Hope Olson: Artist’s unique style attracts customers across Midwest

Hope Olson: Artist’s unique style attracts customers across Midwest

When Hope Olson is asked to explain “tablescapes,” her emerging artistic style, a style quickly catching fire in West Michigan, she pauses, admits it could take a while, and then delivers an elegant, emotionally-moving description that makes you want to buy one on the spot, except she doesn’t carry around 24” x 36” canvases in her back pocket.

Olson, a Holland-based artist focused on acrylic painting, is captivating because she shows rather than tells.

Her arms are animated, she’s slowly shifting from left to right, stopping, almost visualizing a previous piece and trying to recreate it now, right here, on this table, which is fitting because tables are almost sacred to her, and as it turns out, many of her customers.

Tablescapes, in a sense, are still life paintings reimagined, emblazoned with a modern attitude.

Olson says she “utilizes altered perspective, abstracted form, and unusual color in her paintings to echo stylized designs and patterns seen printed on tablecloths, wallpaper, dishes, and stained glass, all objects that can be found on and around the tables we frequent.”

In other words, your high school art teacher might not like it.

But, get this, Olson’s typical customer isn’t an art teacher.

Or art critics.

“You have to enjoy what you are making,” Olson said. “I tend to think you paint what you want to paint. And find your people.”

Olson’s people are regular people, both local residents and out-of-state tourists. They have regular problems. Her tablescape masterpieces put them at ease. Move them. Remind them of better days with family.

Which means the walls where her artwork hangs, Button Gallery in Douglas, Mich., don’t gather dust.

“It’s been fun. I really like the results of them,” Olson said, sipping on an iced coffee, unwinding after a day of painting because it’s Monday and, well, that’s the day she paints each week. “They have been selling well.”

So we can table this discussion if you want, but why…exactly…tables?

“People sit at tables with people they love,” Olson said. “Even though there are no people painted into the artwork, there is evidence people have been there.”

Wow, I get it. Now I have to pause. That’s such a true statement.

It’s like Olson’s re-discovered a timeless truth, and with each painting she sells, shares it with one more person.

During an age of increasing screen time, over-booked schedules and declining social skills, gathering around the table is a lost art. It shouldn’t be. Maybe, just maybe, Olson’s work is sparking a quiet revolution, a return to what’s worked for thousands of years.

“At the table, we keep our most necessary and most beautiful belongings within arm’s reach: a slice of bread, a glass of water, an antique vase with the garden’s hydrangeas,” Olson said. “These surfaces provide a literal support for us to gather with our children and friends or to sit in a moment of solitude with a coffee and the newspaper. When we are nourished at a table through food, conversation, or rest, our spirits and bodies can be restored.”

Moving up by moving away

Perhaps the tablescape style, her unique spin on a traditional category, was born from Olson’s pattern of avoiding the easy and comfortable and normal path.

She draws maps instead of following them.

Olson was born in Ann Arbor but moved to the Chicago area when she was young. She has loved to paint since then, but didn’t pursue it as a full-time occupation.

As college approached, she wanted to attend a Christian school in the Midwest with an interior design major. She used a basic college search Web site and filled out all the information about her interests. Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois was her choice and the choice.

“Essentially that was the only school that came up,” Olson said with a laugh.

So she went. She majored in interior design and minored in marketing. But she couldn’t shake the feelings of her first love.

“In college I was missing painting so much,” she said.

Thankfully, she could fit in some art classes as electives. And those around her began to notice her talent. One professor thought she should do art professionally. With that boost of confidence, she began selling art pieces even while in college.

 

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Then it was time for the real world. And once again Olson didn’t let fear hold her back.

Instead of settling for a comfortable life in suburban Chicago, she decided to move to Holland about three years ago. Other than her sister, who had settled in West Michigan, she didn’t know anyone. She thought a new location would motivate her. Drive her. Spark creativity.

“I forced myself to network,” she said. “I am so happy here.”

She took an administrative assistant job in the area. And just like in college, she kept her art alive. Instead of focusing on realistic watercolors, though, her past sweet spot, she experimented with new styles and tablescapes emerged.

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Entering Art Prize totally made sense. But she hesitated.

“Really, I was scared,” she recalls.

She doesn’t enjoy driving into larger cities. Or finding parking in them.

Yet in 2016, she took a leap again and entered Art Prize with three acrylic pieces. She met other artists. Learned to explain her art work to strangers. Plus, wait for it, landed free parking.

Fast forward to 2017.

Now that Olson is represented by Button Gallery, she’s crushing it even more. Think $675 for a 24″ x 24″ piece and $840 for a 24″ x 36″ piece. Besides her unique style, she is also local to the gallery, which is extra appealing to visitors.

Looking ahead, Olson hopes her work appears in more galleries along the Lakeshore. Maybe she will get into teaching art, too. Workshops. Ultimately, she’s grateful for the opportunity to make art and share it with the world, even with a day job.

“I get to do what I like to do part of the week and that’s a win for me,” she said.

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Fire Sight LLC: The smarter smoke detector amazes mentors, disrupts industry and SURGE-s ahead

Fire Sight LLC: The smarter smoke detector amazes mentors, disrupts industry and SURGE-s ahead

It’s special and rare and inspiring to watch two entrepreneurs so dialed into an idea that they almost finish each other’s sentences.

When Neil Weeda shares a flurry of technical terms, explaining the inner workings of Deep Sight, their game-changing product, James Cerone sometimes jumps in, simplifying the concept for the non-scientific mind, then adding a little razzle dazzle he learned from his wedding DJ dad, before finishing with a million-dollar smile.

When Cerone provides detailed analogies and marketing pitches, yet pauses about some product details, Weeda steps in, providing the theory and the mechanics, convincing you this product will work, even if he doesn’t sleep for three days to figure out the problem.

But that’s the magic of Weeda and Cerone, they are real-time phone-a-friends for each other. They balance each other out. Their chemistry is contagious. So is their passion. Drive. Energy. Upbeat attitude.

Perhaps, the good vibes stem from their emerging idea, an idea that made their freshman year at Hope College much busier than expected: a smart fire detection system they hope will shake up the  fire industry and help prevent companies from sustaining millions of dollars in losses.

Cerone explained most current fire detection systems wait on the ceiling for fires to happen. Smoke detectors can be compared to a giant human nose sniffing for smoke and sprinklers are like human hands waiting to feel heat.

Deep Sight is more active and will mimic another human sense: sight. Therefore, some type of camera or imaging will be used, Cerone said.

The benefits? Enter Weeda. First, it will locate the fire and using a black box idea provide data to where the fire started, what happened, etc. That data can be used to save lives down the road.

Next, integration with sprinklers, Weeda said. Instead of all the sprinklers turning on, or the wrong ones turning on, just the exact sprinklers required turn on and then turn off immediately after the fire is out. Millions of dollars in equipment and product saved.

Finally, targeted suppression, catching a fire as early as possible – not when smoke hits the ceiling – and putting it out before it has a chance to become big.

A surge of support

Weeda and Cerone couldn’t have picked a better time to start a business in Ottawa County.

Today the brilliant minds at Lakeshore Advantage will introduce Surge, an entrepreneurial services program that will offer a “boost of energy that can help a startup achieve their next growth milestone.”

LARGE_withLA_transparentEducation and programming and events and meetups and resources.

Brooke Corbin

Brooke Corbin

In other words, building on the strong foundation of the Holland Smart Zone, which already provides support to high-tech companies within certain boundaries of Holland. However, Surge has a broader focus.

“The excitement around Surge is the ability to develop an ecosystem for ALL entrepreneurs to start here and stay here on the Lakeshore, knowing that this community supports their doing so by providing a wide range of services and connection points to area service providers, mentors and to each other,” said Brooke Corbin, manager of innovation solutions at Lakeshore Advantage.

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Matt Gira

Matt Gira, co-founder of Fathom and a mentor to Fire Sight LLC through Hope College’s Entrepreneurial Institute, said working with Surge only makes sense for Weeda and Cerone.

“I think it’s going to help them in a lot of ways,” Gira said. “Whether that’s the mentorship, different connections, or potential funding, Lakeshore Advantage is creating a lot of great resources for businesses in the area that they should be able to tap into.”

In fact, Weeda and Cerone are just the type of talent Corbin hopes will become the next generation of major employers in Ottawa County.

“Fire Sight LLC is a perfect example of the kind of company that Surge can support—they are developing a new technology and will need resources to grow their startup here,” Corbin said.

Bringing the product to market

Back to Weeda and Cerone and Deep Sight.

It all started in the fall of 2016, when they lived on the same floor on Hope’s campus. They start talking about business ideas until one stuck out – a smarter smoke detector, one that was more proactive then reactive.

But they didn’t do much with it and left for Christmas break.

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James Cerone

When they returned, though, a series of random situations sparked action. Cerone went for a quick run before a cross country meet and ran into firefighters doing a demonstration. He got a business card. They later met with a firefighter and immediately afterward stumbled upon a Hope College entrepreneurship program meeting. They were invited in.

The result? Those back-to-back meetings validated their idea.

“It got serious real quick,” Cerone said.

They heard about M West Challenge, West Michigan’s regional business plan competition and hustled to prepare in just weeks. Initially they thought Deep Sight would sell for homes, but quickly pivoted to commercial buildings after talking with homeowners and realizing the price would make it a tough sell.

And life still went on, they were full-time students, with lab reports to write, even the night of the competition.

“We did this on our own time,” Weeda points out.

The dedication, the commitment, and the grind did not go unnoticed to the Hope College entrepreneurship community.

“When I met the team for the first time, I think our entire team at Hope said ‘They’re freshmen students? That’s amazing,'” Gira said. “They’re an incredibly talented team, that works hard, and what I think is the most important part is that they’re thoughtful about everything they do. They get a lot of work done, and everything they do has a purpose, which is so great to see in young entrepreneurs.”
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Neil Weeda

Oh, and Fire Sight LLC, took second place at M West Challenge, thanks to a sweet idea and sweet presentation by Cerone, awarding them a $2,000 prize and $2,500 in legal services.
“We’re still so early in the process,” Weeda said. “To do that well, I am quite proud of.”
The next step is narrowing their target market, even though they desperately want to make a prototype. Satisfying their customer’s needs will lower development cost and lower business risk.
“Defining a target market for them is more important than building a prototype right now because they need to know how to exactly solve the problems that their customers have. They could have the greatest prototype in the world, but if it doesn’t solve a problem, it’s worthless,” Gira said.
 There’s other issues like who will run the business and regulations and whether they should license the technology instead. However, in the end, they want to save businesses money, save lives and end the notion insurance will cover everything if a fire happens.
“It’s ridiculous,” Cerone said. “You can’t risk it.”
If you are interested in learning more or collaborating with Fire Sight LLC, contact Weeda at neil.weeda@hope.edu.
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Carolyn Ulstad: Holland’s sustainability rockstar protects environment, attracts new residents

Carolyn Ulstad: Holland’s sustainability rockstar protects environment, attracts new residents

Carolyn Ulstad is different and she knows it, embraces it, and flat-out owns it.

She grew up in Holland, but isn’t from Holland. Her parents are from Chicago and she isn’t Dutch and she is absolutely cool with that.

Call it a transplant edge.

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Don’t get her wrong, though, she has a love affair with West Michigan. After graduating college, she stayed here. Got married. Bought a house. And, yes, she posts photos of Lake Michigan sunsets on Instagram.

Yet instead of simply talking about her crush, Ulstad acted on it.

Her sweet spot? The environment.

Her strategy? Firsthand involvement.

She sacrifices Saturday afternoons to pick up trash in the Macatawa River. She persuades government officials to follow sound environmental practices. She writes columns for the newspaper to educate the general public.

Not bad for a Millennial, you know, the generation that always gets criticized.

The best part is Ulstad, program assistant for the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council (MACC), carries herself in a classy, sincere manner, never looking down on you, but always looking to inspire you and teach you and encourage you.

In other words, she’s hooked on positive, everybody-wins projects in the community. Simple as that. Thankfully, unlike many areas in the country, most people along the Lakeshore are too.

“I think that our area collaborates so well for the reason that in general those that live here tend to share the same value of being a good neighbor,” Ulstad said. “I think our current leaders in the community recognize that West Michigan has had a long standing tradition of collaboration and I think they strive to maintain that same spirit.”

And sustainability projects in particular are gaining traction, thanks in part to Ulstad, also a member of the Holland Community Sustainability Committee. In her view, when the environment is improved, more money, less problems.

“In general, it makes me incredibly happy to see movement on the sustainability front,” Ulstad said. “Not only is it better for the health of the planet and ourselves, but it can improve the pocketbook by opening up the door to new technologies, businesses. It can also increase ‘livability’ which draws talented young professionals as well as those who may want to retire here.”

Improving Holland one project at a time

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Which brings us to meetings.

I have been known to skip a meeting or two, unless catered food is involved, but Ulstad, she thrives in meetings, wouldn’t miss them for the world.

“I love meetings,” she said.

I shoot her a surprised look. She can explain.

“I love things that happen in them,” Ulstad said. “I love the input. I think it’s great. You collaborate. You come up with something you didn’t have before.”

Like bike lanes, she is stoked bike lanes are happening in Holland, her face literally lights up at the thought of those lines separating cars from bikes.

Or take Project Clarity, a sustainability project she is crazy proud to be involved with.

The $12 million community effort, which has already raised more than $10 million, has a goal of restoring the water quality of Lake Macatawa and the Macatawa Watershed. The lake and surrounding rivers have struggled with high levels of phosphorus for years. Which impacts water quality and recreation and commerce.

Project Clarity’s multi-phased approach is supported by plenty of local heavy hitters – the MACC, the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway, Hope College and Grand Valley State University to name a few.

“Clean water is something that everyone can get behind,” Ulstad said. “This project has been inspiring to me since its success comes from so many passionate individuals and organizations, government partners, businesses and higher education working together.”

Catching a theme?

Then there’s the Holland Sustainability Framework, a new template for the city of Holland to use when planning projects. In 2013, the city council asked Ulstad’s committee to start developing the checklist, which covers quality of life, environmental awareness/action, economics, transportation, smart energy, community & neighborhood, and community knowledge.

“Is it possible to add sustainable pieces to the project?” Ulstad said. “You can’t expect someone to think of all these things all the time.”

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And finally light pollution in Holland.

Which I know nothing about. Enlighten me, I said.

She acknowledges the pun with a smile, then explains.

Light pollution, basically excessive artificial light, affects the way we observe the night sky, can impact plant health, even animal health. New technology and designs are helping reduce the impact, Ulstad said, but those must be balanced with the public’s perception of bright street lights equaling safer streets.

One simple method to fight light pollution is Earth Hour, a global grassroots movement encouraging residents and business to turn off their lights for one hour. It celebrates energy conservation, showcases the night sky and highlights our impact on the environment.

Ulstad loved the idea, dreamed about bringing it to Holland, shared it with the Holland Community Sustainability Committee, and eventually helped organize a local event on March 25.

“I love Earth Hour because it’s completely customizable,” Ulstad wrote in a March 19 blog post for Hope College. “If your concerns are about bees and pollinators, make it about that. If you care about light pollution or wildlife habitat, make those the focus.”

Yeah, she blogs too.

Ultimately, Ulstad is a sustainability rockstar. She cares about the area. And she’s glad she’s protecting it for future generations.

“At the end of the day I’m so incredibly happy that my parents moved here 30 years ago,” Ulstad said. “West Michigan is such a beautiful place, with less traffic, a wonderful downtown and people who wave and say hello. I always wonder how different a person I may be if I didn’t grow up here fully immersed in the lake, the dunes and the forest. Michigan has a natural beauty that isn’t easily found elsewhere.”

Mic drop.

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Just Say Yes and Figure Out the Rest: The Photos of My Tulips & Juleps Marketing Extravaganza

Just Say Yes and Figure Out the Rest: The Photos of My Tulips & Juleps Marketing Extravaganza

The hot word in 2017? No.

That’s right, say no to most things, but yes to only a few important and meaningful and serious things.

I’m cool with that advice and agree with it – to a point.

However, after a recent string of events, I believe sometimes you should just say yes and figure out the rest.

Please, allow me to explain.

Back in March, I was asked to help blog about Tulips & Juleps, a Derby-themed fundraiser being organized by Tulip Time and Holland Young Professionals.

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I was flattered. Yet I didn’t think I had the time.

My day job was busy. I was acquiring new content marketing clients. I had a long vacation on the horizon.

Saying no would have been easy and socially acceptable.

But, I said yes. And I am so glad I did.

I met amazing people like Hannah Rogers from Tulip Time and Paul Marantette from Coppercraft Distillery and the ladies at Younkers of Holland.

I strengthened friendships with my man Brad Preston and Slate Owner Stacy Mulder and uber-talented Holland Young Professionals members – president Nicole Paquette and board member Kellee Kortas.

I landed amazing access to Coppercraft Distillery before it re-opened, twice, and the chance to enjoy an in-studio TV interview at WZZM 13.

However, above all, watching more than 200 people pack into Boatwerks, including many men, and raise $8,700 for the Holland Young Professionals endowment fund, that was special. Rewarding. Worth it.

So enjoy the pictures from my Tulips & Juleps journey and please, say yes and figure out the rest.

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A private, even-before-the-soft-opening bourbon tasting at Coppercraft Distillery.

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Starting to create some social media buzz.

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Coppercraft Distillery soft opening. Flowered shirts not required, but strongly encouraged.

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Nicole Paquette speaking about Holland Young Professionals, on TV, while keeping that hat out of her face. Amazing.

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This is where I told Meredith TerHaar she was with it and had it going on. Also amazing. 

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Why are we smiling? 1) We have great teeth. 2) Possibly the best 3 minute taped segment in WZZM 13 history. 

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(Above and below and below) Need fashion advice? We can help. Just let us finish some full-lengths first. 

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Gameday. Too many talented and good-looking people for one backdrop.

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Inside Leadership: Abbey Johnston & Greg Mutch focus on inner game for next-level results

Inside Leadership: Abbey Johnston & Greg Mutch focus on inner game for next-level results

Story By JEREMY GONSIOR/Photos by JOEL RODEHEAVER at Union Ave Creative.

It was cold, cloudy, and rainy outside, but inside the restaurant it was warm, vibrant and full of laughter because Abbey Johnston and Greg Mutch were there.

The leadership experts, both based in West Michigan, are executing an ambitious project: Inside Leadership, a transformative program featuring group learning sessions, individualized coaching, and a sweet Leadership 360 tool.

Yet they don’t seem tense or worried or afraid.

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Greg Mutch

One minute they are deep in discussion about the latest opinions in leadership development. Then, when you least expect it, they crack a joke that is so hilarious you stop writing or stop eating or almost spit out your water.

Halfway through the conversation, to those around us, it looks like old friends are having a reunion over spring break. But I have never met Mutch and only briefly talked with Johnston a few times.

Even crazier? Mutch and Johnston met only 18 months earlier.

That’s how in-sync they are, how much chemistry they have, and how motivated they are about making leadership training significantly better.

And that energy spills over to those around them, providing a group synergy that makes time fly by. I can only imagine what multiple hours would be like with them.

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Abbey Johnston

How did this happen, how did this perfect match occur?

“Work Tinder,” Mutch says with a straight face.

A moment passes and we all laugh. No, seriously, how?

Envision a movie montage with The Chainsmokers latest hit playing in the background. Then images of mutual friends. Introductions. Conversations. Johnston letting Mutch say a few words during one of her trainings. Soon mutual respect. Then a refreshing connection.

Mix that all together, shake, and add a joint passion around a unique leadership viewpoint and you have a dynamic partnership.

“I think what we found out when we started ‘work dating’ was we connected on the leadership development philosophy we take,” Johnston said. “This was pretty thrilling because, quite frankly, our philosophy isn’t necessarily mainstream. It’s transformative and revolutionary – but not mainstream.”

Disrupting the typical leadership training model

Enter the “Inner Game” philosophy.

Most leadership programs focus on the “Outer Game,” how to build external competencies – team building, collaboration, vision, etc.  Therefore, around the country every week, leaders attend a conference that appears will finally address one of these problematic areas in their life, Johnston said.

“They return from the conference – with energy – and a lot of information…and we see a difference.  We see them trying,” she said. “Then a week or two later our leaders behavior returns to the problematic patterns we were experiencing before the conference. This is a common scenario.”

And Inside Leadership has a name for it: limiting assumptions.
“It might be easier for people to understand them as blind spots,” Mutch said. “When our operating system runs with those blind spots ‘unexamined’ then they slow us down, hold us back, and create collateral damage to reduces our overall leadership effectiveness (and business results).”
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To combat this broken system, Inside Leadership reverse engineers the typical leadership development philosophy. They learn who the leader is on the inside, what is causing their ineffective attempts at these competencies, to spark action on the outside. In other words, the stronger the “Inner Game,” the stronger the impact.
“Performance is an outcome of an inner game. Performance is driven by our ‘internal operating system’: our beliefs, story, values, passions, strengths and weaknesses,” Johnston said. “We can be consistently hitting the target as leaders – making great strides – but not quite be hitting the bullseye. We can’t fully live into our leadership potential if we haven’t grasped what our potential is.”

They also believe leadership is not positional, rather leadership is influence and showing up and impact.

“In that way everyone has the opportunity to be a leader,” Mutch said.

What Inside Leadership looks like

The cutting-edge program began where many interesting projects do: a college campus.

They started offering a version of Inside Leadership at Grand Valley State University (GVSU). After successful cohorts, word got out and they decided to expand beyond the campus setting.

“We had such remarkable results from the specific program we launched at GVSU. There was a lot of energy around it,” Johnston said. “We’ve been doing other variations of leadership development with other groups and companies.  However, what we launched with GVSU had a specific format that we knew we could effectively deliver for others.”

Inside Leadership, a 4-month program already underway this spring, moves beyond the typical workshop-driven leadership training to offer a more experience-based training. Plus, there’s a community of 10 – 12 individuals formed around it.

Let’s not forget out-of-this-world PowerPoint slides.

Oh, and as we touched on earlier, drumroll please, fun.

“While we dig deep in our sessions we also have a ton of fun. Greg and I love to get ‘real’ but we also love to have a ‘real’ good laugh,” Johnston said. “I think we have done a good job with balancing intensity with a little bit of banter.  One of Greg’s values is irreverence – need I say more?”

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The fall cohort, which is open for registration now, kicks off with a 1-day retreat on Sept. 6, followed by individual coaching sessions to debrief your personal Leadership Circle Profile 360 results. Then group engagements, coaching sessions, and finally a half-day retreat. At the end, participants receive a Leadership Circle Profile 360 and StrengthsFinder assessment.

Plus they are more awake. Understand how they can grow their potential. Effectively aim their influence.

If the momentum continues, Mutch hopes Inside Leadership could expand stateside first and then even globally.

“We are exploring some additional cohorts regionally (Traverse City and Detroit), but the experience could be adapted and delivered anywhere (Ireland is on that list),” he said.

Back to lunch. Mutch jokingly brainstorms how to better market testimonials on the Web site. What if they add the signature “Mom,” after their testimonials? They don’t currently list names, it’s anonymous, so why not? Johnston cracks up, can’t stop laughing.

As we wrap up, it’s clear: Inside Leadership is blowing up. Get your autographs while you can.

“I love what I do,” Johnston said later. “I am honored and privileged every time I engage in this space. Our participants are brave and offer us endless amounts of insight and inspiration. #blessed.”

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Ryan Wenk: How ‘right person, right seat’ fuels Worksighted’s explosive growth

Ryan Wenk: How ‘right person, right seat’ fuels Worksighted’s explosive growth
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Ryan Wenk

As Ryan Wenk prepared to graduate from Northwood University, he developed a list of 50 companies he was interested in working for.

They were different sizes and different industries, but all based in Michigan. Wenk reached out to them all, eventually talking with 10 businesses, before booking meetings with about five companies in his original top 50.

One of the meetings? A relatively small tech company, with just over 30 employees at the time, based in Holland, Mich.

Worksighted.

Barry Rice, director of sales and marketing at the time, helped Wenk learn more about Worksighted’s past and future, and what potential opportunities might be available when he graduated.

Once he did graduate, Wenk had offers from companies on Michigan’s East Side, but he couldn’t quite shake his positive experience with Worksighted. So he made a phone call.

“I had a good feeling this would be a good fit for me. Quickly after, I had an offer from Worksighted – within a week I accepted the offer, graduated, and moved to Holland, a place where I knew no one,” Wenk recalls. “Looking back it is pretty unbelievable at times, in some ways I got lucky, but in a lot of ways I setup myself up for success by knowing what I wanted in a career, and being proactive to find a place that would align with my vision.”

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Welcome to the team, Employee #34.

Since that special moment nearly three years ago, a moment that seemed almost destined, Wenk has helped promote the heck out of Worksighted, a firm that has almost doubled to about 65 employees and increased its revenue to an estimated $12 million in 2017.

He’s the marketing manager now, experimenting, talking strategy, and, like everyone at Worksighted, blazing new trails. The company is only 17-years-old after all.

“Having the opportunity to develop a strategy and execute on it at this level, this early in my career is amazing,” Wenk said. “Since every day presents a new challenge, we also have the opportunity to learn something new every day. Having a direct impact on the success of Worksighted on a day-to-day basis is the most valuable thing to me – I’m enjoying the ride and loving every second of it, including the failures.”

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Image at Worksighted headquarters in Holland

Creating a job for himself

Wenk didn’t start as marketing director, of course, he had to earn it.

But thanks to Worksighted’s innovative, wait, let’s try a different phrase, employee-focused work culture, that’s better, Wenk had the leadership support to find the perfect spot for him.

Which brings us to Right person, right seat, a core company principle.

Wenk began his Worksighted journey as a sales representative, meaning he helped qualify potential clients and set appointments for senior representatives.

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Six months in he discovered, however, it was difficult to land appointments because Worksighted had a limited brand awareness. Even though marketing hadn’t crossed his mind as a full-time career path, he had marketing experience in his internships, so Wenk recognized an opportunity.

Honest, open communication is encouraged at Worksighted, allowing him to approach leadership with no worries. He pitched them the value in having a dedicated marketing person on the team – someone to align sales and marketing to build brand awareness and continue growth. He felt he should transition into it.

In other words, right person, wrong seat.

“It’s not that I don’t think I could have been successful in sales, but marketing is a more natural fit for me,” Wenk said. “The leadership team knew I was a good culture fit, and were willing to take a risk and let me develop the marketing. Eight months later, I was officially moved into a dedicated marketing position.”

Right person, right seat.

Wenk started learning marketing hands-on, just the way he likes it.

“I learn through doing things, not through reading online or in class,” he said, speaking from a conference room with an orange accent wall to his left, a slim laptop in front of him, keeping an occasional eye on the Tuesday happenings at the company. “I am given the freedom to try new things.”

What he’s selling

People. Simple as that.

Sure, Worksighted has incredible IT support services that help businesses grow by aligning their technology with their business goals. Employees manage IT services for companies and help implement new IT projects for companies.

If they didn’t take care of business there, Worksighted wouldn’t have clients in Holland and Grand Rapids and Lansing and the Detroit area. Or be opening a satellite office in the Wixom area.

That said, competing IT companies also offer similar services. So why Worksighted?

Well, Wenk is confident Worksighted’s people stack up. Their skills first and foremost. But their passion, that’s the secret sauce, my friend.

“People come to work every day and love what they do,” he said.  “The difference is the people who deliver the services.”

That leads to next-level customer service. And happy customers.

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Mike Harris, co-founder and vice president of Worksighted, touched on this during his speech at TEDxMacatawa on Tuesday. He said businesses today must deliver outcomes, not just value. And they must have a strong belief in the outcomes they care about, gain alignment around it, build trust, innovate, pull in new people from outside and then, and only then, deliver incredible outside value.

“The days of a job is just a job are over,” Harris said. “A job is a cause.”

He promoted the idea of growth through coaching, letting employees drive and figure things out, because they might just be more careful and effective in some areas than the business owner.

“Trust them,” Harris said.

Worksighted trusted Wenk to deliver on his desire to transform the company’s brand awareness. And he has. And he will continue to. He’s motivated because he’s not marketing a widget, he’s marketing people he enjoys and a home away from home.

“If you are not really passionate about what you are marketing, it’s not going to be as quality as it could be,” Wenk said. “I haven’t dreaded coming to work one day since I have been here.”

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Heather Gill Fox: Promoting economic growth, embracing Holland’s diversity

Heather Gill Fox: Promoting economic growth, embracing Holland’s diversity
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Photo Credit: Elisabeth Marie Photography

Cover photo Credit: Christina Leskovar Photography

BY JEREMY GONSIOR

It’s Tuesday and for Heather Gill Fox that means “meeting day,” an interesting, jam-packed day of, well, meetings – meetings with family, friends, organizations and businesses.

Sometimes they are back-to-back, but that doesn’t stop her from being early to the next one, arriving at the coffee shop well before the person who had ONE meeting all day.

But with everything Fox is trying to accomplish in 2017, it makes sense. She has to be focused.

Organized.

Structured.

You see, this year is truly a game-changing year for her.

First, she’s establishing herself as one of the youngest and newest members of the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce board of directors. Then this summer she becomes president of the Holland Young Professionals (HYP), after serving as vice president for the last year.

Two important organizations, representing two different worlds. And yet, Fox is there, bridging the gap, serving as the unofficial liaison between the groups, advocating for fresh graduates trying to become established and established businesses trying to stay fresh.

She literally lights up when she talks about the challenge, a privilege she doesn’t take lightly.

“I am excited. I am ready,” Fox said, as she smiles and raises both her hands in the air, fists clenched, shaking them ever so slightly, exhibiting genuine joy about the opportunity. “I am waiting to see where my mark is going to be.”

An overarching theme, no matter what the board: Holland is changing, changing for the better. The community is comprised of more than just white-collar, college graduates with flexible schedules, Fox said. And Holland residents are talking about challenging issues, trying to solve them, not sweep them under the rug, and in the process breaking down barriers.

“It’s cool to see that start,” said Fox, general manager at The Rental Company in Holland.

Two specific issues are especially important for Fox to address in HYP and the Michigan West Coast Chamber.

The first is establishing a strong economic base by slowing resident migration to larger cities and offering a welcoming culture to professionals interested in moving here.

“Talent acquisition is a huge concern for the area – attracting and retaining,” Fox said. “We need to bring in people from the outside.”

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Photo credit: Christina Leskovar Photography

Another big picture issue? Acknowledging and embracing and reconciling the different backgrounds present. In other words, white Dutch residents are a piece of the puzzle, not the puzzle.

“We have such a diverse community,” Fox said. “So challenging the assumption that it’s a Dutch community. There are many cultures to celebrate here.”

Life after college

Fox came to West Michigan, like many Holland “transplants,” to attend Hope College. The Rockford, Illinois native started juggling commitments early, knocking out three majors – Communication, International Studies, and German.

And, like many recent college graduates, the city she studied in didn’t seem appealing – at first.

“I kind of thought I would be anywhere else,” Fox said.

Then the Rental Company stepped in.

Her boss, Owner Robyn Allison, encouraged Fox to get involved in the community. She started to fall in love with the area’s wonderful nature and the heart of Holland, while acknowledging its pain points, in her opinion, attracting and retaining top talent, and embracing diversity and equity, as mentioned earlier. The hands-on experience changed her.

“It really helped me to buy in,” she said.

Fox began her leadership involvement with HYP as the Membership Chair, overseeing the organization’s shift from a paid membership model to a sponsorship model.

Then she was elected HYP vice president in 2016. Fox said current HYP President Nicole Paquette influenced her significantly, helping her become more confident, especially in the art of public speaking. In turn, Fox has inspired Paquette.

Nicole Paquette

“Her passion for equity and her thoughtfulness and encouragement towards everyone she encounters are just a few of the qualities that make her an incredible leader,” Paquette said. “Heather is a natural connector and it shows through in her leadership style – she’s very effective at connecting people, causes, and solutions, and HYP has been a great space for her to live that out loud and further her investment and innovation in our community.”

While the HYP board has been more hands-on, the Michigan West Coast Chamber has been more strategic, Fox said. Different, but in a good way.

“It’s definitely been a learning curve for me,” she said.

Michigan West Coast Chamber President Jane Clark said Fox was a strategic addition to the Chamber Board given her extensive involvement and leadership position in HYP.

Jane Clark

Jane Clark

“We appreciate the perspectives she brings to our Board as a successful young leader in our community,” Clark said. “She’s a graduate of our West Coast Leadership program, a regular program attendee, and our liaison to the many partnership programs the Chamber has with HYP.  We love her commitment to making our community a great place to live and work, and her passion and energy are contagious!”

Looking ahead, no matter what committee or board she is serving on, Holland can count on one attribute from her: excitement.

“I am really excited to see where the community is headed and be part of the voice for young professionals,” she said.

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Acre AgTech: Ottawa County’s Farmers-Only Service for business, not dating

Acre AgTech: Ottawa County’s Farmers-Only Service for business, not dating

You’ve seen the commercials – a helpless, lonely, stereotypical-looking farmer is lost because he lives in a rural area and there are no country girls around.

The solution, of course, is FarmersOnly.com.

Suddenly, attractive women riding horses come out of nowhere and the man has a big grin on his face. His life is complete. He has a line-dancing partner.

I never liked these commercials because I felt like they sold farmers short. It conveyed farmers were only capable of wearing boots, cowboy hats, and driving a big truck covered in mud.

I disagree:

  • Maybe it’s because my dad grew up on a farm, became valedictorian, went on to college, then grad school, and became an environmental research chemist.
  • Or my father-in-law who grew up on a farm, went on to college, and became a human resources expert for many companies after mastering how to relate to and support people.
  • Then there’s a family member who is still tied to the farm but interned in Washington D.C., attended college out of state and landed a nice corporate job in Indianapolis.

Just because you’re a farmer doesn’t mean your dreams are limited to your plot of land. Or the farmer’s market.

Farmers are smart. Adaptable. And, wait for it, innovative.

That’s right, innovative.

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Investing in farmers

Thankfully, there’s an organization in West Michigan that recognizes their intelligence and wants to help farmers occupy fresh, expanded roles in the business community.

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The new, improved ACRE AgTech.

Formerly know as the Great Lakes Ag-Tech Incubator, the nonprofit based in Ottawa County re-branded this week to ACRE, months after receiving a $55,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for marketing/outreach.

Holland-based Burch Partners led the effort and the results are astonishing.

The new logo and Web site are clean, professional and, most of all, clear. Great Lakes Ag-Tech Incubator sounded like government language, ACRE sounds like startup language.

A textbook public-private partnership.

Burch Partners was excited.

So was ACRE.

The re-branding made it clear that ACRE supports farmers and agriculture entrepreneurs taking their “equipment, tools, machinery, software, or other specialized products” to the market, according to its site.

“We have the experience to help entrepreneurs navigate barriers, connect with opportunities, and access the expertise they need to grow their idea into a thriving business. This ACRE is AgTech Connections and Resources for Entrepreneurs: a place for the creation and production of emerging ideas in today’s agricultural economy,” the site says.

There’s no start-up fee, but ACRE clients agree to “sign over 2 percent of sales to pay retroactively for its assistance,” according to the Holland Sentinel.

 

The history

Ottawa County is one of the top agriculture-producing counties in the state. When county leadership began searching in 2010 for ways to encourage job growth, its Planning and Performance Improvement department suggested a business incubator for agricultural technology.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Ottawa County a grant to study the feasibility of an incubator, MLive reported, which confirmed there was a critical mass of entrepreneurs who needed assistance with transforming ideas into actual businesses. A pilot program then followed.

Great Lakes Ag-Tech Business Incubator, now ACRE, officially launched in December 2014 under the guidance of Mark Knudsen. It received attention throughout the country, including Entrepreneur Magazine.

“Many agricultural-technology entrepreneurs are farmers who’ve taken to their garages or workshops to build mechanical devices that solve common agrarian problems, ” the magazine wrote. “(The incubator) doesn’t corral startups into a communal workspace. Instead, participants work solo at home, periodically meeting with mentors in county government conference rooms.”

 

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The future

Looking ahead, I think ACRE has a bright future. Why?

The agricultural-technology incubator has a five-person staff now.

It has a star-studded board of directors.

A professional re-branding.

Out in the community, people are talking about it. Young, aspiring entrepreneurs are working with ACRE as they try to launch innovative, farm-focused products.

Now it just needs more entrepreneurs and more counties to join the effort.

So ignore the commercials.

City folk do get it.

Farmers got it going on – and yes, we’re talking business.



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