GRAPE member and GROW Microloan manager Bill Hahn answers questions about GROW, the resources it offers, and its growth.
What is GROW’s mission?

Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) exists to provide education, connections, and resources that create and strengthen women-owned businesses.

Several organizations for women exist within Grand Rapids. Why select GROW as a member organization to get involved with?

We are the only Small Business Administration designated Women’s Business Center in West Michigan. Our resources and programming are focused on assisting women with the unique challenges that they face with business ownership. For instance, women only own 5% of startups, attract only 5% of the nation’s equity capital, and receive 80% less capital than men in the first year. In addition to focusing on women, a large portion of our services are directed to entrepreneurs who are economically or socially disadvantaged. Comprehensive training and counseling on a variety of topics helps eliminate barriers to business ownership, which makes West Michigan more culturally diverse and economically stable.

It seems ironic that an organization for women has a man heading it. How did that happen?

The head of our organization is actually Bonnie Nawara, the CEO. I have been a volunteer and advocate for GROW since 2007, so when the microloan program was ready to be launched, the CEO felt I was the best candidate to administer the program. Plus, we focus our programming on women, but we help men with business ownership as well.

What did you do before you headed the microloan program at GROW?

I was a bank manager for a two different institutions. I specialized in business banking and consumer lending. I also have experience in sales, logistics, maintenance, government procurement, and asset protection.

What do you think is unique about GROW?

I think one of the things that makes GROW unique is that most of the staff has a significant amount of experience in the For Profit community. I feel this brings a level of perspective to our constituents that we would otherwise not have. We’ve been business owners or have worked in the business community, and that inside knowledge gives us a leg up.

How has GROW changed as an organization in recent years?

In the last three years we have reorganized our classroom programs to consolidate the curriculum and increase class efficiency and flexibility. This allows members greater access to the assistance GROW provides without the encumbrances of long courses and information that has lost its relevance. This streamlining has increased enrollment and completion of our various courses.

We are also an SBA microlender. These services provide small business owners access to funds that they would not have access to through traditional financial institutions. With this program we have expanded our service area to the lakeshore, Muskegon, and Kalamazoo.

GROW has also enhanced our mission by structuring services and partnerships that cover the entire span of a business’ life. Historically, GROW was limited to assisting a business during the start-up and growth phases. However, once the business entered the expansion phase, GROW’s capacity to assist diminished because comprehensive programs were not in place for expansion assistance. With restructured initiatives and collaborations, GROW can now shift businesses that enter the expansion and mature phases to the next tier of our service and pair them with business owners that have overcome expansion challenges. As this strategic shift continues, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women anticipates additional partnership and program opportunities will emerge.

 How large is GROW’s membership now? 

In 2012, GROW delivered entrepreneurial training to 1600 women. We offered 546 sessions of free business counseling, and our volunteers donated 1041 hours of their time. Our services helped start 58 new businesses and create 100 new jobs.

What’s the background of the people who tend to join?

In 2012, our clients were 93% women, 32% minorities, 45% low to moderate income, and 11% single mothers. The people who use our services vary widely in their level of experience in business ownership, household income, and cultural background. We have served everyone from unemployed people looking to achieve their dream of owning a business, all the way to experienced entrepreneurs who have owned a business for decades and seek out our services to help them transition or learn new skills.

How are women-lead businesses enhanced by the GROW?

Women-lead businesses are enhanced through GROW by receiving support, training and education, and invaluable connections to other women business owners. The end results of our services provide transformation on many different levels. For the individual client, our programs empower, inspire, and aid economic independence. As our clients grow stronger in economic independence, that increases economic development in our community. Increased economic development makes a stronger community with more jobs, and more opportunities for businesses to support each other.

What trends do you see with businesses lead by women? 

Between 1997 and 2013, when the number of businesses in the United States increased by 41%, the number of women-owned firms increased by 59%—a rate 1½ times the national average. Indeed, the growth in the number (up 59%), employment (up 10%) and revenues (up 63%) of women-owned firms over the past 16 years exceeds the growth rates in number, employment and revenue of all privately held businesses over this period.   Despite the fact that the number of women-owned firms continues to grow at a rate exceeding the national average. Conversely, women owned firms comprise 30% of the privately held firm population and contribute 14% of employment and 11% of revenues. This number is virtually unchanged when compared to 1997. The trend I see is there are significantly more women owned businesses now, but they are capturing less of the market than their counterparts. This disparity is what GROW seeks to address.

How do most of GROW’s members hear about the organization?

There are many ways that our members learn about us. We are constantly engaging the community, going to events and meeting with other groups to look for entrepreneurs who could benefit from our services. We have also built relationships with organizations offering complementary services to deliver our resources to parts of the community that we otherwise might not be able to reach. Most people tell us that they heard about GROW from a friend or family member who used our services. We’re happy to be an institution in Grand Rapids, and that we have nearly a quarter century history supporting our reputation. Finally, if you Google “grand rapids small business resources” GROW is the first organization listed. A lot of people find us just by asking that first question “How do I start a business?”

What is GROW doing to market itself at the moment?

We’re active in outreach groups and networking groups in Grand Rapids, and expanding into Muskegon. We use social media heavily to make it easy for our clients to share information with their friends and family, marketing through word-of-mouth. We are working on some new and exciting marketing for 2014 with Reagan Marketing as they are heading a new look for our branding, and we will have a new website soon to make sure that all of our resources are easy to find and navigate. Our Director of Marketing and Communications writes for many outside sources to freely share small business resource information, and to let people know that GROW is here to help. Finally, we refer clients and visitors to outside organizations if they are looking for services that differ from what we offer. Being a reliable referral source, many outside organizations and community contacts keep abreast of what we offer and share our information and event details so that their clients might be helped by what we do.

What is GROW’s vision? What are GROW’s goals for the future?

Our vision is to be the best entrepreneurial resource in West Michigan. The next step to achieving this goal is to further develop our programs designed to assist the business owners that are transitioning to other phases of the business cycle, beyond the initial startup phase. This will happen through mentorship and networking opportunities, giving business owners the real world information they need and support to overcome challenges. Along with the updated branding and website for 2014 to help support our programs, we have been using advisers and business professionals to review the information that we offer and update our class material. There are some things in business that never change—many aspects of small business ownership need to be altered with trends and changes in technology, however, so we are vigilant and focused on the future of business to ensure a bright future for our organization and for West Michigan. 

Memorable & unique Business Cards
If you like this post please share using buttons at left (seen on individual posts only). If you like would to guest blog, please contact John M Potter. John serves as GRAPE’s Host. You can find him on Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn.