diverse talent. The group saw inclusive diversity as a driver in bringing stability to the “boom and bust” economy Michigan seems to be riding.

Education also was discussed — issues such as consolidation of school districts and promoting the arts and music. One former Grand Haven student who pursued higher education in the area of the entertainment industry mentioned how he felt ill-prepared to join a world of people from different cultures and lifestyles.

One successful businesswoman suggested another topic, stating she believed that male youth were left behind during the women’s lib movement. She emphasized that additional programs are needed that “teach boys to be men.” Her notion was supported by another audience member quoting statistics that two-thirds of today’s college students are female.

Not your grandfather's windmill

Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, wasn't surprised that the western end of her district has good potential for wind farms, where turbines may someday reap energy from the wind off Lake Michigan.

What did surprise her is that the Michigan Wind Energy Resource Zone Board figures it is probably one of the four best wind farm regions in Michigan.

Birkholz had not had a chance to read the entire 71-page report from WERZ when the Business Journal reached her last week, but she said she was "very pleased" to learn that parts of seven of her townships make up the proposed Wind Energy Resource Zone 1.

"We have a lot of people in Allegan County in particular, but all along the west side (of Michigan), who are interested in wind" power, she said.

The state board suggested areas that are inland a few miles, with fairly low population density — mainly farmland. (No part of Birkholz' own township, Saugatuck, is included in the designated Region 1, probably because of its substantial population density.)

Millions of Americans would like to see U.S. independence of foreign oil, and some don't even want the country to rely on domestic fossil fuels. But some also object to wind farms, which can make a startling visual impact on the landscape. The towers can be almost 300 feet high, and the large turbines may have blades sweeping a diameter of almost 300 feet.

"Obviously, that's a discussion that’s going to have to happen," said Birkholz. "This is the first step. We need to find out where the good wind zones are. And then we need to have those discussions on a local as well as a state basis."

"And it depends on the scale of the turbines, too," she said. "A lot of people in our area think of Dutch windmills," she said, laughing. "These are not your grandfather’s Dutch windmills!"

Blown away by aid

A West Michigan business popped up in a "Planet Green" segment on the Discovery Channel Sunday night. The report was part of a continuing series on the green rebuilding of Greensburg, Kan., which was hit by an F5 tornado in 2007 that killed 11 and virtually destroyed the town.

Interviewed on the program was John Koncsol, a master electrician employed by Bauer Power of Martin. Bauer Power donated a 2 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system that will provide power for the first home to be completed by the GreenTown group. Total value of the equipment and installation was $25,000.

Not long after the tornado, Bauer Power founder Mark Bauer went to the scene of the tragedy. Bauer Power sells and installs solar and wind energy systems for homes and businesses throughout Michigan and in part of Illinois.

A grassroots community-based organization, Greensburg GreenTown, is working with local officials and residents to incorporate sustainable principles in the rebuilding of the town.

Bauer said that when he visited the scene two years ago, "they asked me if I would consider doing solar, and I said, 'Well, how about if I give you a free system?' and they were just blown away. No pun intended."

The ladder goes up at RCM Technologies

Dale Mansour, Keith Brophy's business partner in NuSoft and NuSoft CEO, has been promoted within RCM to senior vice president, now in charge of an entire division that encompasses much more than just the NuSoft unit.

In tandem, Keith Brophy was also promoted to vice president (from his prior position as GM), now will run the unit independently. He will, of course and without question, still be based in West Michigan.

A sad Twist of fate

If you ever owned/loved/wanted any classic British car, the odds are you ended up at University Motors in Ada. Owner John Twist, who said last week he is closing the business, is an internationally recognized expert, from MGs to Jaguars and everything else in between. Some of his long-time customers reminded us last week that Twist and his entire family are going to be missed by a great many people.

Twist, who was profiled several years ago in the Business Journal, was always available over the years to treat his customers as friends, not just another business deal.

Plugging into art

What is ArtPrize? How can a business get involved? Can a business be a host venue or a sponsor? How does a company get matched up with an artist?

The Downtown Alliance will hold an informational meeting on ArtPrize for downtown businesses and properties at 9 a.m., June 10, at the JW Marriott, Salon A. Rick DeVos will describe the project and talk about how businesses can get involved. Those wishing to attend should RSVP to the Downtown Alliance at 771-0346.

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