Matters of Representation for Lansing-area Entrepreneurs
Supporting Business Owners of Diverse Backgrounds Helps Move Michigan forward
The spirit of entrepreneurship is a part of Michigan’s heritage. To recapture that legacy for Michigan’s future success as a state, organizations must work to embrace and support aspiring business owners who reflect the state’s diverse population.
Rob Fowler, CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said the growing presence of opportunities for the state’s young talent is helping with that renaissance.
“Here at the SBAM, it feels that there’s a rebirth of entrepreneurship at the college and high school level,” Fowler said. “Ten years ago, there was only one university in our state that had a degree in entrepreneurship. Now it’s pretty common. A lot has changed.”
While programs are in place to support those who wish to start businesses, Fowler said it’s difficult to say how Michigan is faring at this moment because of outdated data.
“Data lags,” he said. “I think the data for the 2018 status of small business in Michigan doesn’t really reflect what’s going on today. It’s 2015 data. It doesn’t tend to tell the story as we know it.”
According to the 2018 Small Business Profile from the Office of Advocacy of the U.S. Small Business Administration, there were 1.8 million small-business employees in Michigan. Of the 870,000 small businesses, 158,000 were minority-owned businesses. Fowler said he thinks the reality of it is better than that.
Tony Willis, director of the new economy division at Lansing Economic Area Partnership, believes the Lansing area is doing well when it comes to diversity in entrepreneurship.
“My initial impression is that Lansing is doing a good job when it comes to both promoting diversity and inclusion,” Willis said. “There have been a number of efforts along the way to make our employers more understanding of the importance of diversity and inclusion.”
LEAP works with partner organizations – such as the Small Business Development Center, the Lansing Black Chamber of Commerce and Greater Lansing Hispanic Chamber of Commerce – to reach out to certain groups and demographics that might feel disenfranchised.
“We always go above and beyond to assist those who might need it,” Willis said.
One of LEAP’s notable collaborations over the last few years has been with the Refugee Development Center. Through that partnership, LEAP helped to host pitch competitions called Newcomers, New Ideas. Newcomers is a term used to designate those who are foreign-born and are here seeking refuge.
“We in Lansing are a welcoming community,” Willis said. “Those were more geared toward folks that are in the younger age range. We asked them to pitch ideas. ‘What do you think Lansing can improve upon?’ We wanted to incorporate those voices into the community.”
LEAP has also worked in the past with the Small Business Administration on its InnovateHER Challenge, a workshop and competition geared to engage female entrepreneurs.
“Instead of creating things on our own, we look at other opportunities and strategies already laid out and plug ourselves into those,” Willis said. “I think we have to take it seriously and look at how we are planning to engage this demographic. It needs to be on the list of priorities as an organization, and act accordingly. You’ll see that it’s tough to do that by yourself, so it’s good to collaborate with organizations that are already catering to a certain demographic.”
For Willis, these collaborations are a way for the Lansing area’s diversity in entrepreneurship to improve.
“One specific thing as a region that we can do more is that we need a unified voice to help promote entrepreneurs of different backgrounds,” he said. “There’s an organization called Lansing Mosaic that does a good job in terms of highlighting entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds.”
Founded in 2016 by Willis’ spouse, Ashlee, Lansing Mosaic seeks to act as an advocate for diversity and entrepreneurship in the region. Its mission is to “promote and educate the diverse business culture in Lansing through projects, events, videos and article content,” as well as partnering with local businesses and organizations that embrace inclusion in their practices.
Willis also sees potential for success with the help of larger organizations, whose support would inspire groups through championing and representation.
“A lot of folks might not see themselves to be entrepreneurs because they don’t see anyone like themselves as entrepreneurs,” Willis said. “I think that’s a way we can both promote and encourage individuals of under-represented groups to take action and be involved in the community.”
Willis views inclusivity in business as vital not only for the future of the Lansing region, but for the state of Michigan as a whole.
“Michigan being a welcoming community is of the utmost importance for us for our long-term viability as a state. Just by population alone, we need folks to be inspired,” Willis said. “We need to engage groups that might not have been engaged before to keep turning out the economic drivers the state needs to stay significant in the long term. While some organizations might shy away from the topic, it only benefits Michigan to be the state we want it to be in the future.”