Michigan groups help women and minority-owned businesses take a seat at the corporate table

“Growing up, my parents owned and operated an excavating business, so my exposure to entrepreneurship started pretty early. I always liked the idea of owning a business, but never really gave it much thought, and just continued on happily in my corporate career. In 2015, that all changed! Multiple experiences in my life led to the creation of my product – The Pumpndo, which was patented in 2018,” says Julie Burrell.

Burrell is the owner of Pumpndo LLC and the inventor of its patented flagship product, a hands-free breast pumping accessory. She is no stranger to entrepreneurship and, as a women in business, has faced additional challenges while developing her product and company.

“Women and minority-owned businesses are less likely to succeed because of their lack of access to resources, and that is why I feel it is imperative we support them. Speaking on behalf of women in particular, we don’t always speak up to say what we want and are less likely to brag about our success. This leads to our businesses not being noticed as frequently as a similar business that is not women-owned,” she says.

Shawntay Dixon visiting Lisa D's on Small Business Saturday. Photo courtesy the GLWBC.Burrell is not the only one that feels this way. Throughout the state, there are multiple entrepreneurial support organizations (ESOs) focused on helping both women and minority-owned businesses not only make their voices heard, but do so on a large scale. Two of these organizations, the Great Lakes Women’s Business Council (GLWMC) and the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council (MMSDC), provide entrepreneurial support services to women and minority-owned businesses and have a universal focus on strengthening their clients by providing ongoing education, networking opportunities, and resources to assist with long-term growth and wealth creation.

Started in 1984 by the still active executive director Michelle Richards, the Great Lakes Women’s Business Council (GLWMC) began with the goal of providing funding to minority and women-owned businesses. Their small business lending program currently provides funding to both new and established businesses in Michigan, ranging from five to $50,000, while their other programming assists women within the state of Indiana as well.

Bringing 20 years of experience managing and directing economic development of federally-funded business programs, as well as experience being self-employed, Shawntay Dixon currently serves as program manager of the Women’s Business Center and Michigan Women’s Marketplace.

The GLWBC shares information and resources using conferences and other tools. Photo Courtesy the GLWBC.“The Women’s Business Center is part of the United States Small Business Administration family. We are one of 113 women’s business centers across the nation that provide counseling and training for women either desiring to start a business or who are already in business and need assistance,” says Dixon. As one of three centers in the state, their focus is on assisting entrepreneurs on the east side. To help ensure all female business owners have access to the services they need, they work closely with both the Cornerstone Alliance, which serves the Benton Harbor region, and Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, which focuses on the greater Grand Rapids and lakeshore areas.

Serving as the MMSDC’s vice president of marketing and communications for Central and Western Michigan, Andrew Sims works diligently to further the organization’s mission of promoting the economic growth of its corporate members and the minority-owned businesses that serve them. Operating on four pillars – certification, development, advocacy and connecting, the Council seeks to bridge the gap between corporations and minority-owned businesses.

Eric Glenn, Kevin Bell and Andrew Sims. Photo Courtesy the MMSDC.Addressing challenges for minority and women-owned businesses

Whether these businesses are product or service-based, business-to-business or business-to-consumer, there are additional hurdles that tend to present themselves for the owners.

“The experience of creating a product and business, exploring all facets of marketing, financing, and everything else that goes along with it is not for the faint of heart. As a woman in business, it is twice as hard. We simply have to go further to prove our worth. Not only did I have to explain my [breastfeeding-related] product, but then also explain why it was necessary – which most men just didn’t understand,” says Burrell.

“There is the misperception that women and minority businesses are somehow less than adequate to deliver products or services,” says Sims, who argues that these stereotypes exist for many reasons, including the lack of access to valuable relationships.

Andrew Sims. Photo Courtesy the MMSDC.Dixon similarly notes access to capital is also a stumbling block for these entrepreneurs.

These issues all serve as hindrances to business owners and can prevent them for launching or growing their companies. In order to meet members where they are and help them overcome these obstacles, all three of these organizations provide resources and hands-on assistance.

“[This is] why training is a big component of what we do. What you don’t know can hurt you or can keep you out of being able to even participate in the business landscape,” says Dixon.

Benefits of certification

Through the GLWBC and MMSDC, business owners are able to gain assistance with securing certification as either a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB), or a Women Business Enterprise (WBE). Though some business owners may feel overwhelmed by the application process or confused by the requirements, these organizations aim to make the process as simple as possible.

Veronica Johnson and Todd Vanappledorn. Photo courtesy the GLWBC.Having worked in the certification area for 12 years now, Veronica Johnson has been instrumental in the development of the GLWBC program.

“The certification program is set up to help women obtain contracts in corporate America by providing them with a certificate,” she says. “It’s a marketing tool. Any of the corporations that may have a supplier diversity program or inclusion of women program in place, the certification helps as a door-opener.”

“Certification provides a unique opportunity for MBEs to integrate within a corporation’s supply chains,” says Sims. “By having unique relationships with corporate procurement teams, [the MMSDC is] able to bridge the gap between MBEs and corporations and facilitate worthwhile connections. We host regular precertification briefings across the state for anyone considering certification [to provide] ongoing information about the process and its benefits.”

In addition to their certification orientation sessions, Johnson shares, the GLWBC has staff available to provide women with one-on-one application assistance as well, if necessary.

Working with an eye towards the future

Looking forward, the GLWBC is aiming to find more opportunities to connect women business owners with one another. “We are looking at mentorship opportunities for women who are beyond startups but they’re not quite where they need to be. We will help with peer mentoring with other well-established WBEs so they can learn best practices and strategies,” Johnson shares.

“Proper relationships are useful when navigating the tumultuous entrepreneur environment and can make a huge difference between demise and survival, or success. The right relationships can assist in know-how and connect you to those who have ‘been there and done that,’” says Sims. Through the MMSDC, members are able to receive ongoing support, including mentorship, to help ensure their long-term success.

Burrell has taken it upon herself to give back and share her knowledge with fellow aspiring entrepreneurs, inventors, and business owners alike. “My experience with Pumpndo has given me a unique perspective into entrepreneurship and small business, and I have used that experience to assist other entrepreneurs through the Muskegon Inventors Network, [by serving on their] board of directors.”

Kevin Johnson, Katrina Turnbow, Michelle Sourie Robinson and Andrew Sims. Photo courtesy the MMSDC.In addition to the value-add created through networking and mentorship relationships, the benefits of collaborations between women and minority-owned businesses and corporations are far-reaching. Not only is there a bottom line impact for the service providers, but the companies they serve and the communities as a whole also reap the rewards.

Throughout her career, Burrell as seen corporations take an interest in working with a variety of service providers. “Many organizations are making an effort to work with minority and women-owned businesses, and certifications will make that easier,” says Dixon. "A lot of corporations get incentives for doing business with minorities and women. It’s good business for them.”

“When you support MBEs, you affect the communities from which minority owners come. MBEs hire more diverse staff than majority owners and can impact wealth creation in communities that have been historically disenfranchised. Furthermore, MBEs provide mentorship, inspiration, and entrepreneurial examples to the youth in minority communities, thus changing the perception and reality for them and the community, at-large,” Sims says.

Building Bridges is a series focused on the diverse entrepreneurial community within the West Michigan region. Throughout the year, the series will highlight the unique problem solvers and change makers who seek to positively impact the growth of the economy and local ecosystem. Building Bridges is supported by Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW).

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Gold Leaf Designs LLC, has over 14 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. Through these organizations, she assists businesses with creating strategies for growth and sustainability through: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management solutions and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!
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