In 2015, Stephanie Dolly and her children flew from Atlanta to Grand Rapids to live closer to family. She did not have a job waiting for her — all she had was an idea and $40 to invest. SpringGR empowered her to take her idea for a custom cake and sweet treats bakery, Dolly’s Delights, from dream to reality. According to Arlene Campbell, the grassroots nonprofit’s chief creator of opportunities, Dolly is now known as the “Willy Wonka of Grand Rapids.” In April 2018, Start Garden chose Dolly as one of its 100 finalists in its “100 Ideas” competition, earning her $1,000 to invest in her business.

“She basically had everything against her, no money, nothing,” Campbell says. “She is a great story of drive and tenacity. She didn’t allow obstacles to hold her back.”

Dolly is also a great story of SpringGR’s approach to launching Grand Rapids area entrepreneurs into successful small businesses. Its 12-week business training experience teaches people with ideas, like Dolly, who want to start and succeed in their own businesses. The coursework relies on the CO-STARTERS curriculum developed by a similar entrepreneurial training program based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In addition to meeting one evening each week, each participant meets one-on-one weekly with a business coach who helps them dial in on the specifics of their own business idea.

“We’re a grassroots business training program,” Campbell says. “We teach the foundations of business, finance, and marketing, and we pair each student with a business coach.”

In the five years since SpringGR was founded, 313 area entrepreneurs have graduated the course to establish 206 businesses and create 257 jobs.

“We work with people who are at the beginning level. Generally, programs help a more mature entrepreneur — you need a business plan, numbers, a prototype,” says Attah Obande, director of dream fulfillment. “At SpringGR, the only requirement is to have a business idea. If you’ve got an idea, come to us. We will help you move it forward.”

Obande notes that a third of the past year’s Start Garden’s 5x5 Night winners were SpringGR graduates, as well as 14 of its 100 "Big Idea" finalists.

SpringGR offers continuing support to program graduates through a five-week alumni course and promotion of graduate businesses on its website. In addition, alumni form strong relationships that provide an enduring connection for support and networking. For example, a group of eight SpringGR graduates came together to host a successful, minority-focused wedding expo, “Tying The Knot,” at the Richard App Gallery in October 2017.

“It’s really fun to watch them support one another, network. It’s grassroots for sure. It just kind of happens,” Campbell says. “They come in not knowing each other and leave as friends. They learn that ‘I really need to surround myself with other like-minded entrepreneurs so I can have the support I need to move my business forward.’ It’s exciting.”

SpringGR is still accepting applications for its two, 12-week fall business training courses. On Monday evenings, the course will take place at The Goei Center and Wednesday evenings as part of the Restorers, Inc. programming at Madison Square Church. The course costs $100. Dinner and childcare are provided.

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor