Inside Track: Almallah finds empathy key to leadership

Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation director puts herself in others’ shoes to help make dreams come true.
A late class during her undergraduate career led Shorouq Almallah to turn her attention to information science. Courtesy 616 Media

Shorouq Almallah takes entrepreneurship seriously in all its stages.

As director of the Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CEI) at Grand Valley State University since 2016, Almallah said she is most proud of creating and incubating cutting-edge business innovations and programs that foster entrepreneurship in the next generation, as well as helping veterans and their families — and small businesses hit hard by COVID-19.

Without the crucial trait of empathy, she believes she and the CEI would not be able to achieve their mission effectively.

“When you’re trying to add value and support other communities, you have to put yourself in their shoes; you have to understand what they’re going through, what they’re feeling. That’s one thing you can’t just switch on. It takes time, it takes intentionality, and it takes that genuine caring. If you really do want to help others, you have to develop that empathy. It’s something that’s a focus in our programs, and I know it’s a critical trait for my job,” Almallah said.

“If I don’t have that, I’m not going to be effective in helping the community that we are trying to serve. That’s why when we train students, a big emphasis is on developing that empathy with their customers, to really understand the pain points and putting themselves in their shoes. It’s a really critical skill to have, and it can be developed.”

At the CEI, the primary “pain point” this year is obvious: the impact of COVID-19 on entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses.

Building on work she already has been doing for nine years at the CEI, Almallah got busy this year creating a program called LendGR that harnesses the skills, experience and time of GVSU’s business students to provide technical assistance to startups and small businesses that don’t have the resources to push through some of COVID’s impacts.

Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CEI) at Grand
Valley State University
Position: Director
Age: 43
Birthplace: Amman, Jordan
Residence: Forest Hills/Cascade Township area
Family: Husband, Majd; two sons, Layth and Qays
Business/Community Involvement: Michigan Women Forward West Michigan Advisory Council member; vice chair, U.S. Association for Small Business & Entrepreneurship-Minority and Women Special Interest Group; board member, West Michigan Colleges and Universities Group
Biggest Career Break: Having the opportunity to direct the Center for Entrepreneurship. “When the dean asked me to serve in that position, I had already been working at the center for many years, and I thought it was just going to be a title change … but I discovered quickly it wasn’t. It was an opportunity for me to grow as a leader, because my previous work focused on programming and the operational side of things, and stepping into this director leadership position, it’s all about the people you work with, the people you answer to, the boards, the leadership, the students, the community. That’s helped me grow tremendously, both professionally and personally. It was a switch from ‘just a job’ to a leadership position.”

“(As a solo entrepreneur), most times, you’re trying to do everything: marketing, finance, accounting — you wear too many hats. We know prior to COVID, many businesses struggled with that. But after COVID, it has become much worse, because now, these businesses don’t have the income, they don’t have the customers, they don’t have the resources to hire out some of these components of running the business — the financial operations and especially marketing and social media,” Almallah said. “Seeing what was happening, we launched that program to respond to some of these obstacles and difficulties to help provide support for small businesses in West Michigan.”

Almallah understands what it’s like to be a busy entrepreneur. Growing up in Amman, Jordan, she watched her father manage two restaurants to feed his wife and eight children and put money toward all of their college educations. He and his wife didn’t have the opportunity to attend university, and they wanted the realm of professional possibilities to be greater for their children.

In 1996, intending to avoid anything to do with business, Almallah came to the U.S. to study English and linguistics at Indiana University Bloomington with a view toward becoming an English teacher.

But the last class of her undergraduate career changed everything. She enrolled in the computer science course required for her bachelor’s degree, and it turned out to be “one of the best classes” she ever took. From there, she went on to earn a master’s degree in information science at IU, fascinated by the promise of the digital universe that was opening up during the dot-com boom and the new opportunities it afforded professional women. The IS master’s program gave her the opportunity to learn coding languages, much like she had mastered English as a second language.

She worked as a placement analyst at IU before landing the role of knowledge research manager at GVSU’s Family Owned Business Institute in 2001, and she has been at Grand Valley ever since in positions of increasing responsibility during the past 19 years.

Almallah’s early roles at GVSU were more data- and research-driven and less people-oriented, and she said she is enjoying now being able to work with individuals every day and see direct impact from the policies and programs she and her team enact.

She is currently responsible for resource facilitation to entrepreneurs, program development, curriculum development, project management, organizational processes, and grant solicitation and management.

Her nine-year stint at the Family Owned Business Institute allowed Almallah to support businesses as they transitioned to the next generation of leadership, while at the same time, she began volunteering to help develop GVSU’s nascent programs and pitch competitions for students, giving her experience on both ends of the spectrum of the entrepreneurial lifecycle.

This preparation set her up to be able to do the work she does today, connecting students with emerging and established businesses and fostering all parties’ growth and success.

In addition to the LendGR program, Almallah created the MWest Challenge student venture creation competition, the 77 IdeaLab student accelerator, an innovation hub for students on campus, and the Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur (MVE) Lab, a three-month accelerator to provide entrepreneurial training for veterans and military families.

She said she has been working to scale the MVE Lab during the past few months and at press time was getting ready to launch the fifth cohort of 20 to 25 students this fall, while also working on expanding the program to other Michigan cities such as Detroit and Muskegon. MVE provides resources and support for veteran-owned and veteran spouse-owned businesses, as well as the opportunity to secure funding in the form of a pitch competition at the end of each cohort. So far, about 100 individuals have graduated from the MVE program.

Almallah said the MVE Lab was created because her team realized that while Grand Valley offers plenty of support to veterans and their families while they are students, there aren’t as many resources in the community after they graduate to guide them on their entrepreneurial journey. She said she found this to be a shame, since veterans — who she said tend to be mission-driven, resilient, hard workers who collaborate well with others — make ideal entrepreneurs.

“We all know you can’t start a business by going to a half-day workshop or conference here and there. It has to be accelerated, it has to be focused on the skillsets, the training, the mentoring,” Almallah said. “… so, we launched this program, again teasing out those pain points, that there’s a need in the community to do that.”

In addition to the above accomplishments, Almallah finished her MBA from GVSU in June, while also increasing her activity in the Minority and Women Special Interest Group of the U.S. Association for Small Business & Entrepreneurship. Given the rising racial tensions and spotlight on economic inequity in the U.S. that has been happening this year, the group is busy working to create educational curricula and entrepreneurial opportunities that are more inclusive of Black- and other minority-owned businesses.

Almallah said key takeaways from her professional activities over the past two decades are that we all need other people, and living authentically in a clear and honest manner is priceless.

She said she hopes to spend the next year growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem of GVSU and the West Michigan community to develop talent, bridge gaps and create opportunities for underrepresented groups — all while using her empathy as a central ingredient to success.

“How can we be more inclusive? How can we scale? How do we contribute to that talent development and create a very vibrant business environment? My focus is going to be doing that, working within GVSU and outside it,” Almallah said.

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