Start Garden has hired a pair of local leaders to restructure and “evolve” its leadership team and focus on the “inclusion of all entrepreneurs” in West Michigan.
Start Garden said today it has hired Darel Ross II, co-executive director of the nonprofit LINC UP in Grand Rapids, and Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, as members of its leadership.
The pair will join Paul Moore and Mike Morin in a “shared leadership” structure, and all four will have the title of co-director.
Most recently, Morin has served as CEO, and Moore has served as chief marketing officer, according to the organization’s website.
Ross and Gonzalez will start on Feb. 15.
Opportunity for “all”
“Start Garden’s mission has always been to establish Grand Rapids as the best place to start a business, so we constructed an organization that could exist beyond a traditional venture capital fund and become a collaborative growth environment,” Morin said.
“The vitality and future of our entrepreneurial ecosystem, however, requires local leaders in economic development with deep knowledge of the disparities and challenges faced in diverse entrepreneur communities.
“This helps ensure that the economic benefits of entrepreneurship can be realized by people of all backgrounds and experience.”
Morin said rather than Ross and Gonzalez exclusively working within the minority communities they represent, the whole team will work together on inclusion.
“The notion is for all of us to work to create opportunity in the community for all,” he said. “It’s about making good decisions from a diverse perspective.”
“Relational before transactional”
In its restructuring, Start Garden will seek “to create and connect the infrastructure for entrepreneurship to support aspiring business owners throughout the region,” Morin said.
Morin said this will be accomplished through its current relationships with LINC UP, the Hispanic chamber and Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, or GRABB, as well as through Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, or GROW, and several investment partners.
“Things will always be relational before they’re transactional to get that cross-pollination,” he said.
Rather than creating new programs, Morin said Start Garden will act as a hub for connecting all entrepreneurs to community resources.
“It’s about increasing social connectivity and access,” he said. “Resources are needed, so it’s about removing barriers to access.
“The collaboration with GRABB is an example where we’re starting to get to know entrepreneurs, identifying their opportunities and challenges and then helping connect them to the resources in the community that would achieve that.”
African-American and Hispanic communities
When it comes to entrepreneurship, Start Garden said African-Americans are more underrepresented in Grand Rapids than in similar cities. The organization cited a 2015 post by a demographer and Forbes contributor in 2015 that ranks Grand Rapids 51st out of 52 cities for African-American wealth creation, in terms of entrepreneurship, home ownership and average median income.
Ross said his focus will be on creating a level playing field.
“My transition is as much about expanding the kind of work LINC has been able to do in economic development as it is about adding capacity to Start Garden,” Ross said. “To achieve the universal goal of equitable opportunities for all entrepreneurs across all neighborhoods, it takes a targeted approach and intentionality. This new model is designed with that goal in mind.”
Start Garden also cited U.S. Census data that shows as the Hispanic community in Grand Rapids increased by more than 10 percent from 2009 to 2014, there was an increase in poverty, low income and high unemployment.
The causes, according to Start Garden, are rooted in “the structural conditions of labor markets, particularly the restructuring of the economy.”
Gonzalez said he will concentrate on systemic change.
“In the work Darel and I have done to advance economic development, it is clear to us that a systems-level approach is necessary to remove barriers to entrepreneurship in each community,” Gonzalez said. “This kind of approach is what the new Start Garden structure will allow us to do.”
For more than nine years, Ross has served as co-executive director of LINC UP, bringing together housing, economic development, essential needs services, business incubation and real estate development in Kent County.
In March 2015, Gonzalez was named executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He has worked to make the chamber the central connecting point for Hispanic entrepreneurs in West Michigan.
Start Garden was founded in 2012 by Rick DeVos as a non-traditional venture capital fund, investing $5,000 weekly into early stage ideas and experiments, with a goal of guiding and growing them into regional high-growth companies.
DeVos no longer has an ownership or leadership role at Start Garden, Morin said, but he’s still involved with an affiliated for-profit fund, an independent entity called Wakestream Ventures.
Other affiliated entities are the Entrepreneur Ecosystem Initiative and the Start Garden Foundation.
In 2016, Start Garden took on leadership of the Grand Rapids SmartZone, with the expanded goal of offering entrepreneurship development across sectors it was previously unable to influence.
It is also “working on” various platforms for entrepreneurs: 5×5 Night, Seamless accelerator, Collective Metrics, TechShop and Collective Impact.