Experience in the housing and economic development industry helped prepare Darel Ross II for his new position. Photo by Michael Buck
Darel Ross II, the new co-director of Start Garden, is a man on a mission.
Since his earliest days as a youth on the southeast side of Grand Rapids, Ross knew poverty, and he knew he wanted to work toward making his community a better place — a place of opportunity regardless of one’s ZIP code or skin color.
“I think growing up on the southeast side of Grand Rapids and understanding poverty and lack of resources and the disconnection to opportunities was formative,” he said.
His mother, a single mom, taught him “the importance of hard work and education.”
“Even though I went to school in Alabama, I was always one of those kids who wanted to come back to my neighborhood and make change,” he said.
After graduating from Ottawa Hills High School, Ross earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from Alabama A&M, a public, historically black university.
Ross called the experience “transformational,” being exposed to a spectrum of thoughts and experiences within a mostly African American community.
“Although you have one race, everybody’s not monolithic in thought,” he said. “It created a network of friends across the country with different thoughts and different goals.
“I think also, in college, that’s where I learned that anything is possible regardless of your race or where you come from.”
DAREL ROSS II
Coming back to Grand Rapids, he began to harness that sense of possibility in his career, working in various Allstate Insurance locations and, eventually, opening his own offices in Jenison, the Boston Square Neighborhood where he grew up, and at M-6 and Kalamazoo Avenue.
All told, Ross was in the Allstate business for 13 years.
“I focused on the financial piece of being successful early on, but after having kids, I was focused on how do we make the community successful and what does that look like?” he said. “(It’s about) understanding the connectedness to where you live and the importance that it has on outcomes.”
Ross gradually began working in community development. Serving on the board of the former housing-related nonprofit Lighthouse Communities, Ross and a colleague, Jeremy DeRoo, seized the opportunity to become its co-executive directors when the then-director resigned.
The pair stepped into the role and renamed the organization LINC UP. Ross co-led the nonprofit for nine years.
“Jeremy and I had unique strengths that were complementary,” Ross said. “We understood that if you’re just focusing on housing, you’re building islands around a sea of despair. Housing alone was not the solution and wasn’t really revitalizing those areas or communities.”
So, Ross and DeRoo sought to make LINC UP function more holistically, focusing on “the connectivity of housing and economic status as it relates to the social determinants of health,” as well as initiating discussions about equity, race, class and power — which didn’t always sit well with community leaders.
“We’re all involved in community development,” Ross said. “I was driven by the disparities, personally not being OK with your ZIP code meaning more than your genetic code and things like double-digit unemployment for African Americans. I think those things should be worked on, and people should dedicate their time and efforts to work on them.
“Ultimately, it’s our responsibility as community members and parents to realize that it’s our job to make sure all people have a chance at a better life. It’s not just my community; it’s my kids’ community.”
Pondering ways to empower underrepresented community members, the pair began thinking about the importance of influencing local policy decisions.
As a result, LINC UP started to provide the community free weekly meals on Tuesday nights, followed by bus rides to city commission meetings.
Even as Ross moves on to his new role at Start Garden, starting Feb. 15, he said LINC UP will “continue to expand that (program), so policy is shaped by the people it impacts.”
Looking back on his time at LINC UP, Ross said co-leadership was “awesome.”
“It really makes it about the mission of the organization and not about one individual leader. It comes with a prerequisite that you’re comfortable in your own skin and your own strengths and abilities, while finding the complementary skills and abilities (of another) a positive and not a threat.
“Diverse perspectives of thought, ultimately, is a good thing and leads to more impactful outcomes.”
Ross’s role at Start Garden also will be based on a co-leadership model.
The organization describes itself as “a nontraditional venture capital fund” started in 2012 by Rick DeVos with the goal of fostering “early stage” entrepreneurship through various platforms like 5X5 Night and Seamless.
Start Garden, now led by Mike Morin and Paul Moore, has a history of partnership with organizations such as LINC UP, the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB) and Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW).
Over the past few months, as Morin and Moore continued talks with Ross and Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of the Hispanic chamber, about how to create a healthier ecosystem for all groups in Grand Rapids, it became clear Start Garden needed their talents on more than just a consultation basis.
“Jorge and I were always candid that you need diversity of thought and inclusion to think through some of these things,” Ross said.
“We were coming up with great models, and it evolved into conversations on whether there was a need for permanent placement (for us),” he said. “There was plenty of work to do on the entrepreneurial landscape, and we were trying to ideate on what team would be best to address it.”
Ross called the transition from LINC UP to Start Garden “a natural next step” that will allow him and his co-leaders “to better focus solely on economic development.”
“I think the move to Start Garden elevates and continues the work of LINC around entrepreneurial development. But it does so in a more integrated way,” he said.
“LINC has always been about connecting the ideas of who you know, what you know, where you live and what you make. This (new opportunity) definitely catapults the work around economic development and connects people to real opportunity across Grand Rapids.”
As co-leaders, Ross stressed he and Gonzalez will not be working exclusively within the minority communities they represent, but rather, the whole team will work together on inclusion.
As part of the restructuring, the co-leaders will look for ways to provide “universal opportunities.”
“My goal will be to remove as many obstacles that currently exist while expanding the opportunities for entrepreneurs in West Michigan — to have that link between historically marginalized communities in tech, high-growth companies and neighborhood businesses,” Ross said.
Ross said that will include assisting more minority entrepreneurs in their goals of securing venture capital funding.
That effort “will be incorporated into the existing programs,” he said.
When Ross looks back at his professional history, he marvels at how it seems everything led to this point.
“My experience as a business owner over the years, my experience running a nonprofit such as LINC — and understanding the obstacles that exist in our community — have perfectly prepared me for this opportunity,” he said.
“I’m excited to take that past history and my knowledge to transition to Start Garden.”