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Q&A with Start Garden Community Relations Officer Laurie Supinski

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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.

Ben Logan pitching at 5x5 Night in September 2015
Ben Logan pitching at 5×5 Night in September 2015

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.

Latesha Lipscomb won 5x5 Night at LINC
Latesha Lipscomb won 5×5 Night at LINC

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.

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Lessons from a local coffee company

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Doomed to Fail

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.”

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Latesha Lipscomb: August 5×5 Night Winner

Latesha Lipscomb won 5x5 Night at LINC

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.”

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Entrepreneur Zoe Bruyn stirs things up

Jessie and Kyle, employees of Stir It Up bakery, sell baked goods at West Michigan Miracle League

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.

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I GOT FACE wins 5×5 Night

Latesha Lipscomb won 5x5 Night at LINC

On Wednesday, August 14 Latesha Lipscomb came out on top at 5×5 Night and took home $5,000 for her business I GOT FACE Concierge Cosmetics. We will be following up with Lipscomb to get the full story and find out how she plans to apply the funds to her burgeoning business. Stay tuned!

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5×5 at LINC Gallery

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Voting closed on Wednesday for the top five  5×5 ideas, and those that emerged on top will be presenting at the return of the monthly pitch competition on August 24 at 5:00 p.m. at the LINC Gallery, located at 1167 Madison Ave SE. Presenting will be Tova Jones on behalf of Pop Up Shop-GR, Shawn Melton of Straight and Narrow Workshop, Latesha Lipscomb of I Got Face-At Your Service, Kelsey Purdue on behalf of Show and Tell Youth Marketplace and Korey Cook for Non-Invasive River Turbine.

There were well over a dozen submissions for the public to vote on in this months 5×5 pool.

For more information on next week’s 5×5 Night, please visit http://5x5night.com/next

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Starting a business…while working 9-5.

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Believe it or not, most people don’t start off as entrepreneurs. Starting a venture often co-occurs with working and/or going to school. Although it is possible to save enough money to live off of while starting your own business, few people will find themselves in the circumstances to do so. So, if you have the itch to get a brilliant idea for a product or service off the ground, you will likely find yourself in a balancing act between work or school (or both) and your new venture.

There are only so many hours in the day, so how exactly does one do it? What can you expect? What are the challenges and benefits?

Entrepreneur in Residence Matt Larson has plenty of experience with the juggling act of entrepreneurship and working full time.

“At one point, I was working full time teaching at a community college, and I owned a vending company and a book keeping company all at the same time,” Larson said. “I got through it. You set goals… Just know that it is going be a roller coaster ride. Understand that going into it.”

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TESA Detroit Wrap Up

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For ten years the Teen Entrepreneur Summer Academy (TESA) has given high school students the tools and knowledge to start their own business through a weeklong crash course in entrepreneurship. During the five-day program, students work with college faculty and current GVSU students to solve a real-world problem through entrepreneurship. The program provides students with fundamental business concepts and essential entrepreneurship skills through hands-on, creative workshops. On the last day, the teams present their five-minute business idea pitch to a panel of judges from the local community for cash prizes. During the first week of August, GVSU expanded the impact of TESA by taking the program to Detroit for the first time. TESA Detroit was made possible through sponsorship from The Skillman Foundation, Beaumont, Ernst & Young, 100 Black Men of Greater Detroit, Inc., and the Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office.

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TESA ’16 Recap

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The GVSU Teen Entrepreneur Summer Academy (TESA) is a week-long summer program for high school students. The program focuses on cultivating awareness of and interest in the unique entrepreneurial ecosystem of Grand Rapids, while also providing students the knowledge and tools for starting their own businesses. It is an exceptional opportunity for high school students to interact and learn on a college campus. During the five day program, students work with college faculty and current GVSU students to solve a real-world problem through entrepreneurship. The program provides students with fundamental business concepts and essential entrepreneurship skills through hands-on, creative workshops. On the last day, the teams present their five-minute business idea pitch to a panel of judges from the local community for a cash prize. To aid the students in this presentation GVSU faculty, current entrepreneurial college students, and local entrepreneurs provided training and mentorship.

The 2016 TESA program saw 36 students from 23 different high schools across the state of Michigan. Sponsors included Amway, KENT ISD, Ernst & Young, the Seidman College of Business, and the Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Together they provided cash and prizes for the student entrepreneurs that totaled over $5,000.

Each year, TESA features a theme for the students to focus their ideas toward. This year’s theme was healthcare. To assist students in understanding the challenges associated with healthcare, we kicked off the week with an intensive poverty simulation conducted by Access West Michigan. The hour and half long exercise grouped students into fictitious families experiencing poverty and challenged them to meet their basic needs within a certain time frame. We followed this exercise with a trip to Spectrum Health Innovations to listen to a dynamic panel of health care professionals as they highlighted issues rampant in the current system. Later in the week, Kangaroo Kitchen hosted a healthy cooking workshop, Fulton Street Farmers Market gave a presentation on the value of local food markets, Start Garden introduced the students to what an entrepreneurial ecosystem looks like, and the David D. Hunting YMCA hosted us for rock climbing, volleyball, hula hooping, and basketball. Students were also given the opportunity to work with improvisation expert Amy Gascon from Dog Story Theater to improve their stage presence and team building skills. Throughout the week students were under the instruction of Peg Shoenborn and Dr. Tim Syfert. Shoenborn and Dr. Syfert guided them through ideation, prototyping, planning and market research, and management and operations.

At the end of the week, the student teams pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges made up of Tina Bain, Director of Global Special Events at Amway; Alaina Clarke, Conference Program Manager at Society of North American Goldsmiths; Michael Czechowskyj, Clinical Innovations Specialist at Spectrum Health; Paul Moore, Chief Marketing Officer at Start Garden; and Kevin Schnell, Executive Director at Ernst and Young.

Ravel Bowman, George Ebeling, Abigail Johandes, Alicia Mendez and Jennifer Puente took home first prize and $2,500 for Time to Get Fresh, a business that would utilize the school bus system to provide children qualifying for free or reduced lunch with fresh produce and recipes. Sofia Alfaro, Genevieve Doyle, Benjamin Janes, Miranda Pablo and Jaspreet Singh were awarded second place and $1,500 for Crane Care, a business that would equip elementary schools with health care clinics. Nicholas Baran, Michaela Gheorghiu, Joey Paliwoda, Alex Plouff and Allison Smart received third place and $1,000 for A New Page, a company that would utilize medical social work students to address mental health care in prisons.

2016 Students’ Testimonials:

“I was wavering with what to do after high school, but I really think I may have found my path.”

“I had a great experience at TESA. I look forward to what this camp has given me to use in the real world.”

“This camp is my favorite camp of the summer. I did it last year and decided to come back because I learned so much. I would like to thank the whole TESA staff for making this camp 10 times better than it already was. The experiences and lessons I’ve learned I will keep forever. I can’t wait until next year.”

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TESA ’16

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Things have been a little quiet here at  NEU as of late, and for good reason; We have been dedicating our resources to preparing for the Teen Entrepreneur Summer Academy (TESA).

TESA takes place from June 27-July 1, and is a unique program designed to give high school students an immersive educational experience in entrepreneurship. At the the begining of the week, students are divided into teams and presented with a theme to create a business around. At the end of the week, each team will pitch their final idea to a panel of judges for a chance to win cash prizes totaling $5,000. Past TESA themes include arts, agriculture, and urban sustainability. This year’s theme is health and wellness.

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We have an exciting schedule lined up for our TESA students this year. We are kicking things off on Monday with a poverty simulation designed to give them a full understanding of what it is like to have limited access to medical care, followed by a carefully curated panel of industry experts that will take them further into exploring barriers in healthcare systems. The rest of the week includes ideation exercises, improv activities, finance overviews, marketing research, prototyping, lunch in downtown Grand Rapids, field trips to the David D. Hunting YMCA, Start Garden, The Fulton Street Farmers Market and a cooking demonstration with Kangaroo Kitchen.

This is the 10th year that TESA has been giving high school students the skills to explore their passions while forging their own paths. We are pleased to be taking our programing to Detroit from August 1-5 to expand the impact of TESA.

NEU will resume posting after July 4. Stay tuned!