A clear shift toward inclusion
In 2015, Forbes magazine published an article that sent shockwaves through the startup ecosystem in Grand Rapids.
Titled “The Cities Where African-Americans Are Doing The Best Economically,” the article did not highlight Grand Rapids’ excellence in that arena. Instead, Grand Rapids ranked 51st out of 52 cities examined, ahead of only Milwaukee. According to the data, “African-Americans in these old industrial towns earn on average $10,000 to $15,000 less than their counterparts in Atlanta,” which ranked first overall.
The sobering reality of the notorious “Forbes article,” which has become so ubiquitous among economic development circles that it often is cited with no further description needed, served as a wakeup call to the city’s business development leaders. So, when Start Garden, which launched in 2012 as a nontraditional venture capital fund, shifted its focus last year with the goal of further expanding entrepreneurial development, it turned its eye toward the population that had been left behind in the wake of Grand Rapids’ growth.
In late January, Start Garden announced the addition of Darel Ross II and Jorge Gonzalez to its executive team, reorganizing its leadership structure to situate the two veteran economic development leaders alongside directors Paul Moore and Mike Morin. The appointments of Ross, a longtime co-executive director of LINC, and Gonzalez, who was the executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, signaled a clear shift to help those marginalized populations.
“What Start Garden did in 2012 was very effective in stirring up the ecosystem, but specifically the high-tech, high-growth arena,” Gonzalez said. “Now, we’re saying that Start Garden is more in the diversity and inclusion arena, we’re being intentional and targeted into going into, or using targeted approaches, to making sure we’re inclusive and everyone has equal access to those resources — and not just in the high-tech, high-growth areas.”
Moore said the need to address those discrepancies continues to be evident. While it’s difficult to quantify the economic opportunity missed out on by not engaging with minority communities and entrepreneurs, it’s clear the economy would undoubtedly look different.
He cited a recent study by The Case Foundation that revealed just less than 90 percent of the venture capital doled out last year went to white, male-owned startups. Just 10 percent of venture-backed companies had a female founder and only 1 percent had an African-American founder.
“I hear that and it’s, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of white male problems being solved through funding,’” Moore said. “But there’s an entire population of problems and value creation that has not been addressed. And what would the economy look like if those businesses were actually growing and getting funded at the same level?
“There’s no way to measure that absence of something that never really had a chance.”
One of the many ways Start Garden is trying to bridge the gap is by ensuring the vast number of entrepreneurial resources available in the region is available to all, especially targeting minority communities that have been overlooked in the past.
Start Garden already has seen its initiative to be more inclusive pay off. For instance, small tweaks to Start Garden’s flagship program, 5x5 Night, have brought a more diverse group of entrepreneurs to each event.
One of those changes was the introduction of 5x5 Night on the Road, which brought the monthly pitch competition to various community sites around West Michigan, rather than at one static location. In addition to Start Garden, this year 5x5 has been hosted at New Holland Brewing Co.’s The Knickerbocker on the West Side, Haworth Inc. in Holland, the Muskegon Innovation Hub, and Downtown Market and LINC in Grand Rapids.
Another twist was at June’s 5x5 event, which was held entirely in Spanish for a special “Cinco por Cinco” variation of the event.
“The perception might be, because Darel and Jorge are now there, Start Garden is going a different route, but really all we did was basically make these resources easy and accessible to everyone,” Gonzalez said. “We just shifted things a little bit, and sure enough, now we’re talking to everybody and I think that’s where we’re headed.”
“A little bit of intentionality goes a long way,” Ross added.
Those aren’t earth-shattering changes to a program that has been around for years, but the results are different. Ten of the past dozen 5x5 Night winners have been female or minority-owned pitches. And that shift has been wholly organic.
“With 5x5, we knew that we wanted to cast a wider net to attract a wider base, so we started moving it around,” Ross said. “So, a lot of times, it’s not about reinventing what’s out there, it’s making sure that we have the cultural competency lens and capacity internally so that we can target those existing resources to where they’re most needed.”
Along with the changes to 5x5, Start Garden is spearheading other initiatives, in collaboration with GRABB 5 (Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses), partnering with entrepreneurial support organizations and just taking an overall more intentional approach to engaging marginalized community members.
Moore said Start Garden’s refocusing to better bridge that gap has been “transformational” for the organization.
“It is a huge shift in some ways,” he said.
Ross said one of the biggest risks looming over Grand Rapids is not investing in minority populations. By making sure everyone in the community is fully active, it ensures there are great neighborhoods for entrepreneurs to live in, surrounded by thriving and diverse businesses that can compete with bigger Midwestern cities that have drained some of Grand Rapids’ talent.
Minority entrepreneurs can play a large role in that revitalization in part because of their experiences.
“Minorities have been entrepreneurs for years — it just wasn’t called entrepreneurs,” Ross said. “But part of being a good entrepreneur is the ability to survive, the ability to be flexible, the ability to adapt, the ability to use limited resources to multiply them and get them to your goals. That’s embedded in people who have survived poverty and marginalization and the racial history of the United States.
“To that point, it’s easy when you’re intentional. And Start Garden is very intentional in making sure we recognize that unique history of those different subsets and that our approach and solutions are targeted toward them.”