by Elyse Wild | photos courtesy of GROW
One only needs to look at the numbers to see that women in business are a force to be reckoned with. Since 1997, the number of women business owners has increased by 114 percent, compared to the national growth rate of 44 percent for all businesses. Last year alone, according to the seventh annual report by the State of Women-Owned Businesses, commissioned by American Express, they generated $1.7 trillion in revenue. Women are the largest growing demographic of business owners in the nation, and for 29 years, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) has been providing area women with the chance to join their ranks.
Since 1989, GROW, located on the 2nd floor of the YWCA at 25 Sheldon Blvd SE, has offered support to women entrepreneurs by way of classes on business planing, finances, marketing and one-on-one business counseling, entrepreneurial training and more. When Bonnie Nawara stepped in as CEO in 2010, she saw the potential for the organization to have an even greater impact; while the programming was successful, she said, it lacked synergy.
“It was clear when I was interviewing with the board that was something they were looking for—someone who could bring synergy,” Nawara commented.
Now, eight years after she took the helm, GROW has expanded and evolved to meet the needs of the community. They offer more than a half-dozen workshops and classes designed to set blossoming business owners up for success that touch on everything from business basics to social media to intellectual property. Their staff has more than doubled, and they have expanded to have a
full-time business development officer on the lake shore and a part-time officer in Kalamazoo. They added a microloan program, which has loaned more than $1.5 million to local businesses in West Michigan since 2012. Additionally, they are a certified Community Development Financial Institution, allowing them loan up to $250,000. Business owners can utilize the funds as working capital or to purchase equipment, supplies, materials and inventory.
Nawara notes the microloan program has been essential in allowing GROW to support their
“GROW has evolved from an organization that provides technical support and tools, to a lending organization,” she expressed. “Once we make that loan, we are engaging in a relationship around that loan, and we are meeting clients where they are at
with what they need.”
Mallory Root, owner of Roots Brew Shop, a coffee shop located at 600 7th St NW, was the recipient of a GROW micro loan when she opened her business more than two years ago. Due to lack of collateral, Root was facing barriers to traditional lending when a Lake Michigan Credit Union loan officer directed her to GROW. As is required of all microloan applicants, Root took GROW’s free introductory course. After securing the funds, she enrolled in their Small
Business Growth and Planning Series (Small Business GPS) which covers business basics, marketing strategies and financial awareness and is free to all micro loan recipients.
“I learned a lot,” Root commented. “Most importantly, I learned to ask for help. I am a very independent person, and GROW makes you really comfortable asking for help with your business.”
Root also notes that even after receiving her loan and graduating from the program, GROW continues to offer her support.
“They are always reaching out, asking if they can do anything to help or if I have any questions about something,” she expressed. “It’s really great.”
While GROW helps women take their ideas from inception to implementation, their services have also been vital to women whose businesses are already established.
Mary Scheidel, owner of Connie Cakes, was a first-grade teacher for more than 20 years when she purchased the bakery from her aunt in 2010. Like Root, she enrolled in Small Business GPS and secured a microloan through GROW, which she used to build out her bakery. In 2013, Scheidel utilized the organization once again when she was relocating her business from South Division to the Kingsley Building on Robinson Road; once a week, Scheidel participated in a conference call with other business owners as a part of a GROW business accelerator program. The ensuing conversation, support and advice helped her navigate the stress of the move and establish Connie’s Cakes as a staple business in the area.
“I am so proud of the business I’ve built,” Scheidel commented. “GROW helped me gain the confidence to be a business owner, and they gave me the tools to help me work through issues. They made me sure of myself.”
Kristin Revere is the volunteer and event coordinator at GROW. She manages upwards of 80 volunteers who engage in community service at women-centered events on behalf of the organization and expert mentors whom she pairs with GROW clients
Along with promoting community connections, Revere facilitates GROW events at which women-owned businesses are honored and celebrated, such as Seeds of Growth, an awards luncheon and fundraiser during which entrepreneurs share stories, advice and inspiration; and GROW’s Annual Sparkle Celebration, an evening of holiday shopping and dining that invites local vendors to sell their wares and services or donate them to a silent auction at the event.
“My passion is working with women to help them find empowerment through business and marking,” Revere expressed. “Our services are unique, and I like how we work with people on every part of their journey.”
The impact of GROW is undeniable; they have helped launch and foster businesses that have become ingrained in the fabric of our community, such as Urban Exchange, Nutcase Vegan Meats, the Well-Mannered Dog, Cone Apetit, Jojo’s House of Beauty, and more. In 2016 alone, GROW served 674 clients and had a hand in creating 55 new business in West Michigan. As for the future, Nawara says GROW will continue to develop its lending program, and reaching out to under-served markets who need more representation and resources to thrive. In the long term, she would like to see GROW lease their programming to other communities who are in need of economic development and support for small businesses.
While Nawara’s position as CEO does not allow her a lot of face time with GROW clients, she gets emotional when she considers the impact the organization has had on individuals and the community.
“I love the fact that we help women be self-supporting,” Nawara expressed. “When I am out in
the community, and someone comes up to me and says,
‘I am a GROW graduate,’ I feel such pride.”