Hanna Schulze grew up in Ann Arbor and said the cultural differences between the east side of the state and West Michigan were noticeable when she moved here. Courtesy Local First
Hanna Schulze had some big shoes to fill when Elissa Sangalli left Local First in January, but as interim director, she is leveraging her experience with diversity and passion for building equity to promote a vibrant local business community in Grand Rapids.
Schulze has entrepreneurship in her DNA. Not only did her family own their own optometry business, but also thinking “local first” had always been a part of family decision-making, she said.
“Truthfully, it had to be forced on me as a child, because back when you’re in high school, and all you want is the name-brand this-and-that — you go to the mall, and you get the same shirt as everyone else — my parents always pushed on me the importance of supporting local business,” Schulze said.
Schulze said her dad was a big proponent of the barter economy model and establishing strong relationships through business, which she learned to appreciate as she got older, particularly as she spent a decade of her young adult life working in the service industry.
“You show up to a store where you know the person behind the counter, and that interaction can change your day for the better,” she said.
She also learned supporting local business has a positive affect, not just on communities, but on the environment.
“There are statistics that support the idea that local businesses are inherently better for the environment,” Schulze said. “They treat the environment better, because the people who own the business are living in the community. They’re not going to be dumping … they’re not going to be doing things that are detrimental to the community they’re living in.”
While studying at Grand Valley State University, Schulze did an internship for the downtown development authority in Holland, which was focused on economic development and marketing.
At the time, the Holland DDA was focused on activating public places and the local farmers’ market.
“They had a street performers series, where they would bring 100 performers downtown, shut the streets down, and everybody — thousands of people — would come and bring their families to check it out,” Schulze said.
Schulze’s favorite part of the work involved communicating with local businesses in the downtown corridor. Having conversations with business owners helped her understand what they wanted to see from a supportive government and how to activate the business district and introduce them to more customers.
“What’s unique about downtown Holland is it’s predominately locally owned businesses that make up their retail corridor in their downtown area, so it’s a very small example of a locally focused economic leader,” Schulze said.
Through her experience working with Holland, Schulze gleaned a greater understanding of the importance of supporting local business and the community and stability it builds, she said.
After her internship wrapped up and she graduated, she was introduced to Local First as a part-time events assistant. Working in Grand Rapids broadened the size and types of businesses she communicated with.
Local First also has a larger membership, and the team works with between 600 and 800 businesses at a given time each year, helping them discover ways to grow and also helping individuals pursue their dreams of owning a business, Schulze said.
“The more time I spent researching and working for this organization, the more I understood the connectivity between the idea of a resilient local economy and all the other parts of the world that I wanted to affect for the better,” Schulze said.
In her spheres of influence, Schulze is working more toward supporting business ownership and access to resources for a diverse range of people. She said she was inspired to do so because of her childhood home of Ann Arbor, before her parents moved to West Michigan and started their own business.
As a child, Schulze was introduced to a far more diverse group of people who came from different cultural backgrounds, faith traditions, family structures and more.
‘The conversations that come up when you’re five, ‘Why does so-and-so have two moms?’ And then your mom just says, ‘Oh, because they’re married and they love each other,’ and that’s the end of the conversation, versus being introduced to that at an older age, when your version of ‘normal’ looks like you and those conversations happen later — that’s something I look back on and I’m thankful for,” Schulze said.
When Schulze’s family moved to the west side of the state, which was comparatively more homogenous, she immediately noticed the difference, she said.
“It’s just something you kind of think about,” Schulze said. “Looking back, it’s something I want to work toward here in Grand Rapids.”
Local First, through its Good for Michigan campaign, now has more relationships with organizations on the east side of the state, and Schulze finds herself going back and forth between Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor where she originally grew up.
Schulze said her early exposure to diverse communities at least indirectly impacted the value she puts in being surrounded by different people. Not only does it create a broader worldview for the individual, but having more people participate in the local economy is inherently beneficial to commerce and large local industries, she argued.
“West Michigan is unique, because we have a lot of large industry that has started here — Steelcase, Herman Miller. Their investments have increased over time in this place, and something those businesses have clearly invested in, but also benefit from, is that vibrant, interesting, joyful community,” Schulze said.
“If some of those institutions are hoping to bring talent into our region … if they’re looking to bring in internationally renowned designers, architects, whatever, and they’re going to be offering a job to somebody who lives in Copenhagen, Grand Rapids has got to compete with Copenhagen! How do you compete with Copenhagen if you don’t have any interesting culture, any interesting food?”
To attract talent for Grand Rapids, Local First has drawn attention, through awareness of its own brand, to locally owned businesses. Based on a fairly recent market survey by Local First, over 50% of people who see the Local First logo displayed on local businesses recognize it, Schulze said.
Local First also promotes positive statistics on job creation, employee treatment and economic resiliency with regard to local businesses.
“We’ve seen some cities that have seen huge growth because of one specific industry, and if that industry goes away, that city struggles for generations to come, so building a diverse web of strong, locally rooted, independent businesses is a way to create resiliency in times of economic challenge,” Schulze said.
Schulze said the organization also advocates for consumption patterns that support local businesses. It could be as simple as choosing to eat at a local restaurant versus a chain restaurant, for example.
Boosting local business also can be a throughway in terms of creating equitable access to capital. Schulze said Grand Rapids still is very segregated economically, but she said she believes encouraging local consumption also creates a more socially conscious consumer base.
“When you continue shifting the consumer dollar toward local, then you are building up a conscious consumer base that cares about how their money’s spent,” Schulze said. “I think over time, you start to see some of those problems changing.”
The phrase “local first,” however, is not meant to shame people into only shopping local. Schulze said there’s always going to be a need for big-box retail to fill a void in commerce.
“Sometimes you might have to go to Target,” Schulze said, “You might not be able to find something elsewhere, but I do appreciate that it has it’s place … It doesn’t have to be local always, but local first.”
Schulze began serving as Local First’s interim director effective Feb. 14 while the board conducts a search for a full-time executive director.