Keeping it Community: Elissa Sangalli Hillary Leads the Effort at Local First

By Kayla Sosa | photo courtesy of local first

At Local First, the mission is to empower local businesses and educate them and the community on the best practices and benefits to shopping locally in the region. With more than 800 local businesses partners, thousands of people across West Michigan are impacted by this nonprofit.

Leading the charge is Elissa Sangalli Hillary, a Michigan native who is focused on keeping our dollars right where they belong: in the community.

Before joining Local First, Sangalli Hillary graduated from Aquinas College with a bachelor’s degree in community leadership and political science. After college, she worked as a college recruiter, traveling around the state and the Midwest.

“It was really clear to me when I was traveling… that there were certain places you would visit where the streets were just formulaic,” Sangalli Hillary said. “There were all the big box stores, and you could almost predict what would be next…that made me really sad because I like the flavor of visiting unique communities.”

It was around the same time that Sangalli Hillary started to think about the next step she wanted to take for her career, and she saw a posting for the position of president at Local First. The organization was only a few years old at the time, mostly volunteer-run, and had only 100 businesses partnered up.

“When I started, it was 2007: It was the middle of the recession, so we had to be really thoughtful of how we grew,” she expressed.

Since then, the business memberships have increased eightfold, and the community has rallied its support as the organization’s impact grows.

“That’s support from our local business community, who we couldn’t be here without,” she said. “To our local foundations, and our city … and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.”

Local businesses can purchase a Local First membership, which gives them access to discounted advertising and event sponsorships, a vast professional business network, Local First branding and social media attention. Additionally, the organization offers sustainability courses to teach businesses how to wage a positive environmental impact.

Pamela Patton, owner of Paragraph, a copywriting and content creating agency testifies to the impact Local First has had on her.

“I know that Local First has made me much more aware of local businesses and organizations, and I just feel better when I see the Local First sticker on the door of an establishment,” Patton said.

Aleka Thrash, local owner of both ACTPhotoMedia and NaturallyACT, has been a member of Local First since 2017. Thrash received one of the 2017 LocalMotion awards for helping to build a sustainable community and photographed the 2017 Street Party, Fork Fest and the grand opening of Local First’s newest office space.

“Local First has been a connector that allows me to meet people I normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to,” Thrash commented. “Organizations like Local First are necessary for small business to be successful. The staff cares about the people behind the business, and the programs they offer are a way for businesses to gain knowledge and make connections.”

Sangalli Hillary highlighted that every business relationship looks a little different.

“Relationships are a core value of the organization,” Sangalli Hillary expressed. “We believe that part of the reason that local matters and local ownership matters is that there’s a beautiful messiness in a relationship where the owner knows the people that work for them and the impact of their decisions on the community.”

As a child, Sangalli Hillary admired the small town she grew up in, with a Main Street where she always greeted Mr. Fred at the pharmacy, smelled the flowers at Hoppy’s Nursery and checked out at the familiar hardware store with her father, who was an engineer.

“I can remember the experience and the feel of going to those local businesses, and all three of those businesses are gone now,” Sangalli Hillary said. “Having that experience where you get to know someone there, the owner, there’s this magic in it that’s hard to describe, but you know it when you feel it.”

Visit localfirst.com to learn more.

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