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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
In September, owners of Malamiah Juice Bar and Royal Jelly Foods participated in the Grand Rapids Business Boot Camp Pitch Competition. This endeavor is lead by Michigan Good Food Fund, a “thirty million dollar loan fund created to provide financing and business assistance to good food enterprises that increase healthy food access and spur economic opportunity in underserved communities across the state,” according to Jean Chorazyczewski, program director of Fair Food Network, a business parter of MGFF.
Chorazyczewski said both of the winners of the competition – Malamiah Juice Bar, first place, and Royal Jelly Foods, second – support the mission behind Good Food Fund.
“They are increasing access to healthy food, creating opportunities for jobs, and spurring the local food economy,” Chorazyczewski said.
The first place winner – Malamiah Juice Bar – took home $7,500 in prize money. Owner Jermale Eddie said the funds will allow them to continue and expand their business, which has been open for five years now. Originally having joined to learn from the Business Boot camp program, winning the pitch competition was an added bonus.
“Of course all startups are in need of financial capital to grow,” Eddie said. “We also recognize that each of the judges and those in the crowd may have resources that may be beneficial to the growth of our business and mission. The pitch winnings will allow us to take a greater risk in expanding our business, which simply equates to getting our products into the hand and bodies of more people.”
After being introduced to the art and health benefits of juicing, Eddie and his wife ended up starting a business and eventually both quitting their day jobs to run the business. They are proud to serve West Michigan “good” and healthy food.
“We take fresh fruits and vegetables and make them into juices or smoothies,” Eddie said. “Our juices and green smoothies have no added sugar. Some of our other smoothies may have agave or a vanilla yogurt added it to it. Basically our goal is to make you the freshest, best tasting beverage or smoothie bowl with little to no processing. Essentially raw juices and smoothies.”
Eddie said they don’t use the phrase “clean food” because it implies a form of privilege.
“If one is eating ‘clean food,’ then others are eating ‘dirty foods’ and that just is not the case,” Eddie said. “In fact we could all use an element of healthiness when preparing our foods and beverages.”
You can find the juice bar inside the Downtown Market, 435 Ionia SW. Additionally, Eddie said they have taught classes and workshops teaching people how to make these smoothies themselves, as well as peanut butter, almond butter and almond milk.
“We exist to elevate community health through healthy products, local partnerships and youth employment,” Eddie said of their mission. “We simply strive to love people and do good in our community.”
Similarly, Royal Jelly Foods is bringing “good food” to the West Michigan community.
In 2017, Alita Kelly and Kiara McClenton started Royal Jelly Foods catering company, and brought on Jenny Bongiorno and Kelsey Hakeem this year.
“Our mission is to celebrate the human connection through food,” Bongiorno said. “We envision a food culture that pays homage to the land it was grown from by taking just what is needed and using ingredients to the fullest extent. We envision the people that picked, transported and cared for our food will be honored and treated with utmost respect and humility. Lastly, we envision a just food system that feeds all people well.”
Bongiorno and Hakeem specialize in food growing, and hope to help the business eventually expand beyond catering.
“We are farmers and passionate food lovers who started catering because we loved sharing our food with others and suddenly found ourselves running a business,” Bongiorno said.
“Royal Jelly is an socially and environmentally-minded company delivering farm-fresh food through their catering services. Both are sourcing their ingredients locally, which supports local and regional farmers in a positive way.”
Bongiorno said Royal Jelly will use the funds – $2,500 – to pay for some consulting and legal services in order to shape the business the way they want to.
The Teen Entrepreneur Summer Academy (TESA) has influenced hundreds of high school students in West Michigan over the course of the past ten years. We recently got in touch with some of our past participants to hear first hand how TESA has impacted their lives.
Kenowa Hills High School
Years participated in TESA: 2015 and 2016
Neu: How did you find out about TESA?
Ravel: How I found out about it is pretty funny. I saw a girl who had a flyer for this thing, and I was like, “Oh, what’s this?” And she said, “Do you want one?” And I said “Yeah.” I took a look at it and said, “oh, TESA, this is interesting.” Freshmen year I was bouncing back and forth, wondering what I wanted to do as a career, and I knew that marketing, entrepreneurship and business was a big part of what I wanted to do. So when I saw the TESA flyer, I was like, “Mom, I’ve got to do this program!” So she signed me up. I have always been interested in marketing and entrepreneurship, so I did the program and it was fantastic.
Since 2012, Start Garden has played a large role in Grand Rapids’ entrepreneurship ecosystem by giving entrepreneurs a stage to present their ideas to the community while they compete for the opportunity to win $5,000.
Neu spoke with Start Garden Community Relationship Officer Laurie Supinksi about the history of 5×5 Night, it’s triumphant return and expansion, and why events like it are important for communities.
Neu: Can you start by telling us about your position at Start Garden and how you came to work there?
Lori Supinski: I was with an organization called eMerge. eMerge and Start Garden merged, so I came on board bringing the component of working within our 13 county region to connect entrepreneurs to all of the different resource organizations that provide services and programs. I am the connector. In the past Start Garden wasn’t necessarily focusing on the entire region, they just kind of operated in Grand Rapids, focusing on high tech, high growth businesses. Part of this merger was a shift in focus for Start Garden as well. Now we are focusing regionally and also focusing on neighborhood businesses, lifestyle businesses, and regional and rural businesses in some of our northern and southern counties, so we are trying to encompass all of the different types of startups that we see.
Neu: What is the history of 5×5 Night? How did it come to be?
LS: It was started in 2012 by Rick Devos–it was his idea and his organization. He was saying that there a lot of people with good business ideas, and how do we find them? How do we help support them and give them a little bit of a push? So he came up with this idea, and every week they would award $5,000 to an idea that would come out on the website. Then at the end of the month, they had all of those winners come in and pitch, and if they went further, then Start Garden could potentially invest more money in them. The $5,000 at that point was sort of that stepping stone to further investment by Start Garden, the idea being that they were really viewing themselves to be a venture capital fund and trying to look for and pull out some of those companies that were potentially going to grow and be scalable businesses. So that is kind of how the idea of 5×5 Night started. It was completely funded by Start Garden. Eventually, they got to a point where they really didn’t want to do that weekly investment anymore, simply because they were starting to grow a portfolio of companies that they were investing in. The capacity– staff wise and financially–to continue to do that wasn’t really feasible, and yet the community has embraced the whole 5×5 Night program. Start Garden really didn’t want to see that go away, so there was a period of time where they stopped doing it, and then the eMerge organization for a little while last year. When eMerge and Start Garden merged this year in April, we brought that program back under the umbrella of Start Garden, and we relaunched it in July. The idea with it this time is that we really wanted the program to have a regional impact, so we are taking it on the road. What we are trying to do now is to expose people to the program who might not know about it, because sometimes people don’t look outside their backyard. It is for people who are either not aware of it or maybe not comfortable entering the competition if they feel like it’s too far away. The idea really is to just engage more people. We have seen that having the events outside of the normal Start Garden location has brought an entirely new group of people to the event. It really gives more awareness to entrepreneurship in those communities.
Neu: Why 5×5 Night is important to communities?
LS: What we are trying to do at Start Garden is to encourage and support people that want to start their own businesses. One of the barriers to getting started is capital, and even though $5,000 is not a lot of money in some cases, it is sometimes something that can get somebody jump started. The prize money is certainly very important to most of the people that enter the competition, but the other thing is to get exposure for people’s ideas. By entering your idea out on a website, you are having to show it to people. It helps the entrepreneur think through, “What is this idea and how do I get people excited about it to vote?” Only the top five ideas get to pitch each month, and if you are in that group, then that whole experience is in and of itself quite something. You have to get up on stage, you have to pitch, you have to have thought through not just your idea, but a little bit of your business model and you have to answer the question of what that $5,000 will do for you, and what kind of impact that will make on your business. It is a really good exercise for an entrepreneur to have to get up in front of people and talk about their idea.
Neu: How does Start Garden quantify the impact? Do you keep in touch with the winners?
LS: Yes, we can go into the database and look at some of the past winners of 5×5 Night, and we keep track of where they are and what they are doing. There are some great examples–one of the companies that comes to mind is called Mull-It-Over Products. We had the founder return to 5×5 Night to address the audience, and he also came back as a judge. He has said that 5×5 Night was really the beginning of him rolling out his business. He was an industrial designer and was working with construction companies that put up buildings. A lot of the complaints of people that inhabited the buildings was that with so much glass, there was a lot of noise volume, and he came up with this idea of how to control the noise via a certain type of window design and window seal. 5×5 Night incentivized him to get further investment. Now his companies is worth 4 or 5 million dollars and it is continuing to grow.
We are going to start bringing some of winners back in to update and inspire people. Liz Hinton was a winner last year. Her company is called KNITit, and she called the other day and said that she wanted to come back as a judge and give some money to support the 5×5 Night program as a sponsor, just because it helped her so much. She has been really successful, and it is great and inspiring to people.
Neu: What are the plans for 5×5 in the future?
LS: I think we are going to continue to experiment with this model of moving it around to increase the awareness of the program and increase the amount of participation. We would like to continue to see a variety of different businesses and ideas put out there. It doesn’t have to be all apps. It can be a technology based business, it can be a product, or a retail space, or a service. Our goal is to keep that momentum going, and to continue to provide a platform for people to get started.
Nue: Is there anything else you want to say about 5×5 or Start Garden?
LS: I am really excited about it. I think that there hasn’t been one event that I went to that there hasn’t been just a great excitement in the room. In August we had the event at LINC. Before the event started, Paul Moore from Start Garden was the emcee, and he asked the audience, “How many people here have been to a 5×5 Night before?” And more than half of the people had not. That was great, because it proved that by having it at a different location, we attracted more people–people that are connected with LINC and promoted it within their network. I think that is exactly what we are trying to encourage. When the winner was announced, people screamed and the winner cried. It was really, really fun.
We want people to know that even though we are traveling around, it is still an open competition. We like the idea of entrepreneurs traveling outside of their area to go pitch to a different audience. We want to keep it an open platform, and that is the goal. As long as we keep helping entrepreneurs, as long as the community is continuing to support it, we will continue to do it. One thing that I wanted to mention, is that everyone that submits an idea, whether they get to be one of the five people to pitch, or they pitch and they don’t win, we are connecting with them through Start Garden. We send them a note saying, “Just because you didn’t get to win or you didn’t pitch, does not mean that your idea isn’t a good idea. If you want to move your business forward, call us or email us. We will listen to where you are in your process and connect you with some of the resources out there.” A lot of times, entrepreneurs don’t know what the resources are. When you are trying to start a business, it can be a lonely thing. You can feel like you are out there all on your own, and you need so much money to get started and a lot of these resources are free of charge.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Even those who are unfamiliar with business may know the old adage that coffee shops are “doomed to fail.”
Trevor Corlett, owner of Madcap of Coffee Company in downtown Grand Rapids, suggests that many people who open coffee shops do so under the false perception that there is nothing to it.
“They spend a lot of time hanging out in coffee shops and it’s super chill and it’s fun and they drink coffee and hang out with friends, and they perceive that is what it will be like to own one,” Corlett said. “You get people that have no background in managing retail, without being able to manage a staff that tends to be younger and all of the things that come with it. So that failure rate that you see from 10,000 feet up includes that.”
The coffee industry is incredibly diverse. Forbes ranks Starbucks among the world’s 50 most valuable brands. Biggby, an East Lansing born coffee chain, has 182 locations across Michigan, making up 48% of coffee shops across the state. For those who like to keep their spending local, Grand Rapids alone has more than a dozen independently owned coffee shops.
Grand Valley State University professor Dr. Timothy Syfert teaches entrepreneurship at the Seidman College of Business, and explains how these different types of coffee entities serve different functions.
“People go to Starbucks or Biggby for the coffee,” Syfert said. “People go to coffee shops to meet other people–for the community,”
What can entrepreneurs approaching different product markets learn from this? Well, coffee shops are a great example of what every entrepreneur should bear in mind.
“That it is not always about the product or service– it’s about what is around it,” Syfert said. “It’s the thing beyond the product or service that keeps people coming back.”
For Latesha Lipscomb, winning 5×5 Night last month was a long time coming.
“I wasn’t going to do it,” Lipscomb said. “I had done 5×5 twice in the past, and I had come really close to being able to present, but each time I was devastated because I wasn’t selected. I was really discouraged.”
Lipscomb launched her beauty business, I Got Face, in 2010 out of her live work/space on Division Ave. She entered 5×5 Night at the last minute after receiving encouragement from the community.
“I got several emails from several people from all different walks of life in the community telling me that I should do 5×5,” Lipscomb said. “I am a firm believer that if you hear something three times, then it must be meant to be.”
It’s no secret that there are limited employment opportunities for individuals with special needs.
In a 2015 survey conducted by the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), 57 percent of respondents with Down syndrome reported working paid jobs in some capacity, and only 3 percent of those reported working full time. Among the reasons cited for unemployment included lack of job-skill teaching programs and lack of job coaching.
Zoe Bruyn is doing something to change that.
“People with special needs have always been pretty close to my heart,” Bruyn said.
Bruyn, a senior at Grand Valley State University, is the owner of Stir It Up, a bakery that employs individuals with special needs and seeks to provide them with an environment where they can develop valuable job skills while gaining a sense of accomplishment.