Months ago, when a team of local leaders began to plan Muskegon Heights’ first-ever 5×5 Night—Start Garden’s business competition that aims to support entrepreneurs—a question was raised: Will people come?
It was a question born not of disdain for the community, but rather from a fatigue rooted in the decades of disinvestment and disenfranchisement that Muskegon Heights has faced, Muskegon Innovation Hub Director Kevin Ricco said.
“When I told them we hold the 5×5 Nights at the Innovation Hub, they asked, ‘How many people do you get?’” Ricco said, referring to an individual involved with the planning. “I said 100 to 120. They paused and looked at me, and said, ‘Nobody comes to Muskegon Heights. I don’t think we’ll have any people.’ That comment said so much to me about the disenfranchisement—I by no means felt they were giving up, but were playing some sort of realist card.”
But on Tuesday, Sept. 24, The Connection Hall’s doors opened at 2401 8th St. in Muskegon Heights—and the question of who would come disappeared.
Hundreds of people flooded the venue for the 5×5 Night: CEOs, heads of nonprofits, government officials, and many others gathered to witness an event community leaders celebrated as a historic moment for Muskegon Heights.
In the end, it was not a question of who would come. It was a question of: how will all these people fit? The crowd swelled, and the packed house became standing room only. It was, local leaders said, the beginning of a new era: Muskegon Heights was, finally, being shone in the light its residents have long known is here: a light that illuminated the city’s entrepreneurs who are dedicating their lives to not only running their own companies, but to empowering the community.
“It was incredibly powerful; there’s so much good happening in Muskegon Heights,” said Ricco, whose organization, the Innovation Hub, sponsored the 5×5 Night and provided the $5,000 for the winning business. “There’s an energy and a passion here I hope people were exposed to.”
It’s that energy and passion woven throughout the Muskegon Heights community that is driving a change in the narrative surrounding the city, said Mickey Wallace, an on-air personality at 103.7 The Beat who served as the 5×5 Night’s emcee and media sponsor. In a city often besieged by negative media, a new story is emerging: one about the large network of entrepreneurs in Muskegon Heights who are lifting the community.
“Muskegon Heights has taken some hits because of a few individuals who’ve garnered media attention through acts that do not represent the city as a whole,” Wallace said.
“As with many cities across our great state and country, trauma, classism, poverty, bias, disproportionate funding, and benign neglect have had resounding effects on the current generation, and too often those ails are broadcast as the norms of those communities,” Wallace continued. “We wanted to change the social narrative of the community by casting the light on the actual growth, maturity, professionalism, unity, and hard work of the city that, unfortunately, has not been deemed as media-worthy as the trials the city has triumphed over.”
Muskegon Heights’ stories of “actual growth, maturity, professionalism, unity, and hard work” are endless, and the 5×5 audience—many of whom were entrepreneurs themselves—were able to learn of a couple of them during the event.
For the 5×5 Night—an event Start Garden launched in Grand Rapids and has since expanded to Muskegon and Holland—five individuals pitched their business ideas to a panel of five judges for the chance to win $5,000. The participants were: Teyondra Burch of Tey’s Tutor Time, Nathan Biller of RentalEval, Olivia Seaver of Spanish Immersion Daycare, Nia Jones of Saucing It Up, and Carnel Haynie of UBookFreight. The judges included: Urban Apparel owner Thomas Smith, Patterson’s Pharmacy owner Carolyn Patterson, Alicia Springer of Comerica Bank, Webb Chemical owner and CEO Brad Hilleary, and Start Garden Director Jorge Gonzalez.
Burch, who grew up in downtown Muskegon and Muskegon Heights and now lives in Muskegon Heights, won the $5,000 for her business, Tey’s Tutor Time, a company that aims to provide affordable academic tutoring and increase literacy in Muskegon Heights and beyond.
“What she is doing is so huge,” Start Garden’s Gonzalez said. “At Start Garden, we ask, ‘Is this going to change the world?’ That’s what she’s doing: she’s going to change the world.”
‘I want to reach the kids who are labeled unreachable’: The life-changing work of Teyondra Burch
While working as an AmeriCorps literacy coach at Edgewood Elementary Academy in Muskegon Heights and Moon Elementary in Muskegon after she graduated from Central Michigan University, Burch said she quickly realized the literacy challenges facing our area.
Less than 5 percent of Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System third grade students students tested at or above reading proficiency, according to 2017-18 state data. Statewide, the average for third graders testing at or above reading proficiency is 44.4 percent. In Muskegon Public Schools that same 2017-18 school year, 14.2 percent of third graders tested at or above reading proficiency, according to state data.
“I knew there were literacy challenges, but doing AmeriCorps was like a wakeup call,” said Burch, a 2008 Muskegon High School graduate who works full-time with the Kent County Intermediate School District in addition to running her tutoring business.
After serving AmeriCorps for two years, Burch went on to work for the Kent County ISD and had her hands full with that and taking care of her young son. But, despite already being incredibly busy, she wanted to do more. So, in 2017, she launched Tey’s Tutor Time with the intent of supporting the students and families she saw falling through the cracks of society.
“I’m seeing how poorly impoverished kids are treated,” Burch said. “I never want a kid to feel less than or like they’re not good enough. I’m emotionally invested in all the kids I work with.”
After launching, Tey’s Tutoring Time quickly took off as word spread about her services.
“I told people, even if you can’t afford it, we’ll figure out how to get your kids involved,” she said.
Now, with her 5×5 win, Burch plans on purchasing technology that will allow her to offer virtual tutoring sessions.
“A lot of parents are working or don’t have a car and can’t bring their kids to tutoring,” Burch said. “I want to be able to reach those kids. I also want to be able to connect with different organizations who could offer scholarships for kids who can’t afford tutoring. That’s my goal: to reach the kids who are labeled unreachable.”
‘I want to make changes for black girls turning into black women’
For Burch, she’s hoping her 5×5 Night win will inspire others—especially black girls and young black women—to follow their dreams.
“Being a woman, and being a black woman, is two strikes against you: I want to make changes for black girls who are turning into black women; I want you to see it’s possible get here,” Burch said.
“It’s possible for you to win this,” she continued, referring to 5×5 Night. “I am a girl who came from a single-parent home and didn’t have much, but I got up on that stage and won $5,000 for my business. It’s real and can be you, too.”
Of course, that’s not to say that there’s not real, and systemic, biases and racism that entrepreneurs of color face. Small business owners of color can face daunting barriers to success in the region—including limited access to capital to launch and maintain businesses. According to the most recent federal statistics, there were 795 minority-owned firms in the city of Muskegon in 2012, out of 2,436 total firms. That means that while people of color make up 43 percent of the city’s population, they represent just 32.6 percent of the businesses. That trend continues throughout Muskegon County: there were 11,566 total firms in 2012, the most recent year for which there are statistics, with 2,006 of those operations being owned by people of color.
That gap is something that Burch has long been aware of—and she’s using her recent win as a platform to address inequity in the area.
“There’s definitely a racial divide here,” she said. “You can feel it when you go downtown and go to festivals here; those are not for minorities. The changes happening in Muskegon, that’s not for us; it’s for tourists who want to come spend their money.”
“They’re building it up here, and it looks pretty—but you still have people killing each other and businesses getting robbed,” Burch continued. “We need to be talking about reality.”
However, with her win and ability to further tackle the achievement gap and empower marginalized students and families, as well as the continued success of Muskegon Heights entrepreneurs, Burch is optimistic that we’ll be able to break, or at least begin to address, deeply rooted issues like poverty and bias.
“It doesn’t matter your color; we can do this,” Burch said. “It’s we the people who are building a better world.”
Wallace, Ricco and Gonzalez, among many others, all heaped praise on Burch and her company, and the three of them emphasized Burch’s passion and commitment to her community.
“Teyondra is a gem,” Wallace said. “Her passion for literacy rivals my own, in that she understands the doors of opportunity that open to those who dare to read the writing on the wall. She saw a need and, as many residents of this county do, took matters into her own hands without waiting for a handout to remedy the issue.”
“Her win at 5×5 Night was the hand-up that not only her business needed to grow, but the city needed to witness,” Wallace continued. “She is a queen and a champion, and the youth already know that.”
Celebrating entrepreneurship in Muskegon Heights
Since 2016, the Muskegon Innovation Hub—Grand Valley State University’s business center based in downtown Muskegon that provides coaching, funding, networking, and co-working space—has hosted two 5×5 Night competitions each year. In an effort to reach entrepreneurs in marginalized areas, Ricco said they wanted to partner with leaders in Muskegon Heights to offer the contest there.
“For a long time, our focus has been reaching entrepreneurs in our underserved communities,” Ricco said. “Opportunities to get the word out about who we are and how we can help entrepreneurs is important to us.”
Laurie Supinski, a program manager at Start Garden, too emphasized the importance of meeting communities where they’re at—instead of expecting individuals in marginalized areas to come to them.
“We’ve reached out to Muskegon Heights individuals with entrepreneurs, but it was really the Innovation Hub that’s been trying to engage with Muskegon Heights and make sure Muskegon Heights understands there are resources available through the Innovation Hub,” Supinski said. “I think it was with those interactions that the Hub thought it would be nice to bring the event into Muskegon Heights, instead of encouraging residents to come over to the Innovation Hub. Even though it’s just a couple miles away, there can be an invisible barrier.”
“It’s one thing for us as an organization to say our doors are open to everybody, but just saying that doesn’t necessarily make it so; people have to believe it and feel it,” Supinski continued. “You have to show people you really mean it. We wanted to prove we’re serious about being inclusive, about being intentional, about opening up opportunities for everybody.”
Originally partnering on the 5×5 Night planning with former Muskegon Heights City Manager Jake Eckholm, who’s now the city of Muskegon’s economic development director, and Muskegon Heights Mayor Kim Sims, Ricco went on to work with Wallace on the event after Eckholm left his position in Muskegon Heights.
“Mickey did incredible work with this; he’s this ball of fire and very community focused,” said Ricco, who was so impressed with Wallace and his work on the 5×5 Night that he asked him to be the Innovation Hub’s newest advisory committee member. As a member, Wallace will be able to further shape the region’s economic landscape.
For Wallace, the event wasn’t solely an opportunity to provide the $5,000 to an entrepreneur—though that was clearly a vital piece of it—but it was a chance to place Muskegon Heights on West Michigan’s stage as a key player in growing the region’s economy. He noted that Muskegon Heights leaders were able to partner with high-profile community organizations to sponsor the 5×5 Night, including the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, Watch Muskegon, the fairly new Muskegon Heights Business Association, Brianna T. Scott, Sparrow Consulting, and others.
“We brought together those businesses to erode the barrier or stigma of inaccessibility that citizens may feel for various reasons,” Wallace said. “We intentionally put businesses in reach of the community that is thought to be marginalized. The way to build a more equitable community is by building it equitably, intentionally.”
The future of business competitions in Muskegon Heights
Everyone involved in the most recent 5×5 Night in Muskegon Heights agreed: there will be many more of these events in the future, with the Innovation Hub potentially sponsoring as many as one a year in Muskegon Heights. Additionally, Gonzalez noted local business leaders have approached them with the idea of sponsoring additional 5×5 Night contests in Muskegon Heights, though he emphasized those ideas are in the preliminary stages.
Whenever these future 5×5 Nights happen, Ricco encouraged entrepreneurs to attend them—and not just the ones in Muskegon Heights, but in the city of Muskegon, and even in Grand Rapids and Holland.
“Five thousand dollars for an early stage entrepreneur can be a real make-it-or-break-it kind of moment,” Ricco said. “I would encourage people if they have an idea to submit it. Go to one of the events. See what it’s like. We get a lot of entrepreneurs who will attend one or two of the events, which helps them be prepared if they were one of the finalists. It’s a great program; it’s a small piece of that entrepreneurial spirit here in West Michigan.”
Ricco too emphasized that the Hub provides a program called “Pitch Perfect,” which offers free counseling for any business that’s preparing to pitch an idea at an upcoming contest (as well as for funding from, say, the Muskegon Angels or another financial institution)—which he and his team at the Innovation Hub did for Burch.
After spending time with Burch on her 5×5 pitch, Ricco said he was thrilled to see her win.
“I was so excited,” Ricco said. “She’s having such a positive impact on the families and students she works with.”
And, Wallace emphasized, once the next 5×5 Night is held in Muskegon Heights, the city’s entrepreneurs will be even more ready than this time around.
“Like any record in any event, once it’s set, there are those who will dare to break it,” Wallace said. “I know that this event ignited a spirit of collective economics. Next time there will be more Muskegon Heights locals in the initial online submission, there will be more businesses registering at City Hall, there will be more networking, and there will be a better distribution of equity in wealth into generations to come.”
“This event and those to come will change the thought processes of families by encouraging them to have talks at home about what is possible as a business endeavor,” Wallace said.
In other words: get ready for many more packed rooms of people cheering on the Muskegon Heights entrepreneurs set to shape our world.
Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Images by Carbon Stories/courtesy of Start Garden, unless otherwise noted.