Business training program spreads its wings

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SpringGR’s newly renovated location at the Goei Center includes meeting rooms and classrooms, as well as space for networking. Courtesy SpringGR

SpringGR was created to coach entrepreneurs through the process of building a sustainable business, and now, the organization itself just got a bit more sustainable.

Attah Obande, director of dream fulfillment, and Arlene Campbell, chief creator of opportunities, serve as co-directors of the entrepreneurial support organization (ESO) located in the Goei Center, 818 Butterworth St. SW in Grand Rapids.

The nonprofit recently moved into a newly renovated 2,500-square-foot suite inside the center.

Obande and Campbell gave the Business Journal a tour of the new space Oct. 16. Tucked into a quiet wing of the building featuring warmly varnished hardwood floors and exposed brick walls, it has its own offices, meeting rooms, classrooms and space for networking and small events.

SpringGR’s old office was on the other side of the building. At 330 square feet, the suite was too small to hold classes and meetings, so SpringGR shared a common area with other tenants of the Goei Center, where its training programs always were at risk of being disrupted by event planners and caterers preparing for evening activities or other occupants looking for meeting space.

Now, the co-directors are confident SpringGR has the perfect space to teach, coach and mentor entrepreneurs, as well as a place where program participants and graduates can build community.

The nonprofit already is growing in the new space, with two full-time staff — Paul Pearson, entrepreneur support specialist, and Nancy Toledo Jimenez, content creator. They also have added a part-time site coordinator who does marketing and events, Kristyn DeNooyer.

In addition to the team members on staff, SpringGR has several contracted facilitators and coaches with plans to add a few more before the spring classes begin.

SpringGR was formed as the result of a DeVos family-funded pilot entrepreneurship program in 2014.

Campbell and Obande said the third-generation DeVoses were interested in building a program around entrepreneurship, but they wanted to make sure they didn’t duplicate anything already happening in the city. They conducted a national search to see what types of programs were out there that could be brought to Grand Rapids, and they discovered an ESO called LAUNCH Chattanooga from which to draw inspiration.

SpringGR got its official start in 2015 offering 12-week classes based on the business model canvas (available to view at bit.ly/costartercanvas and bit.ly/canvasshowandtell). It’s a curriculum that teaches aspiring entrepreneurs and established business owners what they need to know to build a business plan.

“It ultimately gets at who’s your customer, what’s the problem you’re solving or the existing alternative solutions to this problem, what’s the benefit that your solution offers, what are the advantages that you have, what’s your messaging, how do you get that message across to your customers, what are the costs involved with getting your message out, what’s the distribution channel, what are the ongoing costs and how are you making money?” Obande said.

“We find that when we talk about it in that way, people can internalize it better, as opposed to just putting out a business plan saying, ‘What’s your SWOT analysis and marketing strategy and this, this and that?’ We get into all the pieces of a business plan, but the canvas makes it less intimidating.”

Campbell said SpringGR fills a very specific gap in the ESO scene locally.

“There’s a lot of really good stuff in our city to help entrepreneurs, but maybe one of the places where support was lacking was just as an on-ramp for very early-stage entrepreneurs, specifically women and minorities, to be able to just have a place they could go to learn some business principles and how do we get started in business,” she said. “That’s really who we target and who we work with, but of course, we are open to everyone.”

The course costs $100 per participant — which includes the book, dinner and child care for 12 weeks — and the rest is underwritten by SpringGR’s donors.

The co-directors said they have enrolled people at experience levels from zero to 13 years so far.

The program includes classroom/small group work with facilitators, and the entrepreneurs also meet with coaches who are trained to ask questions rather than to tell them what to do.

“That type of coaching is empowering because it’s not me telling you what to do. It’s me asking you a question for you to think and process and for you to discover, ‘What do I need to do next?’” Campbell said. “We believe that people are way more inclined to meet their goals when they’re being pulled in that direction by something they desire versus somebody pushing them to do something.”

Program alumni are given two additional years of support from SpringGR, which “acts as a bridge to connect graduates to other resources throughout Grand Rapids to further grow and develop their businesses,” according to SpringGR’s website.

These resources can include referrals to organizations such as the Michigan Small Business Development Center and Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women or help preparing for pitch competitions such as Start Garden’s 5×5 Night and 100 Ideas competitions.

Obande said about one-third of the 5×5 Night winners during the past 2½ years or so were SpringGR graduates, and SpringGR claims a similar percentage of the 100 Ideas finalists in the past two years as its alumni.

“We’re able to prepare entrepreneurs to be able to clearly articulate their business idea, their business model, how it’s going to make money and show that it is potentially a viable, sustainable business, so much so that people who aren’t associated with us in any way, shape or form are selecting them,” Obande said.

Beyond just helping entrepreneurs to win pitch competitions, Obande said SpringGR’s goal is to see businesses scale so they can create more jobs and change family legacies. In order to do that, small business owners need capital — between zero to $50,000 of it on average — and Obande said this is an area in which he would like to see the gap closed with involvement from more lenders.

He also hopes that graduates of the program will take what they learn and pay it forward as mentors to future SpringGR students. Pearson currently is working to grow the organization’s cadre of mentors.

SpringGR graduated 363 entrepreneurs and 204 total businesses from its 12-week training program as of 2018, 32% of which were in business full time, 87% of which were minorities and 68% of which were women.

Its impact included 131 full-time and 215 part-time jobs created and strengthened. For every dollar invested by SpringGR, alumni made $6.83 in revenue.

Campbell and Obande said some of the impacts SpringGR strives for are more qualitative, such as teaching critical thinking and problem-solving skills or passing on the value of entrepreneurship to members of the family or the next generation.

“We’ve had a mother come in and the next class … a cousin or a son or daughter come through and then like two classes later, a mom and dad come through, and now you’ve got a family with two or three businesses just within that family. It’s a beautiful thing to see,” Obande said.

Campbell said SpringGR hopes its next chapter is about going deeper.

“We still see ourselves as a funnel, as entry level, but we don’t want to become so wide that we’re not really benefiting the people that we serve. If we can just go a little deeper, go through a 12-week class and continue on with some post-activities to continue to close that gap, to bring people closer to where they need to be, to be capital ready, to have the place of business that they need, to be really connected well with other ESOs and business people in our city, that’s where I feel like we need to be … to get people to where they want to go,” she said.

“Because in the end, we care a lot about helping people.”

SpringGR impact by the numbers 2018

363 total graduates

204 total businesses

215 part-time jobs created and strengthened

131 full-time jobs created and strengthened 

  • 17 full-time jobs created by graduates

32% of graduates are in business full time, working 30-plus hours

87% of entrepreneurs are minorities

  • 86 Latinos

  • 224 African Americans

  • 53 Caucasians

68% of entrepreneurs are women

73% retention rate 

  • Dropouts are mostly due to changed life circumstances

$6.83 ROI

  • For every dollar spent by SpringGR, alumni earn $6.83 in revenue

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