Inside Track: Helping people’s dreams come true
Attah Obande uses past experience to assist hundreds in their entrepreneurial journeys.
Attah Obande spent a decade as a banker before losing his job forced him to find his true dream.
Embracing the opportunity to shift careers in 2013, he started a consulting firm, AGO Design Group. During its first year, he began to find his voice through speaking engagements to students and one-on-one coaching of entrepreneurs.
While Obande said he considered his first five years in banking an “amazing” time of learning, he was not happy the last five years. After being let go, he learned of a statistic he soon felt a call to change: Two-thirds of adults dislike their jobs.
“It was like, how could I help people live intentionally and live lives that make them not be that?” he said, noting when people hate their jobs, it impacts their family, friends and how they see the world.
Starting a business wasn’t a stretch for Obande, as he grew up in a family of entrepreneurs in Nigeria. His dad was an attorney in private practice and owned a dry-cleaning business, a factory and a school, and his mother owned a hair salon and fashion design company.
When he was 1, the family moved to England, where his mother enrolled in a fashion design program to further her career.
“I didn’t think of it as entrepreneurship, I just looked at it as, ‘That’s what my parents do,’” Obande said.
Being an entrepreneur feels the same to him today, he said. When a LinkedIn connection recently congratulated him on his work with SpringGR and his “entrepreneurial spirit,” he was surprised.
“I never looked at myself as an entrepreneur … but it’s clear it was a result of seeing my mom decide, ‘I want to start doing fashion,’ or ‘I want to start a salon,’ and my dad saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to start a dry cleaner.’ I looked at it as something that was normal, so little did I know it was embedded in my DNA.”
When Obande turned 18, he moved to the U.S. to pursue a degree in architecture at Calvin College, now Calvin University.
Two years into the program, as he was on the brink of transferring to Michigan State University, an internship experience at AMDG Architects in Grand Rapids showed him architecture wasn’t the right fit for him, so he switched his major to graphic design and business administration and stayed at Calvin.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2003 as the nation was in recession following the dotcom crash, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the invasion of Iraq.
With few jobs available in design, Obande seized the chance to work as a teller at National City Bank of Michigan/Illinois in Grand Rapids, figuring people need a banker whether the economy is good or bad.
About five months into the role, he was selected for a manager training program that let him work every position in the bank over the course of two years on the path to becoming a branch manager. After managerial positions at four banks in 10 years, he concluded his chapter in banking as assistant vice president, business development, at First Community Bank in Grand Rapids.
Obande said the experience in banking, especially the last few years, often made him feel like he was a “dream killer” for aspiring entrepreneurs.
“Somebody would come in with a business plan, sit at my table and say, ‘Hey, I want $50,000 to do this thing,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, cool. This is great. But we can’t do it because whatever.’ There was nowhere I felt I could send them to,” he said.
During his career transition, Obande called a former Calvin professor, Randal Jelks, to ask for advice. Jelks said, “If money wasn’t an issue and all your bills were paid, what would you do for free?” The question got under Obande’s skin because he needed money, immediately, to help support his wife and four kids.
But upon hanging up the phone, Obande began to take Jelks’ words seriously. He began to think about how he could be a dream fulfiller instead of a dream killer.
“Dreaming has been important to me,” he said. “I believe that when we get the opportunity to live our dream, it allows us to make the most positive impact in the world around us. How then can we help people whose dreams have been shot down or put in the closet, to then pull those dreams out?”
After a year at his consulting firm, where he was a self-styled “dream igniter,” Obande got a call from the DeVos family to be part of a pilot business training program called SpringGR.
Their vision was the program would fill a gap in the entrepreneur support organization (ESO) landscape in Grand Rapids, in particular, helping women and minorities to either explore entrepreneurship for the first time, launch a business or grow an existing business.
A grant from various DeVos foundations funded two pilot SpringGR cohorts in the spring and fall of 2014 with Obande serving as a business coach.
After positive results, the foundation extended the grant, giving SpringGR a “roadway of two years” to see how it could benefit the community.
Now in its fifth year, SpringGR offers 12-week courses at $100 per participant with the rest funded by SpringGR.
The nonprofit offers facilitators and coaches who can help take participants’ ideas and turn them into reality. After the course has ended, alumni continue to receive support from SpringGR volunteer mentors.
Obande counts his work a success when he thinks about SpringGR alumni such as Nancy Quero Ramirez, who held a grand opening for her store, Guelaguetza Designs, on Oct. 31 after 14 years of running the business as an online-only shop.
“When you see those types of stories, and you see the journey that she’s gone through over the last four years (with SpringGR), that she's been trying to build it with her family, with her husband and kids, and to see that, wow, this is a grand opening of something that she’s been (working for) … it’s extremely motivating to see how we can help and be a part of that,” Obande said.
He said he also is proud of the “snowball effect” that SpringGR has — like when a participant referred family into the program, or when a collaboration among photographers, caterers and decorators led to a wedding expo or when a participant found a supplier for his businesses through the SpringGR network. That effect has cascaded into 363 SpringGR graduates as of 2018.
One of the things that drives him, Obande said, is that people don’t all have access to the same opportunities in West Michigan. Although the region has been ranked among the best places to raise a family and to start a business, it also still is one of the worst places in the country for African Americans and Latinos, economically speaking.
He wants to change that because he knows how good it can be when people’s dreams come true.
“When I see some of the entrepreneurs who have come through our program, the hard work they have done, the dedication to their ideas, the families they’re trying to build, the legacies they’re trying to create, it’s inspiring,” he said.
“It’s great to be able to have something that helps people … do something that they absolutely love because then it affects how they show up at home, how they show up with their friends, how they show up in life in general.
“One of the things that motivates me is seeing people do what it is they want to do.”