By Kayla Sosa
Empowering students, honing in on skills and boosting small businesses is all part of the work done through Lend GR at Grand Valley State University. The program piloted over a year ago, with a focus on providing small business owners technical assistance from student workers at the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
With the extreme financial losses and hardships due to COVID-19, the program has been refocused to provide emergency assistance and deliver a tangible product or solution to the clients.
“A decrease in revenue means those businesses do not have the means to continue to invest in marketing, social media, advertising, etc,” said Shorouq Almallah, Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. “In addition, a number of businesses are now faced with the harsh reality of needing to repurpose their businesses, utilize different business models and explore different markets altogether. Services offered by LendGR can help fill some of those gaps, as well as help those businesses put together new business plans or provide extensive market research and data to help them pivot into new opportunities and markets.”
Each eligible business will be paired with a qualified GVSU student who will provide up to 25 hours of services – free of charge – to deliver a tangible solution in areas of marketing, finance, social media development and more. What started as just student workers in CEI, is now almost 15 students across campus.
Mike Draft is the co-owner of Wicked Gardener, a hot sauce company. Draft and his business partner, Keith Smith, recently completed the Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur-Lab and won first place in the final pitch competition. He said the company, which produces hot sauces, spiced jams and spicy mustards, was born out of their love for spicy foods, but also from living on a farm and growing a large garden.
“We’ve always just been really passionate about growing our own food,” Draft said. “We live close to each other, too, so he started growing peppers and he started making hot sauce. That developed into, we started making everything we could that was hot.”
Draft was paired up with student consultant Colin Ney through the LendGR program.
“For us, we love to cook, that’s our deal,” Draft said. “Trying to come up with a logo or design work just isn’t a muscle that either of us really have.”
Ney is a recent graduate of GVSU with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts in Studio Art with an emphasis in Graphic Design.
“I feel like as a designer working with this kind of program my skill set is very valuable,” Ney said. “I am able to work on a whole variety of items that help someone’s brand and business in the long run.”
Draft worked with Ney through a series of phone calls to help develop the hot sauce brand. Ney’s hot pepper logo design ended up being the opening slide for Wicked Gardener during the MVE Pitch Night.
“Colin was great, very responsive,” Draft said. “I have about a billion ideas so I threw a truckload at them and they made sense of it and started going back and forth with ideas.”
Both Draft and Ney said the process was slightly more difficult because it was all done virtually.
“Most of my correspondence was happening through emails which can make it hard to fully flesh out ideas that a client may have in their head, or hard to move a project forward due to busy schedules,” Ney said. “Moving forward, I think I will try to do more video calling. That way I can have a bit more connection to what a client is thinking and feeling about ideas being proposed.”
The first round of clients have finished in Lend GR and now the program is working with more community partners and taking applications from entrepreneurs needing assistance. The hope is to be able to help business owners beyond the barriers presented by COVID-19, but to be able to address systemic gaps of need.
“Small businesses and startups are the backbone of our economy and are essential to the prosperity and well-being of communities and neighborhoods,” Almallah said. “They create jobs, spark innovations, and provide opportunities for individuals to create financial independence and success. Despite their success, many businesses, especially minorities and women-owned, continue to struggle and face barriers when it comes to accessing funding, mentoring, and other forms of support.
“COVID-19, along with the recent events of bias and discrimination, have underscored the systemic biases that minorities, especially the black community, have endured. Within the discipline of entrepreneurship, a program like LendGR could have a meaningful impact and lead the way for other efforts towards achieving economic justice and equity for underrepresented entrepreneurs.”
To learn more about the program, visit gvsu.edu/lendgr.