0 comments on “Spotlight: Mamaleelu Cold Brew”

Spotlight: Mamaleelu Cold Brew

By Kayla Sosa

A coffee drink made with Mamaleelu roast coffee.

Starting a business was not something Maliesha Pullano always intended to do, but was something that kind of fell into place at the right time. In 2014, Pullano was unemployed and looking for an opportunity. She soon found that The Can Do Kitchen, an incubator kitchen in her hometown of Kalamazoo, was offering a grant to help economically disadvantaged people start a food business. At first, Pullano wanted to start a samosa business – small meat and veggie pastries – with another woman, but after that woman was denied a return visa to the United States, Pullano decided to go in her own direction.

“Samosas were not really my passion, and so as I explored other ideas in which to pitch for this grant I had to think about what I had a passion for,” Pullamo said.

She had always had a passion for coffee, and traveling to Spain taught her to love a strong, bold cup of coffee. Pullano began to do research and looked into how to brew cold coffee specifically.

“I noticed a very new burgeoning trend and product that was not yet in my area, but

Robert Lee, the “lee” in Mamaleelu, offering samples of the cold brew coffee.

showed lots of promise,” Pullano said. “Ignited by the need to support myself and my children Robert Lee (lee) and Lulu (lu),  the concept of Mamaleelu Cold Brew was born.”


That was in 2014. Since then, Pullano has learned a lot about the ups and downs of being not only a business owner, but a black woman business owner in an industry that is largely white and male dominated.

“Being an entrepreneur is a wonderfully terrifying endeavor, for probably all of us,” she said. “When you combine that with being a black entrepreneur, we are talking about a challenge on a whole other level.”

Pullano said she resonated with the idea of, in the business world, it’s okay to make mistakes and fail as long as you pick yourself back up and keep trying.

“But as a black entrepreneur, the axiom doesn’t really hold true,” Pullano said. “Many times we have only one shot to succeed. There are no family funds to bail us out. The wealth disparity in the black community does not provide for a soft cushion to land on if your venture does not pan out.

“This can lead to not being able to take the necessary risks to grow your business, and so it stays stagnant. I have found this to be true in my case.”

Additionally, while black women are the most rapidly growing demographic of entrepreneurs and business owners, they are still the least funded.

Mamaleelu Cold Brew coffees can be found in local grocery stores and markets in Kalamazoo. Pullano offers a couple different ready-to-drink cold brew flavors and roasts ($2.99/each), and even a concentrated bottle ($9.99/each) that can last a coffee drinker for six to eight drinks.


“We use single origin East African beans, which are fairly traded, and organic,” Pullano said. “Our Michigan Roaster uses an exclusive Mamaleelu roast and roasts our beans to order to ensure freshness and quality.”

Looking ahead, Pullano wants to expand her reach, with more customers and markets selling her coffee. She currently produces in a shared commercial kitchen, and hopes to eventually move to a production facility. Finally, she wants to make waves in an industry that she doesn’t see a lot of herself in.

“Getting more involved in the coffee industry, I want to explore the lack of diversity within the industry and have conversations that facilitate actions, which bring about opportunity to those of us who have not been traditionally at the table.”

Interested buyers can visit www.mamaleelucoldbrew.com to contact Pullano.


0 comments on “Spreading ‘LIT’-eracy with We Are LIT”

Spreading ‘LIT’-eracy with We Are LIT

By Kayla Sosa

We Are LIT is more than just a book shop, it’s a movement within the community to bring more diverse books and reading to everyone.

The “shop” is actually online, and offers new, multicultural selections to readers of all ages.

“The inspiration for We Are LIT derived from a lifelong passion for reading, books, and travel,” said We Are LIT Owner Kendra McNeil. “As well as the recognized need for a vibrant, culturally diverse literary scene in West Michigan.”

McNeil, at one of her pop-up events. 

The passion behind the shop is McNeil’s goal to make it easier for members of the Grand Rapids community to access multicultural books. The shop started as an e-commerce bookshop in 2017 and has grown to not only accommodate readers online, but across the state at various pop-up events.

Growing up, McNeil said her earliest memory of reading is age five, but she said she didn’t read a book by a black author or that featured black characters until the age of 15.

“Not because books were not available, they were, however, books written by or featuring a person of color, black or otherwise, were not. I consider that a trauma in my childhood,” McNeil said. “The marginalization of black writers in the publishing industry is an important issue within the social justice movement that deserves its own platform to be debated and solved, separate from how individuals read, enjoy, talk about, and celebrate the amazing work created by marginalized writers across all genres.”

To combat this issue for the younger generations, We Are LIT is opening access to these books to young kids, but adults as well, who may not have much of an opportunity otherwise in many bookstores.

We Are LIT at Muse GR
A customer checks out with McNeil at a pop-up event.

As an entrepreneur, McNeil said the biggest lesson she’s learned so far has been to “surround yourself with the right people.” Being from Chicago, McNeil still needs more local connections to expand and support her business. She also hopes to partner with local libraries in the future, although she says the Kent District Library by her house is “LIT!”

“It is not often that I can’t find a book I am looking for and when it does happen, I don’t hesitate to use the ‘recommend a book’ feature,” McNeil said. “They are great about acquiring recommended books.”

McNeil would like to partner with libraries by hosting storytimes that feature diverse books and becoming a vendor at various author events. Of course, she hopes to one day own her own brick-and-mortar bookshop in Grand Rapids.

To get involved with We Are LIT, you can first visit their website at www.wearelitgr.com. In addition, find the bookshop at various events in the community:

  • A monthly pop-up shop at the Downtown Market where the focus on books is on lifestyle: cooking, travel, gardening and other hobbies.
  • Women Who Read Grand Rapids is a city-wide book club for women, hosted by We Are LIT and Life Now Talk Media. The women who make up the club come from all various backgrounds and the club’s mission is to “foster a sisterhood through reading.”
  • Find or book We Are LIT for various pop-up book shops at stores around the city and reading initiatives at schools around the area.


We Are LIT at Downtown Market
We Are LIT pop-up shop at the Downtown Market, featuring the Lifestyle Collection.


0 comments on “The state of black business in Grand Rapids”

The state of black business in Grand Rapids

What a local advocacy organization is doing to support black entrepreneurs

By Kayla Sosa

Jamiel Robinson is the founder of GRABB – Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses – an organization that supports and assists black business owners and entrepreneurs in West Michigan. Starting off as a directory for black owned businesses in the area, the social enterprise has now grown to support over 80 businesses in the area and hosts eight various initiatives that support black business and economic development.

Jamiel R grabb

Robinson said he was born and raised in Grand Rapids to a family of business and property owners and entrepreneurs.

“My grandfather and my uncle were business folks in the city,” Robinson said. “From little, small corner stores to the barbershop, and then also being landlords and property owners.”

Being the next generation, and seeing the high rates of poverty facing black people and other people of color in this city, Robinson wanted to do something about it.

That’s how he began planning GRABB in 2012, and officially launched the organization in 2013.

In a 2015 article in Forbes Magazine, Grand Rapids was ranked the second worst place in the U.S. for African-Americans. In the article, the city is referenced as an old, industrial town that was one of the first places black people moved to from the south during the Great Migration. Now, in those towns – like Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Pittsburg – black people earn, on average $10,000 to $15,000 less than their counterparts in Atlanta, and self-employment is half what it is in Atlanta, and other successful cities. The data may have changed slightly in a few years, but Robinson agreed that the issue existed long before the article, and still exists today.

“The vast majority of us in the African-American community didn’t need Forbes to validate that,” Robinson said. “We already knew the conditions, it just wasn’t put out in a major publication.”

GRABB started as a directory, answering Robinson’s question of: where exactly are the black businesses in GR? The directory was online and featured about 70 different businesses, and still exists today at www.grabblocal.com. There, you can also view a Google Map that pins all the businesses in the area.

“As we were finding businesses, businesses were closing,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t just about helping people to locate businesses, but there were other foundational and systemic issues that needed to be addressed. That’s when we shifted slightly into looking at it from an institutional and systemic … and economic development standpoint, and offering businesses programs and assistance.”


One of the biggest things businesses need help getting, especially at first, is capital. In the business world, “capital” essentially means “cash.” It’s whatever money or profit a business is left after all expenses. Robinson said some businesses will come to GRABB with the issue of not having a lot of capital; essentially keeping the business alive month to month, but not having any additional funds.

“We see a lot of businesses that will go out of business from being undercapitalized,” Robinson said. “That speaks to the issue of access to capital. So, can you access the capital you need, when you need it? We’re working with banks and the city and other folks on how do we make capital more accessible, especially to black entrepreneurs.”

Robinson said it’s been proven time and time again that black businesses have a harder time accessing capital, which gives him more of a reason to be an advocate. Since GRABB started their efforts, Robinson said the city has started to pay more attention to business owners of color in general.

“We’re making sure that the programs and these systems are working correctly,” Robinson said.

In many ways, GRABB works as an advocate and representative for businesses that are trying to get a loan, or other vital business contracts and decisions. When someone else is there to advocate and defend, the system is more likely to work in the people’s favor.

“So those are just some of the ways we’ve been able to help businesses and change the climate here in the city,” he said. “Since we’ve been around, we’ve seen a shift.”GRABB-186


One of the most recent events hosted by GRABB was the second annual #TheShift Summit. Robinson coined #TheShift as being the “changing of realities within the black community.” The annual summit is held to celebrate black business and provide educational information and networking opportunities for current and future black business owners. This is just one of the ways that GRABB is working within the community and retaining members.

theshift 2018 pic
Crowd at the most recent #TheShift summit in 2018. 

To learn more and to get involved, visit www.grabblocal.com.

0 comments on “Student entrepreneur club president’s five takeaways from national conference”

Student entrepreneur club president’s five takeaways from national conference

By Kayla Sosa

Back in November, the Grand Valley State University Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization (CEO) traveled to Kansas City, Missouri to attend the national CEO conference. Club president and GV senior Ben Parsell learned a lot as a leader and an entrepreneur himself. Here are his top five takeaways.

1. It’s important to see what other professionals are doing, in order to learn new ways to expand your own organization’s horizons.

For GVSU’s CEO Club, there have always been a handful of leadership positions available, and the rest of the members were just general members. Parsell now wants to form committees so that every member shares some kind of responsibility within the organization, and feels more involved and connected.

“(For example) having a finance committee that helps the finance officer maintain an ongoing budget throughout the year, make projections so that we can understand what costs, what fundraising we can do to go to places like Kansas City,” Parsell said. “So, give somebody something to do each meeting … I would like to see as we continue on, the idea that a committee structure would lift some of that responsibility of the president, and they can focus on the overall strategy of the club and where it’s going to go in the future.”

2. It’s important to travel and explore new places to advance as not only an entrepreneur, but as a person.

“The opportunity to get out of the Grand Rapids bubble and be exposed to not only a new city, but new people, new ways of life, walks of life, is extremely important,” Parsell said.

Parsell said most of his opportunities to travel have been through the student organization. So far, he’s been to Tampa twice, California and now Kansas City, with the CEO club.

3. It’s necessary to bond with your team outside of work.

Eight students bonded for over 15 hours in a van on their way to Kansas City. Parsell said this was a unique opportunity to talk more personally with his club members. They even had a collaborative Spotify playlist, so they got to listen to a little bit of everybody’s music taste.

“I think flying can be very stressful, too,” Parsell said. “Especially in my shoes, I’m trying to make sure that everybody has their boarding pass, make sure that your carry on’s going to fit, you don’t have to check a bag, everything with that. So, when I’m in the airport, I’m in total focus-mode until we get through security. Then when I’m driving, it’s like, yeah, I’ll carry on a conversation and actually have fun with it.”

4. Passive income is a smart, innovative way to make money without too much work on daily basis.

One of the topics Parsell learned a lot about was “passive income,” where entrepreneurs spend a lot of time initially developing an online business that sustains itself for the most part, allowing the owner to make money without having to tend to the business for much time every day.

“For me, those would be fun projects I could come up with,” Parsell said. “Maybe it’s not meant to be my main focus, but it would be something fun to do on a weekend and have it run … I’d definitely like to share that idea with people who didn’t go to the conference.”

5. Empathy is one of the most important aspects of a leader.

The leader of a national company with a local franchise in Grand Rapids, College Hunks Hauling Junk, was one of the speakers at the CEO conference. Parsell said he told a moving story about having kindness and empathy in the workplace, and he realized that there’s more to being a leader than just putting out fires, assigning tasks and getting work done. There’s a bigger picture aspect that all leaders must keep in mind.  

“The day to day stuff doesn’t matter, but holding kindness and love for other people and leading them through that is what really matters,” Parsell said.

To learn more about the CEO club, visit their website.

0 comments on “Spotlight: A Q&A with Calvin’s Lawn Care”

Spotlight: A Q&A with Calvin’s Lawn Care

By Kayla Sosa

Calvin’s Lawn Care logo. Courtesy Calvin Pimpleton.

Calvin Pimpleton is a 16-year-old student at Innovation Central High School with a passion for business. Last winter, he saw a need in his neighborhood for shoveling services and he wanted a little extra cash in his pocket, so he decided to offer that service and more under the name Calvin’s Lawn Care. This past October, he entered the Start Garden 5×5 Night pitch competition and went home with $5,000 to expand his business.

CEI: How did you get the idea to start your business?

Pimpleton: One day during the winter of my sophomore year I had just gotten home from football training. I didn’t have a job at the time so I really wanted some money, so I got the idea of shoveling driveways and sidewalks in my neighborhood. I wanted to be my own boss, set my own hours, and make my own money. I didn’t want to have a boss.

From there I continued to grow, but not seriously. With the help of my business teachers Mrs. Henderson and Mrs. Cook a few months later, they presented a pitch competition to our class for start up businesses. So, I applied with my idea of Lawn Care and Snow Removal and I won my first pitch event which was the 100 ideas event by Start Garden, which was for $1,000. From then I continued to grow and got more in contact with Start Garden. Program Director Mrs. Laurie, whom is my mentor, told me about the 5×5 Night. I didn’t think my company was beneficial enough to win that much money, but apparently it was.

CEI: What kind of obstacles did you face in the business process and how did you overcome them?

P: There were plenty of obstacles I faced such as not being able to drive, not being able to register my company, not being able to fix equipment at times, low amount of customers. There’s been plenty of obstacles, but as time has gone by I’ve learned more and more about how to get over them. One of the biggest lessons I learned is patience. When I first started I believed I would be the biggest and best company in Grand Rapids. Now I know that you have to be patient and grow into your greatness. Everything isn’t going to come in one day, just trust God and everything will fall in place.

Pimpleton was awarded $5,000 for winning the 5×5 Night pitch competition on October 30. Courtesy Calvin Pimpleton.

CEI: How do you plan to use your newly won prize money?

P: I have been putting the money back into the company, I’ve got a better truck, larger trailer, and a better riding mower. Equipment was a huge problem for me, because it took me a lot longer to take care of my customers’ needs with unprofessional equipment.

CEI: So, you’re a high schooler. What else do you do with your free time?

P:  I play three sports for Ottawa Hills High School: main sport football, but wrestling and track and field. I like to go to church, spend time with my mom and family and work out.

CEI: How do you juggle all of your responsibilities?

P: It’s not as difficult as it may seem. With owning my own company I can make my own hours, so I make sure to always schedule my customers around football and school, but time management is key. I’m starting to get better and better at time management.

CEI: How do you plan to expand and build your business in the future?

P: One of the main ways I’ve been expanding is by applying marketing techniques that I learn in my marketing class and applying it to my company. It’s been bringing plenty of new customers and more revenue. Also, I’ve been using networking skills. It’s not always about what you know, most of the time it’s about who you know.

In five years, I see my company well set up and really flourishing throughout the Grand Rapids area, maybe even being one of the top in Grand Rapids. In ten years, I plan on expanding by either having another Calvin’s Lawn Care in another city, or placing a Calvin’s Lawn Care down in Florida. In 20 years, I plan on not working anymore, but really managing the company to continue to spread amongst the lawn care company community and being one of the top lawn care companies in the U.S.

CEI: What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs like yourself?

P: My advice is to take your shot, because if you’re already at the bottom there’s only one place to go, which is the top. Starting a company may be a bad outcome, but it also can be great. Just because we’re young doesn’t mean anything.

0 comments on “Spotlight: Bremer Produce”

Spotlight: Bremer Produce

By Kayla Sosa

In 2015, Ross Bremer and his brothers started a family business selling unwanted produce from local commercial farms that’s still good but not qualified to go to a grocery store – because it’s too small or a funny shape.

“I guess we started out of just seeing food waste, specifically at farms,” Bremer said. “We just saw this large amount of waste and were like, ‘This is too good to throw away.’”

“Grade 1” produce is “what’s fit to go to your retailers,” Bremer said. At their local roadside stands, you’ll see mostly “Grade 2” produce, which might be too big, too small or have a small scratch on it. Farms would otherwise throw this food away, until the Bremers came in to make a profit off of it.

“Nutritional value is still the exact same, but it might have a blemish in the appearance of that product,” Bremer said.

Squash – summer and winter – is the main vegetable they sell in West Michigan and others that have a relatively long shelf life, like pumpkins, potatoes, gourds and zucchini.

Bremer’s brother is a manager at a farm, so they really got an inside look at the process of separating produce. Now, they are partnered with a few farms in the area and know where to go to find the rejected veggies.

Not just any random person can go to a farm and ask for their rejected produce. Because Bremer and his brothers have an established business and take truckloads of produce, they end up doing a favor for the farms rather than making more work.

“There’s this disconnect between perfect product going out and then there’s also some stuff that’s clearly not fit and it should not be sold and should not be eaten,” he said. “But there’s this middle ground where it’s like, this is still good.”

“When we walk into, say, Meijer or Walmart, we want to be impressed. We see all these colorful vegetables and it’s like, it’s great but it’s not super practical.”

Right now, the main stand for Bremer Produce can be found on the corner of 48th Street and Baldwin Avenue in Hudsonville. What’s unique about farming in Michigan, though, are the seasons, so the peak months for selling produce are July through November.

“Early July, there’d be fresh cut flowers, maybe zucchini, tomatoes,” Bremer said. “And then we transition into your typical fall produce to pumpkins, squash, your Indian corn, your gourds.”

Bremer’s grandpa used to own a farm, so the knowledge runs in the family.

“My dad grew up on a farm,” he said. “Since me and my siblings were really little we grew pumpkins, like five acres just for fun. It started with a couple plants, and then it ramped up and now we’re growing consistently five acres. We’re familiar with squash, pumpkins and everything and had roadside stands since I was a baby. But then it took it next level once we started partnering with farms … that grow hundreds of acres of these things, that realistically we could never grow on our own.”

“It’s a unique partnership, for sure, of us being familiar with the farming industry but us not necessarily farming it all ourselves.”

Bremer is a student at Grand Valley State University majoring in Finance and International Business and minoring in Spanish. Recently, he won first place in the GVSU Idea Pitch Competition hosted by CEO, an entrepreneurial student club. As the produce season comes to a close, Bremer said he doesn’t want to spend his newly won prize money on just anything, yet.

“I don’t want to just spend it to spend it,” he said. “I can talk to my brother and we’re thinking of just a practical, cool way to be thankful to Grand Valley and the CEO club and use it in a cool way.”

0 comments on “Five entrepreneurs win prize money at first MVE Pitch Competition”

Five entrepreneurs win prize money at first MVE Pitch Competition

By Kayla Sosa


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Five entrepreneurs with military background or connection took home prize money at the first showcase and final pitch competition for the Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur Lab.

Produced through the Grand Valley State University Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, this free, community cohort program began in August. For nine weeks, the group met once a week to learn about how to start a business and all the aspects that go into it. They each had an idea or had already started a small business and work with the final pitch in sight.

On November 26, thirteen business ideas and plans were presented to a panel of judges at the DeVos Center on GVSU’s downtown campus. From a bakery to meditation therapy, the ideas ranged across the board. Each presenter also had a showcase table outside the auditorium explaining more in depth their idea. Each attendee got five tokens when they arrived and could use those to vote towards any of the ideas. At the end, winners were chosen by both audience vote and judge vote.

The first place award for $5,000 went to Andrew Weiss of Battle Brothers Shaving Co.

“I am extremely humbled to have won,” Weiss said, following the event. “There are so many excellent businesses that were presented. To be chosen, is very humbling. It’s also validating for me as an entrepreneur, because we’ve been working really hard for three years, but this helps me gain confidence that I’m heading in the right direction.”

With the money, Weiss plans to start manufacturing his razors locally in Jenison, starting with a few prototypes. Additionally, he wants to get some photography and videography done for marketing the product.

“It will be this product that I think is going to be the catalyst that brings me to my end goal of a subscription razor, of soaps, shampoos, combs; anything a guy needs in the bathroom that wants to be associated with our brand,” Weiss said. “I want to hopefully provide that some day.”

Second place, for $3,000, went to Trey Sumner of ACES, who also won one of the community choice picks, winning another $1,000.

Olympia Nelson, of Mobile Curbside Cuts & Styles took third place, winning $2,000. Also in third place, Zaneta Adams and Henrietta Hadley with WINC also took home $2,000. The other community choice award of $1,000 went to Bill Richards, with Helping Veterans Cope Through Arts & Music.

Julie Cowie, program manager, was so proud to see the progress all of the participants made over the nine-week program. She said it was a combination of the course curriculum, guest speakers, mentors and pitch practices that contributed to their development.

“The participants really came a long way with their pitches,” Cowie said. “I was so impressed.”

The next cohort begins in January. Cowie said now, especially after this pitch competition, the community can really see the talent that lies within the veteran community in West Michigan.

“I think the community has had its eyes opened and now they see that this program is happening,” she said. “The camaraderie was strong and the support was strong and there was a low attrition rate, a lot of completers.”

Go to www.gvsu.edu/mve/ to learn more about the program and stay tuned to sign up for the next cohort, beginning in January.

0 comments on “Spotlight: Immersive Language Learning”

Spotlight: Immersive Language Learning

By Kayla Sosa

After being immersed into the Portuguese language studying abroad in Brazil, Grand Valley State University student Olivia Seaver was trying to think of ways she could keep up with learning and retaining languages once she came back to the United States.

“When I went there, I didn’t know any Portuguese at all,” Seaver said. “After three months of hearing only Portuguese, I was already somewhat fluent. And also with Spanish. By spending time with my boyfriend, who’s Mexican, and his family, i started hearing Spanish all the time and I started picking it up in that way.”

From personal experience and research, Seaver said that the best and fastest way to learn a language is through total immersion – doing all things in that language so that you eventually are forced to learn and understand.

“Now that I’m not in another country, to keep up on my Spanish and Portuguese, I’ll watch a Disney movie in Spanish or listen to music in Portuguese, so I know that’s another good way to keep up with it.”

Additionally, Seaver found in her research that the best time for someone to learn a language is between the ages of two and 12.

Through those practices – immersion, storytelling, music and a focus on children – Seaver hopes to start an after school program for kids that will help them learn another language.

“It would be kind of like a daycare, but that daycare would be completely in Spanish,” she said. “All the teachers, all the caretakers, everybody’s only speaking Spanish, they play movies in Spanish, they play songs in Spanish, they organize games and activities – like Apples to Apples – in Spanish.”

One challenge looking forward, Seaver said, is that kids that are a little older and closer to 12 years old will have a harder time at first learning the language.

“It can be very difficult and frustrating at first,” she said. “In my experience with language learning, it’s kind of flat in the beginning, but then it’s exponential.”

After initial research, Seaver did a community survey to garner the interest or need for a program like this in Grand Rapids.

“I found that 90 percent of people that I surveyed said that they would put their kids in a program like this if it existed,” Seaver said. “More surprisingly, 94 percent said they wished they would’ve had this experience as a kid.”

Seaver giving her idea pitch at the CEO competition on October 10. 

Recently, Seaver placed second place in the GVSU Idea Pitch Competition hosted by the GVSU CEO club, an student-run entrepreneur club on campus. With a fresh business idea – she came up with it a week before the pitch competition – and a $750 check, Seaver is ready to test the waters.

“I said in my pitch that I would work on a pilot program with some elementary school Spanish teachers that I know,” she said. “I’d like to look for Spanish teachers here at Grand Valley and work with them. We don’t necessarily need lesson plans, but you need to plan activities.”

Seaver would then use the money to buy the appropriate materials for games and activities to do with the kids, and of course to pay the teachers involved in the pilot program.

Seaver is a senior at GVSU, double majoring in Management and Spanish. You can also find her working as a conversation partner at the GV ELS Center in Allendale.

0 comments on “Spotlight: WINC advocates for women veterans post-military life”

Spotlight: WINC advocates for women veterans post-military life

By Kayla Sosa

Two women are heading up a consulting group that will educate employers on not just how to hire veterans, but how to retain them.

Henrietta Hadley said many workplaces say they are “veteran friendly” but once they have a veteran on staff, their specific needs are often overlooked.

Hadley and her business partner Zaneta Adams’ consulting firm WINC – Women Injured in Combat – will help veterans with “being able to translate what (they) did in the military to what (they) can offer in the civilian world.”

Hadley and Adams.

“So helping companies understand what that means, helping anywhere from middle to senior level managers and supervisors understanding how to manage a veteran, and how to deal with the barriers,” she said. “Because that is our disconnect right now. You’d think it would be a no brainer, but it is a huge disconnect. And because a lot of our veterans, both men and women, are returning home with a lot of mental illnesses, we as civilians don’t understand how to communicate.”

The firm will be made up of various professionals who specialize in a specific discipline, like marketing or finance.

“The other part is we train and are resource providers for businesses and individuals around inclusion and diversity,” Hadley said.

Hadley has experience working with women veterans, who often have a difficult time adjusting to civilian life.

“Our females are struggling the most in transitioning into work and education settings when they come home,” she explained. “Military sexual trauma resulting in post-traumatic stress has become the big, underlining reason why a lot of our female veterans are not able to retain because they have not been treated for PTSD … and unfortunately we’re not going to go into a job interview and share that we got all that.”

Hadley said employers can take notice of different signs that a veteran is not performing at an average level, and may be dealing with something below the surface.

“The barriers show up in poor performance, poor attendance, poor productivity and it goes on and on and on,” Hadley said. “And then what we start to find is our female veterans, and even our male veterans, is they tend to start to self-medicate, they start to experience a high level of depression, and then they either commit suicide or they begin to isolate, and now they can’t do anything.”

Hadley said the rates of suicide for female veterans are much higher than their male counterparts.

Hadley is not a veteran herself, but grew up in a military family and is a military spouse, so she’s seen the effects serving can have on the solder. WINC has existed for five years, and has had a physical space for one. Hadley started as a volunteer at WINC before she became more involved as a teacher.

When Hadley met Julie Cowie, coordinator of the Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur-Lab, she saw this as an opportunity to learn how to take the next step in expanding the non-profit. Cowie also presented to some WINC members, and four women decided to join the lab as well.

“We started looking at how we could start to tweak the service that we’re providing to our female veterans to other communities, which involved corporate America and other companies and businesses as well,” Hadley said.

The lab is exactly what Hadley is hoping to see more of in the community – focused programs and initiatives designed for veterans, who are often overlooked in the workplace.

“Someone found it important to give Grand Valley the funding to do an entrepreneurship program for veterans… because someone gets it that they need a special area, a special course, a special level of attention different from just being matriculated into a regular entrepreneurship class,” she said. “It’s not that easy.”

Hadley said now that she and other women in the WINC program have been involved in the entrepreneur lab, she can “wave the flag” to other women so they can take this opportunity as well.

For more information on WINC, visit wincforall.com.

0 comments on “Spotlight: Local veteran hopes to redefine masculinity for a younger generation of men”

Spotlight: Local veteran hopes to redefine masculinity for a younger generation of men

By Kayla Sosa

ACES blue jpgA local man is hoping to change society’s view of masculinity through a new non-profit he’s calling ACES.

Awareness, Compassion, Equity, Strength. That’s what ACES stands for, and what Trey Sumner is looking to for the foundation of his new non-profit. Sumner is a veteran and Grand Valley State University alumni, and is developing his business through the Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur-Lab, a program out of GVSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. He said he got the idea for ACES after seeing “toxic masculinity” within the military.

“On my last deployment I did, it was my fourth one, it was the first time I’d worked with

Sumner in Petra, Jordan.

women to that degree,” Sumner said. “I realized for the first time in medevac just what a boy’s club the military really was. Seeing that inequity, seeing that disparity, was shocking.”

Around the same time, soldiers were being interviewed about repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and Sumner found himself in an activist role, as an ally towards the gay soldiers he served with.

“It was a big time of social justice and I felt myself drawn to be an ally,” Sumner said. “I painted my toenails hot pink the whole deployment supporting gay soldiers, but then I realized (me) being an ally, was me trying to save the day.”

Sumner wanted to advocate for people, but he wanted to find the root of the problem in toxic masculinity, where men feel like they always have to be the strong, emotionless figure and where homophobia and sexism can come from.

“I started to evaluate myself and my own life and I realized what a mess I was, how much pain I put myself through, and the world around me, trying to be this example of what a man is that is provided by our society,” he said.

After retiring out of the military, Sumner saw the same type of “boy’s club” mentality in civilian life and realized he wanted to do something about it. Sumner got enrolled at GVSU as a “40-year-old freshman,” now graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies: Masculinity Studies and Gender Equity. He then came up with the idea to start a nonprofit that would do the work of this mission.

“My goal is to give young men and boys the tools, the permission and the freedom to demonstrate a healthy masculinity without fear or shame,” Sumner said.

The way Sumner plans to do this is to create an education program, with a final trip at the end. For the last four years, he has taught a course at various junior high schools through the Men’s Resource Center. For ACES, he plans to have an 8-week session with young men teaching “emotional intelligence, nonviolent alternatives, conflict resolution, how to develop your masculinity in a healthy way.”

“We spend that eight weeks teaching these classes and we prepare for a trip,” Sumner said. “And then I take them on a two and a half week backpacking trip through the Middle East.”

Sumner, Tyler Sumner, and Hanson. 

Sumner was deployed four times in the Middle East, lived in Egypt for a year and has traveled there for fun, so he knows his way around geographically and culturally.

For Sumner’s thesis project at GVSU, he did a test run of this trip with his son and nephew. For three months, he prepped them for the three-week trip. He said, “it changed them.”

From left to right: Sumner’s nephew, Keagon Hansen, who was 16 at the time and is now a GVSU senior, Sumner, and his son, Tyler, who was 12 years old, in Jerash, Jordan.

Sumner plans to continue weekly sessions with the group of boys after they get back from the trip.

“I want to continue to have them meet with me, we’ll meet once a week,” he said. “I want to take these boys and teach them how to facilitate that same 8-week class I do, and then when I go to the junior highs take one of those boys with me as a co-facilitator, and have them now contribute back.”

Sumner will be pitching his business idea along with other veterans in the entrepreneur lab at the MVE Showcase and Final Pitch on November 26.