Current and future entrepreneurs mingled last week at an event sponsored by Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses at Inner City Christian Federation. Photo by Mike Nichols
Grand Rapids might be budding with entrepreneurs, but that doesn’t mean every entrepreneur in the city has an equal sense of easy access to capital.
That’s why Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, a local economic development group promoting success in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, is working to make sure local African-American entrepreneurs aren’t being left behind.
The nearly three-year-old group recently began hosting GRABB Connects, opportunities for current and future entrepreneurs to gather for appetizers, drinks and music while also exchanging social capital, connecting with those who could help their success and learning more about GRABB itself.
The first of the free events was June 28 at Inner City Christian Federation, 920 Cherry St. SE, Grand Rapids. GRABB Connects: The Flow was all about helping black entrepreneurs find access to financial resources, said GRABB founder and CEO Jamiel Robinson.
“We’re looking for ways to connect entrepreneurs with different facets of the community for the resources they might need,” he said. “Tonight is all about financial. We’re going to have another one that focuses on legal structure, so we might partner with a few law firms and the city to provide legal aid.”
The event, with about 100 attendees, featured Content Corner tables where business professionals and experts in various business disciplines could connect. Some of the evening’s Content Corners partners were Huntington Bank, Small Business Development Center of Michigan, Michigan Women’s Foundation, Opportunity Resource Fund and Michigan Good Food Fund.
Minority entrepreneurs face more barriers to financial resources, Robinson said.
“One vice president of a local bank told me — it was kind of like a banker’s joke — he said ‘When you need money, we won’t give it to you. When you don’t need money, we’ll give it to you,’” he said.
“So, for those who don’t have resources or a house they could put up or generational wealth — so they can’t borrow dollars from family members to help that way — that’s one of the barriers.”
The lack of generational wealth is especially hard on African-American entrepreneurs, Robinson said. In a city where family ties have proven especially important in business, families who come from generations of inequality have a harder time finding that foundational support that many others take for granted, he said.
“You can’t say, ‘Here’s $10,000. Do whatever you want.’ You don’t have that rich aunt or uncle with patient capital,” Robinson said. “Patient capital is where if you get paid back, cool, but if not, it’s OK, because your aunt or uncle isn’t going to disown you. They’re not going to come and take your house or your car.”
There’s change in the wind, and many local banks and financers are interested in doing more to support minority entrepreneurs, Robinson said. Although many banks’ hands are tied by regulations, institutions are finding ways to support the cause, he said.
Robinson’s dream is that the city will enrich the community through diversity in a way that is genuine. He wants customers and financial support to arrive because they truly value the products and services of minority entrepreneurs.
“We all come from different cultures. African-American, Latino and even Caucasian business owners bring their culture to whatever it is. We’re all able to provide uniqueness culturally, but one of the things I always say is support a business because you value the product or you value the service,” he said.
“Don’t support just because ‘oh, they’re African-American,’ because then it almost becomes a charity. And we’re not looking for charity. We’re looking for you as a person to do business with.”
The city needs more culturally diverse events, because that is how racial division is broken down in Grand Rapids, he said.
Next month will be GRABB’s third anniversary, Robinson said. A celebration will be held July 28 at the Richard App Gallery, 910 Cherry St. SE, Grand Rapids, where GRABB has hosted a number of events.
The anniversaries are always known as “sankofa” events, Robinson said. The word comes from the Twi language of Ghana. It essentially translates as “go back and get it” and is usually associated with the image of a bird with a turned neck.
“Sankofa is an African mythological bird where the bird’s neck is turned around, and carrying an egg on its back. And even though it has that egg, it’s still progressing forward,” Robinson said.
“The meaning of sankofa is ‘while you’re looking back, you’re also moving forward.’”