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News & Press: FOCUS

The Recipe for Business Success: Diversity, Inclusion and Innovation

Friday, May 4, 2018  
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More than 50 percent of the working population in the country is employed in small business. The Small Business Administration reports that over 65 percent of new jobs the past 20 years have come from small business.

The Lansing region is home to a diverse, growing and innovative small business community. Small business success stories stretch across multiple industry sectors, producing goods and services in the region and globally. Greater Lansing is home to one of Michigan’s most rapidly growing technology sectors and small business operations thrive in areas including healthcare, insurance, education, manufacturing, communications, consulting, transportation, logistics, and much more.

In addition to a wide diversity of market sectors and goods, the region’s small businesses bring a wealth of racial, ethnic, cultural and lifestyle backgrounds that spur innovation and creativity. The diverse nature of the region’s small business community is increasingly viewed as a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining top talent, fueling job creation and growth in Greater Lansing.

The vital role the small business community plays in the success of the region is supported by an infrastructure of programs and other support services provided by several organizations that recognize that helping small businesses grow serves to spark the overall quality of life in the region.

Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce: The Small Business Advocate

The mission of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) is to work relentlessly to help businesses connect, grow and thrive. The Chamber is proud to call the area’s largest employers among its 1,100 members, although more than 80 percent of Chamber members are small businesses with less than 15 employees.

“Small business is the lifeline of economic growth in a community,” said Michelle Rahl, the Chamber’s director of business development. “There is such a fantastic mix of businesses in this region and the small businesses that we represent are dynamic, innovative and are driving much of the economic prosperity we see.”

Rahl says a big part of what the Chamber does is to serve as a conduit to help small businesses tell their story. The Chamber has a robust social media following on platforms including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram to help members get their message out to the masses. Other vehicles include the popular FOCUS Magazine, the online business directory Lansing Marketplace, and the Chamber website which allows for members to share information about their company.

“Many small businesses are so focused on their day-to-day operations that they aren’t always able to deliver their message to the community,” said Rahl. “We make a huge push to enlighten the community about the diverse small businesses that are in the region and encourage their patronage.”

Education and networking opportunities are pivotal services the Chamber offers to its members. The recently rebranded Chamber University offers regular forums with experts who provide tips on a broad range of topics from marketing and social media to the latest in tax reform and legal issues. Surveys over the years consistently show that members find that networking opportunities provide the greatest value for their organization. The Chamber offers nearly 60 events annually where members can connect to other business leaders, including the Annual Dinner, Lansing Economic Club, Lansing Open golf outing and monthly Member Mixers.

“No matter what kind of technology is invented, I don’t think anything will replace the value of having face-to-face interactions,” said Rahl. “These are the real opportunities to build bigger and better relationships.”

Rahl says the Chamber’s longevity as an organization is a true testament to the members they represent, because at the end of the day, the Chamber does not exist without strong, viable businesses serving as its membership base.

“If there was not an innovative, growing and thriving business community in the Lansing region, the Chamber would cease to exist,” said Rahl. “I could not be more proud to work for an organization that has served the business community and the economic development efforts of the region for more than 115 years.”

Information about the small business offerings from the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce can be accessed at lansingchamber.org.

Lansing Economic Area Partnership: Building the Ecosystem

Fostering small business growth in the region requires an environment and culture that encourages job creation, innovation and diversity. The Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) has been working on building the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region for the past six years. Business pitch competitions, high-tech grants, incubator grants, and professional consultations are some examples of LEAP’s entrepreneurial programming. And then there is LEAP’s new equity investment fund called Lansing PROTO.

“For instance, The Hatching is a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to showcase their ideas,” said Tony Willis, LEAP’s director of new economy. “This is a great way for those that have an idea to practice their idea and present their idea to a crowd and judges to get their idea out into the world.”

Winners at the pitch competitions can win seed funding and other resources to support commercialization of their idea.

“Just two years ago, we started Lansing PROTO, which is the region’s first accelerator program,” said Willis. “We invest int start-ups with a physical product. We give them $15,000 in exchange for five percent equity plus we give them resources to help them commercialize and get their product to market.”

For those thinking of starting a business or taking a business to the next level, LEAP has developed a “Start Chart,” which is a comprehensive step-by-step workbook that will walk you through all of the resources that are available to help.

LEAP recently partnered with crowd-lending platform KIVA, to create Fund Lansing, which offers zero percent interest and zero fees to borrowers.

“It is completely philanthropic in its nature,” said Willis. “For example, if you are a small business and you need to scale up and purchase equipment. This is a way to acquire the capital you need to make that happen.”

Information regarding LEAP’s program offerings can be found at purelansing.com.

Lansing Black Chamber of Commerce: Investing in the Power of Relationship Building

The Lansing Black Chamber of Commerce averages about 100 members representing businesses in a wide range of sectors including automotive, healthcare, private vocational schools, construction, insurance, retail, property management, physicians, private vocational schools, wellness, public relations, and many others. The organization’s past president Re’Shane Lonzo says the organization has been encouraging diversity by focusing on collaboration and investing in the power of relationships.

“A lot of that has to do with understanding that diversity is much more than just race and gender,” said Lonzo. “The reality is that the make-up of our region is diverse. When we are diverse and inclusive in our marketing and services, we can increase our profit margins. It is important that we, as a region, create a culture that reinforces inclusivity because this is what builds strong communities where all kinds of people want to live, work and play.”

Among the relationships the Black Chamber has been leveraging is working with the Small Business Development Center at Lansing Community College and encouraging its members to utilize the educational programs the Center offers to help grow their businesses, as well as partnering with the Michigan Chamber, the Greater Lansing Hispanic Chamber and the Lansing Regional Chamber.

“There is power in collaboration,” said Lonzo.

Lonzo points to statistics that show buying power of black Americans will reach $1.4 trillion in 2020, which represents an astounding 275 percent growth in the past 30 years. She says it makes financial sense for companies and communities to embrace diversity in our communities.

“When we create a culture that reinforces inclusivity we build stronger communities where people feel they can thrive,” said Lonzo. “When people are comfortable and feel included in their community, they are encouraged and more inclined to spend their dollars there.”

Lonzo says that companies and communities that are serious about building meaningful connections with their diverse consumers have much to gain.

“There is a great opportunity for organizations to look at what is going on and learning how to tap into the enormous buying power of the black community,” said Lonzo. “People are more willing to spend their money with those that take the time to understand what it is they like, who they are and what they are about.”

Greater Lansing Hispanic Chamber of Commerce: Encouraging Diversity through Partnerships

When the Greater Lansing Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was formed in 2013, their mission was to be an advocate for Hispanic-owned businesses. The Hispanic Chamber with more than 40 active member organizations, continues to provide visibility, support and networking opportunities for its members and other businesses in the community. Chamber president Jose Yanez says the organization is encouraging broader participation in the community.

“We don’t want membership to be a barrier to startups that have so many other challenges getting their businesses profitable, so we encourage participation in our events from everyone,” said Yanez who is a partner with G3 Advisors, a wealth management firm. “If we can be that organization that can help small startups grow, we can improve the quality of life in Lansing. We want to be that stepping stone for them so they can later get involved with other organizations, as well.”

Yanez says the Hispanic community represents the fastest growing population in the country and also brings $1.7 trillion in buying power into the economy. He says that is a compelling reason for businesses to be more inclusive in their hiring and also represents more opportunities for Hispanic-owned businesses.

“As more Hispanics gain experience working in different parts of our economy, that creates the potential for entrepreneurs with ideas to bring those innovations to market in new and different ways than we have seen before,” said Yanez.

Yanez says his organization is also encouraging diversity by leveraging partnerships in the region. He cites the recent ‘Run For Office’ workshop that was a joint production with the Lansing Regional Chamber and Black and Hispanic Chambers.

“We need our voices to be represented at all levels of government and there are many qualified individuals in the community who don’t even know how to run for office,” said Yanez. “We can use the clout of all three Chambers to promote more participation in the process.”

Yanez also encourages more participation on various boards in the region, which he says need to be a reflection of the diverse population they serve. The Greater Lansing Hispanic Chamber has a Facebook page for those interested in more information and for ways to be engaged with them.

Lansing Mosaic: Celebrating Diversity and Entrepreneurship

As a successful entrepreneur with a growing corporate events business, Ashlee Willis has come to recognize the diverse nature of Lansing’s small business community, both in terms of the variety of industries and cultural backgrounds. Her company, Michigan Premier Events, plans or hosts dozens of events each year. Willis loves networking and uses her connections to build strategic partnerships which has served to create in her a strong desire to showcase the amazing stories behind many of what she calls the ‘hidden gems’ in the Lansing region.

To help tell those stories, Willis created Lansing Mosaic, which is a web-based promotional platform she uses to promote and educate the community about the diverse business culture in Lansing. Through articles, videos, projects and events, she is seeking to build awareness about those fostering diversity, inclusion and economic and community growth in Lansing.

“There is so much diversity here in Lansing, including a lot of people who come from another part of the world,” said Willis. “Many of these entrepreneurs have never been featured in the media or been able to share their story. Their story often relates to their experience from another culture that they have chosen to bring to Lansing.”

Willis says a diverse business culture is good for the region. She says that the diverse set of skills that exists in the small business community have a positive impact on creativity and innovation in the region.

“I think of Lansing like a bowl of soup,” said Willis. “The soup bowl represents the larger corporations. The different ingredients inside the bowl are the small businesses. They add the flavor to Lansing.”

Willis has already used her passion for networking to help more small business people get connected in the region. The first Annual Diversity Holiday Mixer drew a crowd of 200 in December and has a date set for December 6, 2018 for the Second Annual Diversity Holiday Mixer. She plans a regular networking series, Collaborate Lansing, which she expects to rollout later this year or in early 2019 and is putting together Lansing’s first Annual Diversity and Small Business Awards. Organizations that would like to partner with Lansing Mosaic can contact Willis at ashlee@lansingmosaic.com.

Diversity and Inclusion Matters

In a survey of its members, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce found that attracting and retaining talent is the number one concern of employers in the region. Leading companies understand that their future success is tied to developing a world-class workforce. Having a culture that encourages, embraces and celebrates diversity and inclusion is essential.

“It strengthens the overall fabric of the business community,” said Rahl. “It is something special to have such diversity of backgrounds and experiences and to see how all of that comes together to form the Greater Lansing business community.”

Attracting and retaining a diverse workforce impacts the bottom line of organizations. It also affects economic development, which is why LEAP has been working to encourage and leverage partnerships that celebrate and embrace the core values of a diverse, welcoming and affirming region.

“From the talent side of the issue, the best and the brightest seek out opportunities at companies because they offer a fair and equitable salary, good benefits, a great physical and creative space for actual work and a well-rounded diversified workforce,” said Tedi Parsons, LEAP’s executive administrator and director of diversity and inclusion. “Successful organizations know they need an educated and strong, diverse workforce, recognizing that an inclusive mindset impacts their overall bottom line.”

Many in the region feel that Lansing offers a competitive advantage over other regions of the state when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

“Lansing is an unusually diverse region, welcoming and tolerant community, and together we must seize this opportunity,” said Parsons.

Diversity and inclusion also encourages the pursuit of common goals which help build a better, more vibrant region. That is something worth celebrating.

“Our business community is supportive of each other no matter what,” said Rahl. “I think that is something of which Lansing should be very proud.”

Click here to download the May issue of FOCUS.


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