Feature Articles, Professional Writing

Don’t let them call you sweetheart: Women entrepreneurs break the glass ceiling in West Michigan

*This piece originally appeared in Rapid Growth.

It was suggested, in an article in Entrepreneur magazine, that “successful startups demand entrepreneurs who are all in, and women are subject to second-guessing” and are “less inclined toward the hyper-confidence and self-promotion often associated with success.”

A quick look at the women entrepreneurs of Grand Rapids and West Michigan, however, shows that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to the sixth annual State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, a comprehensive report commissioned by American Express OPEN, women-owned businesses are quickly becoming the norm, not the exception. As detailed in the report, women are the majority owners in 38 percent of United States businesses, up from 29 percent in 2007. Michigan is in the top 10 states when it comes to the greatest number of women-owned firms, with the state now having about 289,300 such businesses — a 56.7 percent increase over 2007. Michigan also counts itself in the top 10 fastest-growing states for women-owned firms.

Here in the Grand Rapids-Wyoming metro area, there were 2,631 women-owned firms with paid employees, compared to 11,033 male-owned ones, in 2012, the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
And while women in our state and community still face challenges every day that their male counterparts do not, the female entrepreneurs of this region are not letting those barriers derail them. Especially the women in fields that are still primarily dominated by men.

Building confidence in a male-dominated world: Katie Vanderploeg, K Motion Design

For example, Katie Vanderploeg, the founder of K Motion Design, is using her self-confidence and experience to help put the assumptions of the aforementioned article to rest.

“If you would have asked me eight years ago if (sexism) was a problem for me, I would have said yes,” says Vanderploeg, whose Grand Rapids-based multimedia design firm has worked with such clients as Steelcase, Amway and Herman Miller. “But, when I started, I didn’t have the confidence I needed.” However, since launching her business in 2008, she’s changed how she approaches things. 

After working in firms and for others for a large part of her career, Vanderploeg wanted something different and the chance to take on more of a leadership role. She started freelancing, picked up a number of good clients, and was suddenly working all day and night just to keep up. After adding a few people to her team, she knew she wanted to stay a boutique firm in order to allow herself the flexibility of choosing her clients and projects. 

And, while she acknowledges that she’s working in a very male-dominated field, her past experience in a body shop gives her a leg up. “I can actually hold a conversation better with men than women,” she says.

“I don’t feel like I get disrespected or that they don’t trust me,” she continues. “But, that comes with confidence, which I have in my team and what we do. I don’t feel like I won’t get a job just because I’m a woman.” 

She has noticed that men don’t always take women seriously when it comes to technology. “IT often talks down to me. They don’t think a woman could understand what they are talking about.” 

But she doesn’t let these or any other incidents shake her confidence. 

“I stand my ground. I look at being a female entrepreneur as a great thing because I feel like people respect me more.” 

And, when standing her ground, she doesn’t give an inch. “I’ve fired clients that have made comments and disrespected me. You have be aware and not naive. Stay professional, don’t get walked on and don’t let them call you sweetheart.” 

The buck stops here: Kelly Rozema Finchem, Dutch Girl Brewery 

When Kelly Rozema Finchem turned 21, Founders was one of the only craft beer options in Grand Rapids. But, her husband, Luke, had experience as a home brewer, and Rozema Finchem had always been a craft beer drinker. Today, as co-owners of Dutch Girl Brewery in Spring Lake, they are hoping to turn the lakeshore into a craft beer destination.

Since opening in July of 2015, Dutch Girl Brewery has added a kitchen to the space where they offer food, craft beer, Dutch Girl merchandise, and a relaxed atmosphere. While in the tap room, you can expect to see Rozema Finchem behind the bar, in the brew room and even stirring the beer. Though a co-owner with her husband, she manages the day-to-day activity of the bar, brew room and kitchen. She also handles the marketing, website, social media and merchandise. “There’s not a part of this business I don’t touch,” she says. “The buck stops here.”

Plus, people appreciate seeing her around the bar, doing the work and running things. “People get really excited when they hear I’m an owner, they get really enthusiastic…I would too. The brewing industry is mainly guys.” She gets a lot of questions on getting started and is happy to answer. “I’m the Dutch Girl. I’m the face of the business.” 

As sole owners of the bar, they worked incredibly hard to fundraise and put in their own resources to avoid outside investors. They both are highly invested in the day-to-day running of the equipment and learning how to repair it if something goes wrong. And, as the one at the bar every day, Rozema Finchem had to learn to understand the daily challenges and how to fix any problem that may come up. “You don’t want to buy something new if you should be able to fix it. Not having big loans makes you appreciate the struggles, especially when you knock something out of the ballpark.” 
She also appreciates the women who came into the bar either looking to learn more about the industry or simply to try craft beer for the first time. “It’s great to be able to get together with women and just talk about beer. Sometimes, I’m so engrossed in work that it catches me off guard what I’m actually doing.”

And, what she’s doing is working. A lot. She’s been averaging around 80 hours a week and is only now starting to scale back. When you start a brewery, she says, “you’ll have a vision of how much you’re going to work. Double that.” 

And, while there may not be a lot of other women in the industry, the ones she has met all have something in common. “They don’t feel like challenging anyone; they just want a really damn good beer.” 

Writing bad ass code: Becky VandenBout

As a graduate of Kettering Engineering School, a former employee of GM and one of the only senior level developers in Grand Rapids, Becky VandenBout says it’s risky to be a girl, especially a girly-girl, in the development industry. “You can get discredited for being a typical girl that wants to program,” she says.

But, through her freelance development work, her fashion blog with a successful local series, and an online styling business that is a hybrid traditional personal shopping service and a subscription service, including a publication featuring local designers, she is proving all that matters when you are a female developer is that you write “bad ass code.”

“It’s become trendy now to have women in developer roles,” she says. “But people don’t really understand the actual problem. Simply hiring women for more diversity is not the goal.”

The goal, she says, “is to change what it’s like to work in the industry.” Which is why she was a part of bringing a local chapter of the organization Girl Develop It(a nonprofit organization that exists to provide affordable and judgment-free opportunities for women interested in learning web and software development) to Grand Rapids. While she had to step aside due to other commitments, VandenBout wanted to make sure that women in the area don’t have to adopt an “I’m one of the guys” mentality just to succeed in the web development industry.  

She explains that organizations like Girl Develop It and others are trying to eliminate challenges women face in the tech scene by exposing both women and men to the realities of being female in the industry.

The right things will happen: Valerie Obenchain, AIRS

When Valerie Obenchain, creator of AIRS (an Advanced Interactive Response System), which recently moved its headquarters from Grand Rapids to Newaygo, meets the obstacles that face her as a female entrepreneur in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field, she simply looks to her product and business plan for confidence. “A solid business and a solid plan will speak for itself,” she says. And her plan is to patent and produce devices that save lives.

A registered respiratory therapist, she was able to see the problems with current oxygen systems. “People don’t like the way things are done now,” she says, “Patients that need oxygen (and those caring for them) have to constantly check to see whether oxygen is being delivered.” Her system is bringing oxygen into the digital health era.

While Obenchain hit challenges when looking for funding (about 38 percent of new businesses in this country are started by women but only between 2 percent and 6 percent of those founders receive venture capital funding, according to Wharton Business School professor Ethan Mollick), she found camaraderie in the many groups found in Grand Rapids that support female-owned businesses.

“The Michigan Women’s Foundation (MIWF) got me involved in their Dolphin Tank pitch competition, which got my product out there and put me in touch with the attorneys that helped me draft contracts for investment rounds,” Mollick says.

Through this and other organizations, Obenchain found the support system she needed. “Guys tend to stick together, and the business world can feel like a good ol’ boys club,” she says. This club mentality can be isolating to the women in the industry, which is why organizations like MIWF are so important. “Women are so great about giving back to each other…they are compassionate and lift each other up, not try to step on each other.” 

These organizations are also great for showcasing the work that women are doing, with Obenchain noting that “they help bring us into the light and show what a great asset women can be in business.”

This year, Obenchain has the opportunity to coach and mentor another female business owner. “I’m still new, but I’ve made it over a lot of hurdles and see a bright future. It’s really important to be passionate and persistent. Have a little faith, do the right thing, and the right things will happen.”

Shredding stereotypes: Organizations work to support women

While these female entrepreneurs look to break through ceilings and shred stereotypes, behind them are the organizations throughout the region that want to help. In their startup and growth division from September of 2015 to today, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) has served more than 397 women. They offer the resources meant to “be there for the lifetime of their business,” according to Mary Hartfield, program manager and business consultant at GROW.
Kris Ridings, assistant director and volunteer network coordinator at The Michigan Women’s Foundation says, “To make a lasting difference requires countless individuals and organizations aware, willing and able to work strategically to address (the issues women face). These challenges demonstrate the importance of a strong community of women willing to support other women: a rising tide lifts all boats is a saying I often repeat.”

As the tide of women entrepreneurs in the region rises, it’s clear they have the skills, tenacity and confidence to weather the storm. 

Feature Articles, Professional Writing

Problem solving with real-time data: GR on the road to become a Smart City

*This piece originally appeared in Rapid Growth. 

Described by The Wall Street Journal as a sweeping change in the way cities are run, Smart Cities are changing the way people interact with the communities in which they live. While the term Smart City might paint a picture that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie or comic book, Smart Cities are a much more concrete and realistic venture and the idea behind them is simple: Smart Cities use data to solve problems.

Data is at the center of the Smart Cities movement. Between satellites and smartphones, we’ve got a lot of data available that shows us how we go about our lives. Things like where we travel, which streets get the most foot traffic, and which areas get the most congested with traffic at rush hour. Though, that information by itself, according to Michael Lomonaco of Open System Technologies (OST), “is worthless. But,” he says, “when we can compile it and use it, that’s the power of data.”

Compiling that data to solve problems and transform the way cities work for and with people is the objective at the heart of the Smart City movement. Solving modern problems, such as traffic congestion, air pollution, and parking, requires a modern solution. It requires a new way of looking at a city’s infrastructure and the data collected from new technologies allows us to do just that.

“The infrastructure of today is not the infrastructure of yesterday,” says Lomonaco, director of marketing and communications at OST. It’s connectivity. And it’s the technology that takes advantage of that connectivity, and uses it to solves problems, that makes a Smart City smart.

And, according to Jerome Lynch, department chair of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, Grand Rapids is primed to make the transition into a Smart City for a number of reasons. Those reasons, combined with the problems Grand Rapids is looking to solve in the near future, mean that the city is ready to take on the task, and reap of the benefits, of becoming a Smart City.

A coordinated effort

The only way to build cities that can solve problems for their residents is to form partnerships. When U of M, who was already working on an initiative to advance deployment of Smart Cities and address challenges that emerge in urban areas, looked at Grand Rapids as a possible partner, they were intrigued. They saw a city that, according to Lynch, already had a unique ecosystem and integrated relationships between the government, industries and the community.

“When trying to deploy new technology, you have to coordinate across all stakeholders and the more integrated they are, the easier it is to find a solution,” says Lynch.

In many instances, the community has to be fully prepared to participate in data gathering and technology deployment. Like the Grand Rapids 311-“One Call to City Hall” website that lets citizens report problems within the community to the city, the general population has to be willing to take an interest in their city and report their findings. “Grand Rapids has a rich history of well integrated sets of stakeholders,” says Lynch. “That makes it more attractive from a research perspective.”

Josh Naramore, Mobile GR and parking manager for the City of Grand Rapids, agrees that collaboration and cooperation are important. “We want to live in harmony with the private sector,” he says.

One such cooperative effort is a pilot program that is installing sensors in neighborhoods across the city to monitor air quality. The pilot has 10 different parties collaborating on the product including Start Garden, OST, iServ, Steelcase, Faurecia, Amway, Seamless IoT, University of Michigan, Mobile GR, and Environmental Services for the City of Grand Rapids. OST is developing the sensors and software that will read the wireless devices and the project is the perfect example of using data to tackle urban problems. The readings will show if air quality is worse in certain sections of city and from there, efforts can be made to approach the problem.

Another effort that involves cooperation between the city, The University of Michigan, and local businesses is the deployment of sensors on food trucks to monitor their movement and create a better ecosystem for them in the future.

High-tech meets high benefit

The tech industry within Grand Rapids was another reason Lynch offered for choosing Grand Rapids as a partner city. “Places like Start Garden are cultivating that type of ecosystem so we wanted a close partnership with them and the companies working there,” he says.

The companies working within the tech-sector, like OST, will be the ones leading Smart City initiatives and tech startups, like those within Start Garden, will not only contribute, but also benefit.

“Technology is here,” says Lomonaco, “we should be looking for ways to take advantage of it, especially if we can make life better.” And, it’s the companies working within that high-tech sector that will leverage that technology to solve even more problems.

And, the upside of such accessible data and easily deployable technology is that it’s low in cost but high in information.
“Cities like Grand Rapids,” says Lynch, “are well organized and run efficient operations. Deployment of these technologies could save money and the tech would pay for itself.”

“It’s not technology for the sake of technology,” says Lomonaco, “It can address issues of equity, of ease of use (of various services) and draw down the cost of government services.”

Looking forward

The ability to look forward and not only recognize opportunities but take advantage of them is another attribute that makes Grand Rapids an appealing Smart City partner. “It’s a richly intellectual environment,” says Lynch, “it’s a bit more adventurous and willing to try new things to see if they work.”

Jumping on new opportunities and moving forward is an important piece of building a smart ecosystem and taking advantage of technologies. “Grand Rapids has an amazing opportunity in front of it,” says Lomonaco. “It’s how quickly, efficiently, and intentionally we can get into that space and provide value that will make a difference.”

Naramore agrees and feels that the City of Grand Rapids is poised to take advantage of these opportunities. “We have a good framework of officials and leadership to help us move faster. As a city, we move faster than a lot of others.”

And moving fast is key. “The next big thing is only days away,” says Lomonaco. “Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, they are all utilizing data to create a user experience.” And, in doing that, they are overhauling industries. When cities do this, they become just as appealing as an Uber over a cab. Lomonaco uses the bid to land the Amazon Headquarters as an example. “They look for connectivity. If you sit too long,” he adds, “You will be left behind and lose opportunities to gain and retain talent and solve big problems.”

Taking advantage of data opportunities means working on projects that utilize that data and turn it into solutions. Next month, we will cover and go into more detail surrounding the projects throughout Grand Rapids that are contributing to its growth as a Smart City, it’s appeal as a technological hub, and the way it supports its citizens.