Economic Development, Small Business & Startups, and Sustainability

From Tokyo to Grand Rapids: Building strong, local economies around the world

April 5, 2017
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Last week, Local First had the incredible opportunity to host a group of business management consultants from Japan, who were visiting the United States for the fourth-annual Harvard Social Enterprise Conference in Boston.

With a special focus on social enterprise, workforce development and public/private partnerships, the group came to the U.S. to learn about best practices for building a sustainable economy and to visit a city that’s already implementing those practices.

Hiroshi Amemiya, the group’s leader and a professor at Meiji University in Tokyo, initially reached out to me about six months ago after hearing about the work Local First is doing to strengthen our local economy, as well as Cascade Engineering’s workforce development programs. After telling them more about Grand Rapids and our local B Corp network, they decided to plan a trip to West Michigan.

Our tour began bright and early on Tuesday, March 29, at the Gluten Free Bar where we toured its facility and chatted with owners about how they’re using their business to make a positive impact in West Michigan. Throughout the day, we explored Grand Rapids and toured different B Corps across the region, including Cascade Engineering, 616 Development, New City Urban Farm, Brewery Vivant and Essence Restaurant Group.

There were a number of interesting observations Hiroshi’s group made about West Michigan’s local economy.

First, they were very impressed by the collaboration between entrepreneurs and how they work together to strengthen our community. Professor Amemiya’s group also was interested in the conversations taking place in our community about building a strong local economy through supporting local entrepreneurship, and the way we talk about doing this in a global economy. Additionally, they shared how impressed they were by the creativity of the different business sectors, each B Corp’s desire to keep learning and the endless opportunities to do good in our community.

During the tour, professor Amemiya mentioned that one of the biggest challenges in Tokyo’s economy is bringing people out of poverty as well as finding ways to preserve their unique culture while growing a global city. Through their conversations with different B Corp owners, they were able to identify key practices they could bring back to Tokyo, such as some of the workplace development programs Cascade Engineering and New City Urban Farm are doing to build an inclusive workplace.

Another theme that resonated with the group was our government’s role in supporting entrepreneurship. The group mentioned one of their goals is to find ways to engage government in social entrepreneurship. They also talked about “impact investing,” which is a practice of directing funds toward businesses that are working to solve community challenges. Impact investing is a growing conversation in Tokyo, and visiting West Michigan B Corps was able to give them insight on how they could use business as a force for good in their own economy and local communities.

As I reflected on their visit, it was amazing to witness firsthand that creating strong and sustainable local economies is a conversation happening across the world. This conversation is something I’ve heard before as I’ve traveled to communities across the U.S. and Canada, and it was fascinating to hear how concretely professor Amemiya’s group resonated with the need for a “Local First” campaign in Japan.

While it may seem like supporting local businesses is just a Grand Rapids thing, many cities are using this strategy to grow. It has become clear to me that a strong global economy starts at the local level, and it’s important that we continue having these conversations with other cities. I’m excited to see where this conversation takes Grand Rapids, and how we can continue to become recognized as a community that global cities look to for best practices on building strong local economies.

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