It takes a community to cultivate a culture of local first


When I graduated from college, it wasn’t uncommon for my friends to pick a place on a map and move across the country to find jobs. Over a decade later, Grand Rapids has become a bright spot on the map where people from all over the country want to move.

We owe much of this exciting movement to the community of locally owned businesses that continue to cultivate a culture that makes Grand Rapids a great place to live and work. Working hand in hand with our community, we have created a culture that supports locally owned businesses, good-paying jobs, more sustainable business practices and vibrant local neighborhoods. We have seen businesses in agriculture, manufacturing, retail, tourism and other services spurred by our local first movement. That all leads to more dollars staying right here in our community as businesses work together to source their products or services.

This year, Local First is celebrating 15 years. As I look back on those 15 years there are so many examples of how once far-out ideas or concepts have become normal for how West Michigan does business together.

I remember when Street Party became one of the very first events in Grand Rapids to serve locally made beer and people didn’t know what to do. They looked around for brands they already knew, but as local brands grew, people quickly caught on and now local is the new normal. Now when you visit local restaurants and grocery stores, you see dozens of locally owned brands, which is pretty cool. This is just one example that signifies the growth of the local first movement right in our own backyard and how it’s turned Grand Rapids into an industry leader.

These days it’s also not uncommon for “triple bottom line” to pop up in conversations around the business community. Fifteen years ago, no one would have really known what that meant; yet today, we are home to the majority of Michigan-based B Corps. Sustainability and putting people first are now conversations that are happening more than ever and businesses are incorporating these values into their mission and vision statements, which is also pretty cool to see.

A big part of supporting local is also supporting people. There has been a heightened conversation around shifts in how we create more equitable communities and increase access to opportunity. While we still have a long way to go, we are making progress as a community and taking action to create more opportunities for all people who call West Michigan home.

Looking ahead to the next 15 years, it’s my hope that phrases like “triple bottom line” and “people-first economy” are a part of everyday conversation. I hope that Grand Rapids becomes the intersection of purpose and profit, where companies and people move because they know they can invest in their community. I also want to see the inclusion conversation continue and advance, and for the demographics of local ownership to represent the demographics of our vibrant and growing community. I also hope that we continue to build this great place together while making sure people can afford to live here too.

I am so proud of our community and how far we’ve come over the last 15 years, and I am grateful for our growing community of over 800 locally owned businesses. Let’s keep the momentum going by continuing to support each other in business, engage in conversations that push us to be better than we were yesterday, and commit to meeting new people and shopping in different communities. At the heart of local first is people, and by continuing to put people first in business and in our community, we will be able to cultivate a culture of local first for many generations to come.

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Elissa Sangalli
Elissa Sangalli is committed to working at the leading edge of values-based capitalism — building sustainable local economies that put people first. As the president of Grand Rapids-based Local First since 2007, Sangalli has brought together nearly a thousand businesses in West Michigan to collaborate in building a vibrant community that encourages sustainable business development. She has been named an Exemplary Executive by the Grand Rapids Young Non-Profit Professionals, a B Corp Measure What Matters Champion and one of the Business Journal’s 40 Under Forty leaders three times. She is also a Business Alliance for Local Living Economies fellow and a B Corp ambassador.