Author: Denise Cheng

Reposted from Dennetmint

Last night, there was a East Meets West panel in which Detroit and Grand Rapids heavyweights mingled on stage to discover what each of the two cities could learn from each other. Among them was Carl Erickson, who owns a custom software firm just down the street. I respect Carl greatly, and in typical Carl style, he laid it out, no gloss: In his travels to Detroit, he appreciates the diversity of entrepreneurs. He comes back to GR, and it’s all white. Carl doesn’t think it’s an issue of where are minority entrepreneurs; he thinks they aren’t here.

It was jarring, not least because of the bluntness. The absence of diversity is fact, and it’s a big topic (too big?) to spring on stage. In tackling the topic, one GR panelist said this was her biggest grievance with the city. The conversation moved on, and I left.

It’s been simmering since last night and during my morning walk. Working for a 25+ year-old nonprofit, I’m not technically an entrepreneur, but I think of myself as a self-starter. So I considered myself an appropriate test case: What would it actually take to make me stay in GR?

Lack of diversity and good public transportation are also my biggest peeves with this city. BUT I’ve experienced less racial ignorance here than Portland, less blatant racism than in Ohio, less physical threat than Lesotho. But I don’t see myself nor my family reflected in this population and would have to go through great lengths to do so. There are Asian immigrant populations in GR (2.4% Asians), but does the next generation stay? GR is foaming with entrepreneurial opportunities, but there are only a few options in each stripe of service and entertainment. Perhaps when you can’t even see yourself reflected in the population, GR’s strikes are harder to downplay, and you leave.

Yet historically, minorities tend to be entrepreneurial, especially immigrant populations. Are they really not around? Is it that this city isn’t putting its resources toward cultivating them?

Here’s one theory I’ve come up with: There are tons of minority entrepreneurs in the city. They open grocery stores. Restaurants. Various services, but they’re not located in the urban core. You know what else? They’re not targeting the white population. Entrepreneurs exist, but we are blind to them (I include myself in this because of my Asian-American duality). What compounds this is how difficult it is to reach those businesses.