Q&A: Jill May
Editor’s note: Each Q&A in the Influential Women enewsletter will feature a woman from the region who’s influential, a rising face in her industry or doing interesting work. Submit tips on potential Q&A subjects to tgortsema at grbj dot com.
Jill May is a lifelong nonprofit professional who's dedicated to helping make her community “a better place to live, work and play for all.”
May has nearly 20 years of experience in nonprofit management, with an emphasis in corporate relations and economic development.
May is currently serving as the director of lending for Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, or GROW, where she oversees the deployment of loans to entrepreneurs and small business owners who can’t access traditional sources of capital.
Biggest career break?
My biggest career break was when I was hired by The Right Place as their very first fund development director. I was given the opportunity to create a fund development program from the ground up for one of the most highly respected economic development organizations in the state. The Right Place leadership and board members were amazing mentors to me. The job developed my perspective that economic development is the foundation for advancing communities. Creating good-paying jobs provides people with the financial sustainability to independently support themselves and their families, which then ripples out to positively impact all areas of the community. I continue to pursue my passion for economic development in my role at GROW. The difference is that we create grassroots economic opportunities by helping entrepreneurs start businesses and create jobs.
My proudest achievement is founding OutPro, a networking group for LGBTQ+ professionals. My co-founder and friend, David Abbott, and I started the group in 2011 as an informal meetup. We started with 10 people sitting around a table at a bar. Within a few months, the group got so large we had to transition to a stand-up networking event format. Back then, we had everything donated: meeting spaces at bars and restaurants, food, presenters, etc. We started to generate unsolicited interest from companies to provide corporate sponsorships. But we were not a formal organization and didn’t have the infrastructure to accept sponsorships. At that point, we knew the group was getting to be bigger than us. That is when the Grand Rapids Chamber stepped in and offered to take on OutPro as a part of their talent development programming. They became the first mainstream chamber in the nation to host an LGBTQ+ program, and it became a national model for other chambers. Since then, OutPro has helped to develop West Michigan into a much more inclusive community for LGBTQ+ people.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
Love those you disagree with most. I have found that to be a survival tactic as a progressive liberal trying to make change in a conservative community. It has empowered me to put my differences aside and come together with others to work on a common goal. This was another thing I learned (and got pretty good at) while at The Right Place.
How did you make your first dollar?
I made my first dollar staffing the farm market stand on my grandparents’ fruit farm. Growing up on a farm taught me about entrepreneurship, family business and strong work ethic. I have great memories of my childhood on that farm. Fun side note, my great aunt’s former farm is now the Kids’ Food Basket urban farm. Aunt Eileen is passed now, but nothing could have made her happier than to know her land is being used to help feed hungry children.
The record collection my dad left me when he passed. I have an unopened Fleetwood Mac “Dreams” album, the four-record Grateful Dead “Europe ’72” set and dozens more classic and obscure rock albums from that era. My wife loves having to haul them every time we move, lol!
Running a surf shop in the Caribbean
If you were president for a day, you would … ?
If I were president for a day, I would issue an executive order to include LGBTQ+ protections for employment and housing practices across the country. Many people don’t know that it is still legal in 28 states, including Michigan, to fire someone or deny them housing just because they are LGBTQ+.
Last book you read?
“Origin” by Dan Brown
Last search term you googled?
Houses for sale. We have been looking to buy a new house in the greater Grand Rapids area for months. The housing market is tough right now!
Your worst habit?
Eating my emotions
To unwind, you like to … ?
Run, bike, hike or kayak in nature
Traveling through the Mediterranean, especially Greece and Italy
Veggie wet burritos
Person you most admire?
My grandma. She has always been my No. 1 role model. She embodies everything I aspire to be: smart, strong, selfless, inclusive, driven, resilient, stylish and beautiful inside and out. To know her is to love her. The entire community of Cedar Springs can attest to this. After she retired from the farm, she got a job as a greeter at the Cedar Springs Meijer. The Cedar Springs Post ran an article about her. Here's an excerpt: “Shirley or ‘the penny lady,’ as she’s known to the children of Cedar Springs, has offered pennies to the children for rides on ‘Sandy,’ the pony at Meijer. To all who walk through the store doors, she offers a sincere welcome and even kind words and a hug to those who need it. Shirley is endeared by all who have had the pleasure to have been hugged by her throughout her life of caring for those around her.” I couldn’t be more proud than to be her granddaughter.