Growing Female Founders in Grand RapidsBy Jane Whitttington on August 30th, 2015 /
Fifty years ago, if a woman wanted a professional career, her choices were often teaching, nursing or secretarial work. Today, opportunities for women have grown exponentially. However, becoming an entrepreneur and starting her (or his) own business can be way outside many people’s comfort zone. That’s where GROW steps in. For 26 years, GROW (Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women) has worked with budding entrepreneurs to help them follow their dreams.
According to CEO Bonnie Nawara, “Since our beginning, we have encouraged women to bring us their business ideas, and we have worked with them to turn those ideas into reality.”
She continues, “We are a Small Business Administration funded entity, a women’s business center, one of three in the state and 108 in the United States.”
Originally GROW was started by Grand Rapids social worker LeAnne Moss who was aware of the obstacles women, particularly low- to moderate-income women, faced in becoming financially secure. With community support and cooperation, she founded GROW to provide education, networking, and resources that create and strengthen small businesses. Over time, the mission of GROW has grown to include anyone interested in becoming an entrepreneur.
Nawara says, “We provide entrepreneurial training; business coaching, counseling and networking; and financial resources. GROW is also a micro-lender, the only one in West Michigan. GROW can help its users obtain loans of between $1,000 and $50,000.”
She continues, “However, once a business has launched, our involvement with the business owner doesn’t end. We continue to work with them, providing services that can help their businesses grow and become successful.”
The first point of entry into GROW is a training called Intro to GROW, a free orientation offered four times a month and open to those interested in learning about GROW and its programs and services. Other classes include Start Smart, a business readiness class focusing on the basics of doing business. UpClose workshops are offered monthly and include experts from various fields talking about their own experiences in becoming entrepreneurs. Other classes include business basics, marketing strategies, financial awareness and implementation basics. Finally, monthly webinars and online training are available and are offered in partnership with the Center of Empowerment and Economic Development.
Nawara says, “Besides these more structured classes, we offer free one-on-one business counseling in marketing, finances and any other business management topics as well as free on-going support for business owners. Area professionals partner with our own staff at GROW to meet with the new business owner to discuss any of their concerns.”
She continues, “We have been focused over the last four years on doing expanded outreach, hoping to reach those women who might not know about our program or who might feel their ideas are not good enough to be considered. We are especially reaching out to minorities. To that effort, we have equipped our own staff with inclusion and diversity training; we are all working toward the same goal. We have made sure that our six employees are representative of the population.”
According to Nawara, “Besides the start-up division, we have acquired the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs in order to serve women who have been running their business for a few years. For them we are offering things like advanced training in finance, human resources and marketing. Then just this year we started the established division for companies that have succeeded and need to consider their organization structure, finding the right hires, and preparing for transition.”
Besides the funding from the SBA, GROW receives money from grants, foundations, private donations, and their own fund-raising efforts. Their annual Seeds of Change fundraiser will be on October 13 this year and will feature speakers and an awards ceremony.
Serving close to 1,500 people each year, GROW continue to, yes, grow. Its presence in the community is valuable not only to those who participate in their programs and become business owners but to the community as a whole, increasing the region’s economic strength and providing employment and economic vitality to Grand Rapids and the surrounding area.