Grand Rapidians aren't shy about bringing up our "Beer City USA" title given us by a variety of magazines and "best of" lists. I even saw it boasted on a billboard on the freeway. Something you won't see on a billboard, however, is our 2015 ranking as 2nd worst city for African Americans by Forbes.com. Out of the 52 biggest cities in the nation, Grand Rapids beat out only Milwaukee in home ownership, entrepreneurship, income, and change in population for African Americans. While some citizens and community leaders were surprised by and spoke out against the ranking, others used social media, specifically the Twitter hashtag #BlackinGrandRapids, to share their truth about gentrification, low employment, and high poverty rates among African Americans in the city.
Though unflattering, the new ranking brought a problem into the spotlight, and with it the question: what can we do about this? Start Garden and Grand Rapids Area Black-owned Businesses (GRABB), two organizations meant to help start ups and black-owned businesses thrive, teamed up to improve the disparity among populations. They created a new venture, GRABB5, aiming to help five black-owned businesses improve their capital and increase patronage. By focusing on five businesses at a time, GRABB5 works closely with each business, identifies their unique obstacles, and brainstorms solutions to navigate them.
One of the biggest barriers for the black community is being disconnected from the rest of the business world. It's a cliche but true. Business is about who you know. And if the relationships aren't there, the business will struggle. Many white entrepreneurs can look to family or friends to support their new business venture. They have a safety net. This just isn't as common in underserved populations. To encourage networking, GRABB5 hosts monthly dinners for entrepreneurs, investors, and service providers. They also have informative, "how to" presentations that help business owners learn to do market research, pitch an idea, etc.
A healthy ecosystem is a diverse one, and that's true of the economy as well. We need a range of people and businesses for longevity. And to reach that, we need to make Grand Rapids a place where everyone can find opportunity.