From 'grassroots to grasstops'
GROW marks 30 years by deploying loans to polish entrepreneurial ideas.
Social worker Lee Ann Moss gathered a group of successful businesswomen and launched the nonprofit Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women 30 years ago as a platform for underserved women with plausible business ideas.
Celebrating its milestone anniversary this year, the organization now has eight employees and is continuously growing and expanding services.
At first, the nonprofit provided training and resources, including business plans, marketing and one-on-one coaching and counseling for women working to start a business.
GROW still offers its original services but now focuses on granting access to capital for women and men with startups and existing businesses.
For the past few years, GROW also has engaged women with long-established businesses, offering training on leadership skills. Some of these more experienced business owners also mentor some younger clients.
“I like to say we've come full circle, from grassroots to grasstops,” GROW CEO Bonnie Nawara said.
Part of the way that happened, she said, is GROW’s approach to business and clients.
“Our organization is based on relationships,” she said, adding there are businesses that worked with GROW at the very beginning that still are engaged now.
The nonprofit operated independently for about six years after establishment until it became an authorized Women's Business Center through the Small Business Association, one of three in Michigan and 114 in the U.S.
In 2010, GROW received a loan from an anonymous donor that allowed it to become a microlender and give five loans. GROW received a microlender designation from the SBA in 2012 and a community development financial institution designation a couple of years later, which allowed loans for greater amounts.
As a designated microlender, the organization serves women and men, though it also did before that designation, Nawara said. Women make up about 89 percent of clients.
Since July 2018, GROW has had a full-time worker based in Muskegon to serve clients there and from the Grand Haven area.
In 2017, GROW worked with more than 900 individual clients, and 40 percent of them were people of color. That year, GROW helped launch more than 60 businesses that are registered with the state and generating revenue, creating more than 250 jobs.
In 2017, GROW deployed about $500,000 in loans, totaling about $2 million deployed. In 2019, Nawara said the goal is to deploy about $800,000.
Nawara said GROW measures success in a many ways. If a client meets a goal of starting a business, that’s a success. If GROW helps a business increase revenue, that’s a success. And, if a client, in working with GROW, realizes he or she doesn’t have the attributes to be a business owner, that’s a success.
Nawara said it’s tough to keep track of all the businesses that continue operations and those that close, but she plans to complete an economic impact report in a couple of years.
Nawara has been in her role for nearly 10 years, so there are a lot of clients, and said she is always happy when former clients approach her at events to introduce themselves.
“That's really cool because then I get to see some of our history what we've done,” Nawara said.
Some of the businesses that received services from GROW include Mosley School of Cosmetology, Women’s Lifestyle Magazine, Grand River Office, Nutcase Vegan Meats, Urban Exchange, Classic Carriage and Proos Manufacturing.
Mallory Root was introduced to GROW in 2014 when applying for a business loan at Lake Michigan Credit Union to open what’s now Roots Brew Shop, at 600 Seventh St. NW in Grand Rapids.
She was told receiving a traditional loan would be unlikely due to lack of equity and the type of business.
Root attended an Intro to GROW class and applied for the microloan program, which included presenting two loan denial letters and developed business plan.
The organization helped her polish the plan, and as a member of the program, she was able to take GROW classes in finance, marketing and QuickBooks. She also used GROW’s mentor program before opening, gaining direction and input from experienced women business owners.
After a couple of months anxiously waiting, she and her business partner at the time were approved for a loan of $25,000 and opened the coffeehouse Roots Brew Shop three years ago.
The business now employs eight people and serves coffee, tea, as well as bagels from Nantucket Bakery with house-made cream cheese, sandwiches and soup. The shop also serves specialty waffles on Saturdays, partnering with other local business to serve new creations each week.
Root said she continues to use GROW as a resource as her business grows, and she refers others who may benefit from the services.
“As long as you have the courage and the tenacity to stay with it, you have a whole body of people who are willing to stand behind you to make it happen,” Root said.
Besides GROW’s plan to increase loan capacity, Nawara said the organization is working to revamp its programs and training to include in-person and virtual sessions.
GROW received a $150,000 grant from the SBA last year to create modules that rural communities can lease to implement their own programs.
“So, they'll be able to do economic development in their own communities, and it’ll be a revenue stream for us,” Nawara said. “We get requests all the time for our programs, but we just don't have the capacity to reach people.”
Anyone interested in the nonprofit’s resources can attend an Intro to Grow class in Grand Rapids or Muskegon to learn more about the programs.
The Grand Rapids classes are at noon-1 p.m. and 6-7 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of every month, at 25 Sheldon Blvd. SE, Ste. 210. The Muskegon classes are on the second Thursday of every month: noon-1 p.m. at the GVSU Muskegon Innovation Hub, 200 Viridian Drive, and 6-7 p.m. at Mahali, 2780 Peck St.
After attending the meeting, people can sign up for a free business counseling session to create an initial pathway.
GROW is having an anniversary celebration Oct. 10 with past clients and board members and will invite some to share their stories. Anyone who has been involved and would like to join the celebration can reach out at email@example.com or (616) 458-3404.