For Veronica Kirin, taking classes at Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women was a breakthrough to becoming an entrepreneur. Courtesy Veronica Kirin
Want to feel really lazy?
Last year, Veronica Kirin was — at least on paper — running four for-profit businesses and two nonprofits, all of which she had founded. And she was involved in a number of community and startup organizations, too, as well as doing freelance photography and performing in a Celtic folk/rock band called The Ancients.
And here’s the kicker: She was only 27 years old at the time.
Kirin, who now spends most of her energy running her Grand Rapids-based Green Cup Design, which curates the digital presence of small businesses, has cut back on practically everything she was doing in 2014, but she still looks back on it as a fun year of learning.
After all, “You only live once,” she said.
“I love working and being an entrepreneur, but on weekends I’m very strict with myself. I know where the switch is in my brain and I turn it off,” she said.
“I want to leave an impact bigger than Grand Rapids. I’ve planted a flag. I have the Grand River tattooed on my arm. … There are so many people that are excited about seeing Grand Rapids move forward and seeing the future, and I was able to catch that wave.”
Kirin grew up in Novi and attended Grand Valley State University. In college she “wanted to save the world,” she said, and studied social anthropology. She took time off from studying in 2006-2007, between her sophomore and junior years, to join AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, which she described as “super-power volunteering.”
“It’s a branch of AmeriCorps modeled after the National Guard, so we train on a base as a team … and we deploy as teams, so that when there’s a disaster we’re ready to get up and go,” she said.
“We give up our entire lives for a year to be at the beck and call of the government. We are paid a stipend, but our food, housing and transportation are all taken care of.”
During her year with NCCC, Kirin worked on Hurricane Katrina relief projects. She also traveled extensively throughout college. Over the course of her life, she’s lived in about 10 cities, she said, adding that the experience of travel gives an edge no entrepreneur should miss.
“You learn to understand and accept other cultures for what they are rather than imposing your system on them,” she said.
“Even if you’re a business (owner) and you have certain structures in place in order to make the business run, working with another organization as a partner or hiring from a different location, having traveled gives you the flexibility to change or absorb as needed new and different people.
“But for me, traveling is also challenging. It strips one bare.”
In 2009, Kirin graduated with a degree in anthropology, then re-enlisted with NCCC as a field team leader after an 8.1 earthquake and tsunami hit American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific.
Her experience working in Samoa with NCCC as a caseworker for the Red Cross taught her to dislike bureaucracy and how to lead in a way that “protects the team” — a strategy she said she tries to carry over into the business world.
In 2010, Kirin returned to Grand Rapids and got a job with Sky Vision Enterprises, which performed search engine optimization. She was hired as an executive assistant, but after a couple of months was promoted to director of content development.
That same year, she also launched a nonprofit called Hands Engaged in Life’s Projects, or HELP. It was disaster relief and humanitarian aid for the secular population, “because if you’re not part of a university or a church in Grand Rapids, you don’t really have a good option for volunteering in that capacity, besides Red Cross,” she said.
Her real breakthrough to becoming an entrepreneur came when she began taking classes at Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women.
“I could see my peers around me and say, ‘OK, they have a business and are starting businesses. They aren’t any different than me,’’’ she said.
In October 2012, she founded Kirin Design, the forerunner of what is now Green Cup, just two months before Sky Vision was bought out and she lost her job.
“It was a combination of seeing things go downhill and taking classes at GROW that spurred me to say, ‘I can start my own business’ — sort of as a protective measure because I knew I was going to get laid off relatively soon,” she said.
The entrepreneurial bug bit Kirin hard. In 2013, she launched two for-profits: Quill Marketing and Adana Consulting. The next year, she launched a second nonprofit called Volunteer Local First, and her fourth for-profit, Fuse West Michigan, which was created to empower the design community of West Michigan.
“Our ultimate goal with Fuse was to have a World’s Fair-style event this year because we have more designers per capita than any other city in the nation,” she said.
By the end of 2014, however, Kirin felt she was stretching herself too thin, and a number of her projects had grown dormant. In December, she merged Adana and Quill into Kirin Design and then rebranded it Green Cup Design. She also dissolved HELP and put Fuse and her other nonprofits on the back burner for now, she said.
“At end of 2014, I was throwing myself really hard into Fuse. I knew I was going to start bringing down Adana and Quill, but because I threw myself far into Fuse, I stopped marketing my livelihood, basically … and that was the wakeup call.”
“Thinking about Quill and Adana was exhausting, but thinking about Kirin Design and creating new systems and working with clients for design was fun.
“Eventually, I decided I wanted to continue to offer content — and I still want to help consult — but it didn’t make sense to have it all be separate anymore. They didn’t have enough volume and they were tiring. It was fun, it was a good exercise, and I think it was a little bit of me exploring where my strengths lie.”
Kirin isn’t done with coming up with creative new ways to keep busy. Her next project is a Kickstarter campaign, “Untold Stories of the Silent Generation,” which combines her three great loves of anthropology, photography and storytelling.
“I want and intend to drive across the country recording narratives as told by people of the Silent Generation — so, 75 and older — to preserve as well as to bridge the gap between this very technological renaissance we’re going through and the last of the analog period,” she said.
Kirin’s 20s have been spent building creativity in Grand Rapids. As the current “Community Cultivator” at entrepreneurial hub The Factory, she spends a lot of time enjoying the company of other tech talents and entrepreneurs who are looking to make a mark and a difference in the city. And for now, she’s happy to keep making an impact for small businesses in the gaps she finds.
“It will always be the city that basically kick-started me, but there’s the whole world out there, and I haven’t seen it all yet.”