Start Garden celebrates 10 years of elevating West Michigan entrepreneurs this year and is looking back on five years of pivoting toward elevating minority business leaders.
The organization that initially focused on high-tech and high-growth industries, began diversifying it’s portfolio in 2017 and started by creating a diverse co-leadership model to ensure all resources were provided to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, age, gender or type of business ideas.
Jorge Gonzalez and Darel Ross were hired as co-directors in February 2017, and since then, Start Garden has been intentional and targeted toward a more diverse and inclusive entrepreneurship ecosystem.
The 5×5 and 100 pitch competitions targeted diverse neighborhoods and were presented in the Spanish language to ensure everyone has a shot at entrepreneurship and wealth creation.
Since 2017, Start Garden gave over 40 Latino entrepreneurs over $300,000 in capital through the 5×5 pitch competition and 100 initiative.
One of the 40, Paola Andrea Carlson, started a hobby two years ago that would grow into a successful business thanks in part to Start Garden.
Carlson used to make gift baskets and chocolate covered strawberries for friends and family before they suggested she turn it into a business. Carlson pitched her idea to expand her business, Pochis Sweet Designs, to add more products, such as macarons and desserts, to the 5×5 competition and won in January 2021.
“My inspiration is to be a successful Latina entrepreneur that may be able to create wealth for me and my daughter, giving us the financial liberty to enjoy life, but also to give back to my community, specially to help single mothers head households,” Carlson said.
That same year, Carlson became the only Latina to win Start Garden’s 100 ideas competition, when she proposed importing products from Colombia, such as coffee and candies.
Thanks to Start Garden, Pochis Sweet Designs has been part of ArtPrize; the Grand Rapids International Beer, Wine and Food Festival; the Professional Golf Tournament Meijer LPGA; and soon will enter all 258 Meijer stores with its imported Colombian products, Carlson said.
“Start Garden, by having bilingual and bicultural staff, gives us Latinos the opportunity to have access to financial and intellectual resources in our own language, and I personally can attest that my business Pochis Sweet Designs would not be as successful as it is today thanks to the $20,000 that I won in 2021,” she said.
Luis Chen turned his passion for gardening and healthy foods into a composting business using nature’s garbage disposal: worms. “One day while throwing away my food scraps, I realized I was throwing away valuable resources for the garden and contaminating the environment by sending them to the landfill,” Chen said. “I couldn’t find a residential composting service in our city so I decided to start Wormies.”
Wormies feeds food, farm and yard waste to worms to produce castings, which are a natural fertilizer and soil amendment.
Chen first pitched his idea to Start Garden’s 5×5 in 2017 but did not win. He tried again and won the competition in 2020. He also won The 100 ideas competition in 2019.
“The financial support from 100 Ideas helped me restore an old greenhouse to move my operation into,” he said. “The funding from 5×5 helped with the purchase of soil mixing machine and to create a line of soil blends with our own compost.
“Start Garden provided an audience to promote my idea and also provided access to community resources for the startup phase of my business.”
Soldadera Coffee’s fighting spirit propelled the company onto the national scene, but its first victory took place in 2018 when the family startup won 5×5 and The 100.
“Soldadera is inspired by family and the fighting spirit of the Soldadera (female soldiers),” said co-founder Gabriela Rodriguez. “A trip to Mexico restored the memories of our grandmother, who once created cafe de olla (coffee from a clay pot) for the community.”
Soldadera Coffee’s original recipe, Cafe de Olla, a blend of coffee and tea herbs, was inspired by the coffee from a clay pot that originated from female soldiers during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s.
The company since has landed drinks on store shelves in Meijer’s Bridge Street Market, Kingma’s Market, Art of the Table, and many more places. It also secured deals with SpartanNash and Gordon Food Service and this year entered a deal with Meijer to sell product in Meijer-brand supermarkets.
Angel Cruz and his digital consulting firm, Aztech, won Start Garden’s 5×5 competition in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company won by proposing an idea to assist nonprofits and small businesses that are frequently overlooked in developing a digital presence.
“Since Aztech was founded by first- and second-generation immigrants, there is an opportunity to grow a digital company that naturally values and benefits from diversity and collaborative culture,” Cruz said. “Additionally, there is a chance to meet the demands of a market of larger companies looking to maintain engagement with younger, more diverse user bases and a demographic of individuals who are 80% more likely to require expert digital services.”
Cruz also was a finalist in the 100 ideas competition every year for the past three years.
“If you want to win, you must give a good presentation and ensure that your product/service is well defined,” he said. “Even though I didn’t win the $20,000, I’ve gained a wealth of knowledge and contacts. … Being in the Start Garden space has connected us with so many companies and resources that I now feel privileged, but I always remember how hard our team worked to get here.”
While not new to the Latina business landscape, Navarro’s Mexican Takeout also is a Start Garden success story. The 40-year-old family-owned restaurant is in its third generation of leadership and has gone through several transformations in its history.
The restaurant and supermarket was founded in 1978 by Angel Luis and Connie Navarro, who grew up working as migrant workers, picking crops from fields throughout the U.S. When they became business owners, they were able to generate employment opportunities for themselves, family members and neighbors.
In 1985, Francisca, their eldest daughter, bought the business at age 18. Over the years, the business grew and became a take-out-only restaurant in the heart of Muskegon Heights.
Francisca passed away from Leukemia in 2020, her daughter Marisela Sierra and her husband Felix took over in 2021.
Sierra pitched an idea to expand Navarro’s into food distribution with its tamales to Start Garden’s 5×5.
“The tamales Navarro’s make are unique because we use the ancient mesoamerican production process called Nixtamalization and stone grind the corn for our tamales in-house,” she said.
Sierra also was a finalist in The 100 ideas competition in 2021. Although she did not win, she said the biggest takeaway for her as an entrepreneur was learning about and connecting with so many local support organizations.
“Being a part of Start Garden has helped me increase my business viability on the Lakeshore and helped me maintain a steady path of growth in sales,” Sierra said. “Working with Start Garden helped me explore my options for the path to get my tamales into retail stores. With their help and other support organizations, I have been able to start selling our frozen tamales at local Farmer’s markets while I continue to improve my packaging and production capacity.”
For Felisha Rodriguez, simply learning to embrace her naturally curly hair turned into a business calling. “Throughout my entire life, I always had to hear my mother, aunts and women at the hair salons say ‘para moños bonitos hay que aguantar jalones’ as they pulled and tugged at my hair. Translated: ‘for nice hair, you have to withstand the pain.’ And of course, nice hair meant having it as straight and smooth as could be.”
Rodriquez’s sister, however, embraced her curly hair and encouraged her to do the same.
“It took me almost a decade to listen to her advice, but late is better than never, and I am so glad I did,” Rodriguez said. “She was a big inspiration for me, and so I dedicated Wear Your Curls to her.”
Wear Your Curls began as an Instagram page to promote the love of natural hair and for Rodriguez to share tips through trial and error when it came to styling her own hair. But she said she had to make a bigger impact.
Rodriguez came up with a product to help preserve her curls while she slept and cut back on morning routine time. She shared the CurlCase on social media, which resulted in interest from followers and inspired her to turn it into a fully fledge product.
She pitched the CurlCase to the 5×5 competition and won $5,000 in 2019. The CurlCase then was proposed that same year in Start Garden’s 100 Ideas and won $21,000.
Rodriguez continued to experience success for the CurlCase in 2021, when she won the 5×5 All-Stars competition.
“I was ready to hire my first employees and purchase a very expensive heat press machine to cut back on time and labor, and yet double the speed of making these,” she said. “To make this happen, I needed more capital. I won $25,000 in June of 2021 and was able to do just that with the money.
“I love the impact that Start Garden is making in the community, but especially with minorities. It goes without saying that minorities face a lot of inequities in this country. For Latinos, you sometimes face more/different disparities, because you can run into language barriers or legal status issues depending on your circumstances. Seeing the outreach and the efforts Start Garden makes in these communities, such as hosting the 5×5 in Spanish periodically and having a director who is Latino and speaks Spanish fluently, speaks volumes.”
Haz clic para leer en Español: Start Garden nutre a la próxima generación de empresarios latinos