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

Five entrepreneurs win prize money at first MVE Pitch Competition

By Kayla Sosa


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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.

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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 “Malamiah Juice Bar, Royal Jelly Foods take home funds in Business Bootcamp Pitch Competition”

Malamiah Juice Bar, Royal Jelly Foods take home funds in Business Bootcamp Pitch Competition

By Kayla Sosa

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.

MGFF logoChorazyczewski 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.

Malamiah Juice Bar owner Jermale Eddie and manager Rebekah Wicker.

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.”

The women of Royal Jelly Foods. 

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.

0 comments on “Spotlight: Liberate GR”

Spotlight: Liberate GR

By Kayla Sosa

A community survey in Grand Rapids showed that residents feel there is a need for a free, non-judgmental space for the LGBTQ community. After learning this, Audrey Hutchinson created Liberate GR – a community center for those who don’t feel they have a place to truly express themselves. With creative expression classes, a counseling center, peer-led discussion groups and many opportunities to network and share, Hutchinson wants to encourage growth and exploration.

“The LGBTQ community can feel ostracized, stared at and judged when out just doing normal things that any person does,” Hutchinson said. “Here they don’t have to worry about feeling different because they’re not.”

Liberate is also open to those in non-traditional relationships, like open or polyamorous.

“A lot of people in these relationships are socially monogamous, meaning even their closest family and friends don’t know,” Hutchinson explained. “People in non-traditional relationships face the possibility of judgement if people knew. At Liberate, they can discuss their relationships freely and openly with other people who are experiencing the same things.”

Hutchinson’s goal is to have the center be a place for people to connect, but also to network and take on leadership opportunities.

“It will include leadership opportunities for members and networking events as well as guest speakers and workshops,” she said. “We envision a place for members of all ages, genders and orientations. A place to be yourself and find connection as well as ways to better your life and always continue to grow.”

Hutchinson is a student at GVSU, going for her master’s degree in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership. One of the things that has challenged her in this process is figuring out how to open up a non-profit, and all the special details involved.

“I am trying to get definitive answers about how to have a counseling center attached to the drop in center, which will accept payments and accept insurance while offering a sliding scale fee to people who are low income,” Hutchinson said. “It’s important because we need to have a clear picture of how much money we need to raise before we really get started. I like to have clear goals and a realistic strategy for fundraising.”

Starting a non-profit means you may have a business, but not always a building to work in right away.

“It means you have the paperwork and the people to get started, but it could still be a little while before actually opening your doors,” Hutchinson said. “That’s hard, but if you really believe in the mission then every step is exciting, no matter how small.”

The mission at Liberate is clear: create a space where people can be themselves and connect with others.

“Whether you’re involved with the LGBTQ community or not, Liberate matters because it will help other people to feel more connected,” Hutchinson said. “A more connected community is happier and safer. If you have a loved one, or if you yourself are LGBTQ, this place is important because it’s somewhere to go to receive services or build relationships.”

Hutchinson is currently looking for more people to fill roles on the board as well as volunteer positions. To learn more and get involved, visit http://www.liberategr.org.

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Breaking Barriers

Amy Engelsman – Proos Manufacturing

As Amy Engelsman transitioned into the her role as CEO of Proos Manufacturing, she faced significant challenges: securing company financials; obtaining funding for purchase of the business; proving her leadership capacity to the lender; earning the trust and respect of employees despite having worked for Proos for more than 20 years.

As a female entrepreneur and business owner, Engelsman now experiences the challenges of running a business while also dealing with the traditional challenges that women face in the workplace, including those in executive positions. She believes her biggest achievement has been gaining the acceptance and acknowledgement of her peers in a traditionally male-dominated industry.