Inside Track: Owens has a passion for nurturing the community
The leader of Lakeshore Advantage finds the position suits her thirst for knowledge and professional growth.
The president of Lakeshore Advantage brings a wealth of experience as an economic developer to supporting businesses in the region.
Jennifer Owens is passionate about finding new ways to support organizations, drive economic development growth and make an impact in the surrounding community.
The Zeeland-based Lakeshore Advantage provides services and resources to businesses throughout Ottawa County.
Owens said her goal is to create a vibrant community and to direct her team and the hundreds of partner organizations to march to the same beat and in the same direction.
“It can be extremely challenging, but every day is different and fun,” said Owens.
“The beauty of this community is there is such an interconnectivity and such a mindset of doing the right thing and working together that it is probably the easiest economic development undertaking I have ever experienced. The community and business leaders are so committed to doing the right thing and lifting the community up together.”
Lakeshore Advantage provides business services and talent solutions for Ottawa County-area companies by working with educational, governmental and nonprofit partners to help companies attract and develop a skilled workforce, and also identify funding and additional resource opportunities to attract new businesses to the area.
“There is a constant learning curve in this job. My degree was in journalism so I love to question, and I also really like to be in the know of what is going on and how it moves things forward,” said Owens.
“It just feeds my constant thirst for knowledge and growth professionally. Having a chance to sit face-to-face with some of the most incredible business leaders in the world and hear their stories, their challenges, and being able to help support them is such a phenomenal experience.”
Although Owens originally earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University, she unexpectedly discovered her excitement for economic development after working as a staff writer for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s magazine publication, the Michigan Business Report.
“I thought, ‘Perfect, I can give back to the community, I can use my journalism skills, and I unexpectedly found my passion,’” she said.
“I found an environment there to really grow and nurture young leaders. At 25, I was leading MEDC’s communication team, and it was very overwhelming. Once I had a taste for economic development, that is always what I wanted to do.”
Owens worked at the MEDC for roughly a decade before taking on the vice president of business development role at Ann Arbor Spark, an economic development organization supporting high-tech and innovative businesses. While there, she had the opportunity to work alongside well-known names such as Mike Finney and Michigan’s future governor, Rick Snyder.
“At that time I had no idea the great leaders I was surrounding myself with, and really loved working in that region and being part of Ann Arbor,” she said.
“When (Snyder) ran for election and won, Mike Finney and most of the Spark team went back to the MEDC to lead that group. My passion was in community development, regional development.”
In 2011, Owens returned closer to her hometown of Benton Harbor, becoming vice president of Southwest Michigan First after being recruited by CEO Ron Kitchens.
The community-based economic development organization is located in Kalamazoo and provides services such as business-to-business marketing, supply chain recruitment, workforce development, capital acquisition, site selection, consulting services and brand development.
“Although I have great respect for my friends at the State, it can be less fulfilling when you are working on the entire state of Michigan because it is so different across the board. What works in the U.P. is very different from what will work in Detroit,” said Owens.
“When you are working in statewide economic development, you have a set of tools you have to try to deploy throughout the state. You are often not having long-term relationships with companies, and you are not nurturing the community in which you live.”
It was just three years later when the former CEO of Lakeshore Advantage, Randy Thelen, walked into the Southwest Michigan First offices and informed Owens he wanted her to take on the leadership position.
“Randy and I had a long conversation about Holland, this community, how committed it was, and he just kept on needling me to take a look at it,” said Owens. “This community that I get a chance to be a part of has so many incredible attributes, so many incredible businesses.
“We have the lakeshore, but it is still kind of a secret to the outside world what exists here. There is a great, incredible humility about this community.”
Jane Clark, president of Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce and member of the Lakeshore Advantage board of directors, said Owens has been a terrific partner to the Chamber of Commerce.
“I love Jennifer. Our community has world-class employers and so it is really important that the head of our economic development agency is also world-class. We certainly have that in Jennifer,” said Clark. “She is a big-picture thinker, she is ambitious and she has just positive energy.”
Owens also serves on the board of the Michigan West Coast Chamber, which is an example of how well the two organizations work together, according to Clark.
“It just shows our commitment to each other’s organization — to complement each other’s work and not duplicate each other’s work,” said Clark. “The highest priority for both organizations is talent development and, as we work together, we play to each other’s strengths as opposed to competing because, for both of us, it is all about what is best for the community.”
Owens indicated that, although growing the idea of regionalism in the West Michigan community may be a challenge, it is an opportunity for the area to enhance its talent attraction.
“Today’s talent is really picking (a location) based on a community and the amenities offered, not based on a job. I would love to see us come together, have this great sense of regional pride that extends beyond West Michigan so folks from outside West Michigan clearly know the value proposition of (this region) versus anywhere else in the state,” said Owens.
“Continuing to grow that sense of regional connection and connectivity is incredibly important for all of us that do this type of work.”
Owens volunteers with the Holland/Zeeland/Hamilton initiative Ready for School, which advocates for school readiness in young children, removing barriers to early childhood education and ensuring parents have access to learning tools.
“In the Holland/Zeeland area, we do have a very strong concentration of kids who are entering kindergarten who don’t have those basic building blocks,” said Owens.
“Those kids are our economic development engines of the future. If we don’t address early childhood education as a community now, we will continue to struggle for the workforce of the future.”