Relationships through diversity

August 12, 2011
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A diverse local network of business leaders, BL²END (Business Leaders Linked to Encourage New Directions) is ringing in its five-year anniversary with a sold-out event at DeVos Place.

The event will feature national keynote speaker Ingrid Jacobs, diversity and inclusion manager at Whirlpool Corp., and begins at 6:30 p.m. tonight.

BL²END began when a group of passionate young professionals of color was struggling to find a link between themselves and the business community in Grand Rapids. Janean Couch, founding board member and past president, recalled the disconnect she and other members experienced in their search for an existing professional networking group that was broad enough to fit their varied focuses.

“We were established to meet our own needs and from our desire to be surrounded by people from diverse backgrounds,” said Couch.

The organization has become a model for inclusiveness in the Grand Rapids community. People of every race, ethnicity, age and background are represented in the 1,400-plus people BL²END connects with via e-mail and monthly events, which are rotated between the focuses of professional development, community outreach and social networking.

BL²END, which acquired nonprofit status in 2009, remains a volunteer-run organization that relies primarily on the dues of its board members. While many similarly structured groups struggle to find a foothold, BL²END has experienced enormous growth over its five years.

Much of BL²END’s success can be attributed to the relationships it has fostered. Maxine Gray, board president, described the group’s ties with the community as being a mutually beneficial endeavor. Part of BL²END’s foundation is its advisory board of seasoned business professionals who provide mentorship opportunities and serve as a support network to the group.

“When a young person can sit across from a successful executive and see a mirror image of themselves, that’s powerful,” said Gray.

Beyond reaching out to different races, ages and genders, BL²END seeks to connect people from different industries. While the baby boomer generation typically remained on one career path, professionals now commonly switch tracks multiple times.

“We want fluidity between departments,” said Couch. “We’re eager for the skills that (BL²END participants) develop here to be transferable.”

Since its first partnerships with Grand Valley State University, Heart of West Michigan United Way and Haworth, BL²END has formed new connections within the community that span a broad range of industries including health, engineering, education and many more. These connections consistently have provided support in the forms of guidance, food/beverage donations and space to hold events.

“I think it shows that the leaders in our community are willing to help the next generation of leaders,” said Couch. “They want to invest their knowledge in us.”

While its members profit from their veteran counterparts, community relationships also serve as a bridge for businesses to find dedicated prospective employees.

“Our participants are open-minded, resourceful people who are intentional about engaging with the community, developing professionally and building relationships,” said Gray. “They are the types of leaders we want to see in the future.”

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