Inside Track: Gillespie’s crowning achievement: businesses supporting each other
African-American entrepreneur looks to make a difference in Grand Rapids’ minority business scene.
His legal name is Thomas Gillespie, but that’s not who he really is.
That’s only the name he wore growing up in Grand Rapids, a troubled and trouble-making kid who became associated with the Wealthy Street Gang. His parents divorced when he was young, and his loneliness spurred him to look for family and belonging elsewhere, he said. As an impressionable boy without direction, he turned to an unhealthy version of “family” among criminals.
Then came the failure of that family and his inevitable incarceration. Gillespie was sentenced to five years in prison, he said, followed by another five years.
“On that (second) stretch, I came to the conclusion that the street wasn’t for me,” he said. “I was blessed to be alive and to be able to tell my story … instead of someone else reading an obituary about me.”
During his years behind bars, or “the consequences of my actions,” as he called them, he found a new name and new identity born of faith. “I wanted to find a relationship with the creator. I didn’t have one — I felt a void in my spirit,” he said. “Islam gave me a sense of hope.”
Gillespie took on a Muslim name: Tahj. In Arabic, the name means “crown.”
“I felt blessed, but I felt an urge to give back to the community, as well as to financially become sustainable,” he said. “I’m focused on leaving a legacy because I’ve done so much wrong in my past that I have to perpetuate positive reinforcement to be the best example to my children, other people’s children, and to the generation that comes up after me.”
After prison, Gillespie went back to work at his father’s business, Gillespie Funeral Services, 1865 Eastern Ave. SE, where he now helps run the marketing and public relations aspects of the company. He took some classes at Grand Rapids Community College, he said, but it was his interactions with local African-American business owners and leaders that led to his journey into the business world.
In 2010, Gillespie started his own business: Limited Edition Development Group Inc., a business consulting/brand management company that focuses on small businesses, individuals and groups. His vision for it, he said, is found in the company’s tagline: “Dream your painting and we’ll help you paint your dream.”
“I help push the brand and the visual ideal for where you see your company going,” he said. “I shape thoughts and energy to fit a vision.”
He also became involved in community work, creating Life’s Connection, a nonprofit designed to promote “the empowerment of individuals and respecting the cultural differences we have as people,” he said. Gillespie’s nonprofit also has a tagline: “Teach a life, save a life.”
“It has different realms, but the first piece I’ve been targeting has been youth services, and the youth service piece has been focused on stopping the violence in the community because that’s what’s been a huge risk factor,” he said.
“I understand (firsthand) what happens when it’s not addressed, and sometimes by the time it is addressed, it’s too late. … If the kids aren’t seeing progress — new innovations, then they are still caught up in an old pattern that either ends with incarceration or death.”
His work in the African-American community caught the attention of Jamiel Robinson, CEO of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, who reached out to Gillespie and invited him on as a consultant to help push the GRABB brand.
GRABB, an organization that promotes local black-owned businesses in hopes of creating a firm economic base for urban neighborhoods, seems like a perfect fit for Gillespie, whose faith and past stirred up a firestorm of passion for the betterment of the local African-American community.
And so Gillespie set to work on one of the most “intricate” but “disconnected” pieces of Grand Rapids’ culture: minority businesses.
“There’s (racial disconnect), but it’s the economic disconnect, as well — those who have and those who don’t. You’re not paying attention to those who don’t have when you do have unless you have a social consciousness or a connection, something that draws you in there,” he said.
“We want to be able to touch a new demographic of entrepreneurs who don’t really have a connection to resources.”
Here’s the big problem in a nutshell, as Gillespie and others see it: In Grand Rapids, there’s a racial disconnect that runs along Wealthy Street all the way to Division Avenue. Minorities often live in urban neighborhoods, grow up in broken families and are educated in a broken public school system. They feel like they have no prospect for a future outside of either the streets or the bottom rung of the business world.
“Grand Rapids is a progressive city and growing fast, but you can’t grow in certain areas and not grow in other areas. What’s going to happen is incarceration rates will skyrocket and crime will go up, (unless) the balance is brought to the inner cities, where a lot of the problems are,” he said.
“The problems are really segregated if you look at the city and look at where all of the crime lies. You can’t say that you can’t fix these issues (while you’re) fixing downtown.”
Then there are the connections afforded by businesses. Businesses, especially minority-owned ones, need to be involved in their local communities, Gillespie said. Collaboration on financial, economic and personal levels needs to happen not just between businesses across that inner city disconnect line, but between minority-owned business leaders themselves, he said.
“Look at East Grand Rapids or Cascade: The majority of those thriving communities are giving back to those communities,” he said. “They’re not just doing business without putting back into those communities.”
The other aspect is education, he said, adding that’s why his nonprofit is focused on setting an example for kids who are looking for a model of what they want to be when they grow up.
“Our children need to see us in positions of empowerment. If they just see us as workers, they’ll only think they can be workers,” he said. “It’s a visual thing. If I only see a certain demographic run that business, how will I ever think I could run that businesses?”
If there’s one thing Gillespie wants the business community to understand, it’s this: To make a community strong, you have to support those who make the community strong. For Grand Rapids’ minority community, that means supporting the businesses, which in turn means supporting families.
And to Gillespie, the business community can build a much better family than a gang ever could.
“The profit made within the community is in the people affected the most, which are the children and the families. If the families and children are supported, the profit is them becoming productive members of society, producing a sustainable community,” he said.
“If you don’t have that, you’re going to have crime because we didn’t take the proper steps to make sure the people in the community were OK.”