Inside Track and Nonprofits

Inside Track: Robinson likes being able to change lives

Jamiel Robinson stays active mentoring Grand Rapids' youth and local black business owners.

October 11, 2013
| By Pat Evans |
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Robinson likes being able to change lives
Jamiel Robinson hopes to be instrumental in encouraging and retaining black business owners in Grand Rapids. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Jamiel Robinson is a busy man who is trying to make a difference in the community, but someday he hopes to live up to the example set by his grandfather.

Robinson said that, before the properties were sold in 2005 by his uncle, his grandfather, Ronald Robinson, practically owned the block of Division Avenue south of Wealthy Street that was anchored by his Robinson Barber Shop.

His grandfather lived a too-short life, dying at the age of 47. That age gives Robinson a date to meet his goals.

“By the time I’m 47, I’d like to match what he did,” Robinson said.

“My success is matching what he did,” he added, “but when you do what you love, it’s not an end goal.”

 

JAMIEL ROBINSON
Company:
Greater Grand Rapids YMCA; Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses
Position: Youth and Teen Director; Founder and CEO
Age: 30
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids
Community Involvement: LINC, Grand Rapids Public Schools and Kent County mentoring Collaborative, Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and BLEND
Biggest Career Break: “Getting hired at the YMCA. Before, I was doing everything by myself. The Y is nationally recognized, so I can make more of an impact.”

 

Currently, the 30-year-old Robinson is doing what he loves: working for the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, running the youth and teen programs at the David D. Hunting YMCA and leading the Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses group, which he founded.

He believes in everything he does, and that includes teaching the younger generation how to do the same.

“I feel what I do, I was put here to do,” he said. “I love what I do.”

As youth and teen director at the YMCA, Robinson focuses on non-athletic programs, such as exposure to career and college choices, and the TeenZone, which offers a safe afterschool environment for ages 10 to 17. The programming reaches out to kids from a wide array of socio-economic classes, Robinson said.

He has real life experience in understanding both sides of the economic status coin. Growing up, his mother worked at a General Motors factory, and Robinson, an only child, was rarely left wanting for anything. Eventually, however, his mother was laid off from her job, and Robinson’s privileged life underwent a dramatic change.

“I went from one Christmas getting everything I wanted, to picking and choosing the next,” he said. “It was a unique perspective, watching my parents make the decision on which bills to pay.”

He attended local Grand Rapids high schools, including East Kentwood and Ottawa Hills, from which he graduated in 2001.

After high school, Robinson took classes at Grand Rapids Community College, thinking he would pursue a degree in web and game design. That idea quickly changed as he discovered it involved far more computer language than he was prepared for. Having to learn a dozen or so programming languages wasn’t a selling point for someone who struggled in foreign language classes in high school.

Robinson said his struggles during high school helped define what he does today. He realizes that, for many students, their years in high school will determine where the rest of their life is headed.

“I didn’t do the best because I didn’t really know,” he said. “If kids don’t communicate their issues, they can’t get help.”

Although he said it took him awhile, he finally figured out what he wanted to do with his life. And he knows not to pressure the teenagers he works with: He believes most young people don’t have their life goals figured out until their mid-20s or later.

Eventually, he settled in at Grand Valley State University and pursued a path in business and finance.

After college, he worked as a consultant and mentored youth through an organization he helped found called Open Book Project and together with Jonathan Jelks hosted community symposiums branded GR V.O.I.C.E — Volunteer, Opportunities and Involvement with Community Education. Eventually, the job with the YMCA gave him a nationally recognized and respected platform from which to operate, but he said he hopes to someday work for himself again.

Robinson said he still receives calls from the first students he worked with, many of whom have gone on to college and beyond.

“I like being able to change lives,” he said. “Before the dust settles, I’d like to make an impact.”

Robinson encourages the young people he works with to consider what they might want to be when they grow up. One of his favorite things is to get them thinking about what “success” means to them.

For some, success may mean having a house, a family, a dog and a cool car. For others, it means becoming CEO of a company. But pretty much in all cases, Robinson said, it’s best to throw the money equation out the window.

“Forget about the million dollars. What are you passionate about? I’d rather be happy in what I’m doing than making a million dollars. Success is defined by that,” he said.

“If I can help one kid go to college who wouldn’t have otherwise, I think I’ve changed one generation,” he said. “I always want to keep lifting the bar higher.”

His hope is he can help improve the community one step at a time. To aid in that process, he founded Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses in August 2012 to help bring equality to the local business community.

“Grand Rapids doesn’t do as good of a job as it could,” he said. “The city does do a great job of inclusion. That said, diversity is a lot of things — it’s not just race.”

Robinson said most white collar positions in Grand Rapids do not reflect the population of the city. He also hopes the city will start to see more homegrown talent in those positions in the future.

He believes it’s a possibility because of the boom the city currently is enjoying. It’s the reason he didn’t move away. He said he has had opportunities to work in other cities, but he wants to be a part of making Grand Rapids better and to increase the amount of homegrown talent that stays and works in the city.

“Most of the people we see are from Chicago and Detroit,” he said of young black business people in Grand Rapids.

GRABB’s role in the black business community is to create and maintain a directory of area black businesses and to offer support and training to them — a sort of one-stop place for education and professional development.

Robinson wants to bring visibility and awareness to the fact that black businesses can be successful. He also wants to help provide resources to new black business owners that are hard to come by elsewhere.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” he said of new business owners. “We provide them access to the information and allocation of an infrastructure.”

There’s irony to be found in the failure of black businesses, Robinson said.

Banks often outright reject or greatly reduce funding for a black businessperson, he said.

“They do have a higher rate of failure,” he said. “So banks say, ‘You need $80,000; I can give you $40,000.’ The businesses then end up failing because they are undercapitalized — and (then) banks say black businesses fail.”

Robinson believes he can help more black businesses succeed so that banks will begin to offer more funding and the business community’s diversity will increase. If that happens, he said, it will set a better example for the community’s youth, who will eventually stay in Grand Rapids and become part of the local business world.

He hopes he can set up a blueprint of sorts to help future generations build on each other. His grandfather didn’t leave him a blueprint of how to be successful, so he’d like to say, “Here are the plans, take them and innovate.”

“I’m not doing this for me,” he said. “I’m doing it for the community and the next generation.”

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