By Jeff Barrett, CEO, Barrett Digital
But that meant I didn't spend much time in Grand Rapids, my hometown. It's a growing city named the best city in America for craft beer and ranked in the Top 10 nationally in Fastest Growing Economies, third in the nation for First-Time Home Buyers and has America's Hottest Zip Code.
Like top startup city Columbus, Ohio, Grand Rapids has a diverse economy not dependent on any one industry.
The city's roots are in office furniture. Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth are all within thirty minutes of downtown Grand Rapids. It's home to regional grocery giant Meijer And Amway as well.
Entrepreneurs have thrived here for over 100 years. It's a city never content with where it is seen among the hierarchy of American cities, constantly reinventing, always with something to prove.
Here's why you should take a look at Grand Rapids.
1. Grand Rapids tackles big ideas.
When I toured Steelcase we barely talked about furniture. Instead we talked about AI, their partnership with Microsoft and how their customers see them now as workplace consultants rather than just a furniture maker.
The future of work is a hot topic for the Fortune 500. Steelcase leading in this space for some of the largest companies in the world brings strategic partnerships to Grand Rapids.
Craft beer is also pulling strong international companies and interest.
Kalamazoo-based Bell's and Founders have been named the top two craft breweries in America for the past two years. Founders, a brewery located in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, grew by 34 percent and outproduced Bell's for the first year in its history.
Craft beer makes up 15 percent of the overall beer market but Founders has its sight set beyond that. Co-Founder and CEO Mike Stevens said, "The American consumer is ready for new beer brands that they can believe in and are authentic to its core. Now more than ever, the American beer landscape is poised for change."
Tackling future offices and the other 85% of the beer market, like Steelcase and Founders, elevates a city nationally.
2. Grand Rapids isn't afraid to fail.
It starts with its city leaders. The DeVos family co-founded Amway and own the Orlando Magic.
"Creativity and innovation many times means being unafraid to try things and fail. That's often how you get the best ideas." said Dick DeVos.
His father Richard DeVos created Amway, Dick has made his impact through philanthropy and growing Grand Rapids' infrastructure. And the third generation is focused on creating more opportunities for entrepreneurs and artists.
"We're obviously proud of our son, Rick, for following his vision and creating ArtPrize, 5X5 nights and other initiatives, which has played a role in unlocking some of the creative culture in the area over the last 10 years."
This culture of risk-taking is seen everywhere.
Rosalynn Bliss, the city's first female mayor, has lead a charge to restore the rapids. That five-year project will make Grand Rapids a tourist destination for outdoor adventurers. Cities like Richmond and Chattanooga have already seen strong investment from similar efforts.
Birgit Klohs, President and CEO of The Right Place, Inc has led public/private partnerships to grow the profile of the city. She has secured investment in large arenas, convention centers, manufacturing and the airport-keeping Grand Rapids one step ahead, continuing with current pushes in healthcare.
The Grand Rapids Chamber created a new open collaboration center, similar to what Capital One has done with cafes, to make it "a benefit of membership versus an overhead expense for the organization," said Rick Baker, President and CEO.
3. Generations of philanthropists continue to elevate the city.
The first month I lived in Grand Rapids, Peter Secchia told me there were literal tumbleweeds in the downtown in the 1970's. The DeVos and Van Andel families (co-founders of Amway), Secchia, the former CEO of Universal Forest Products, and other leaders took on the challenge of changing the perception of Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids now has two national medical research facilities, the Van Andel Institute and Secchia Center. And if you are wondering how real this love of city and influence is, this group convinced Michigan State University to move their entire College of Medicine from East Lansing to Grand Rapids.
That's over an hour away but Grand Rapids has a top-ten health system in Spectrum Health, the state-of-the art Helen DeVos Children's Hospital and a rapid expansion of jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in its Medical Mile.
Dr. Roger Jansen, Spectrum Health's Chief Strategy Officer, is leading a $6 billion company's innovation efforts. The newly formed Spectrum Health Ventures manages a $100 million dollar investment fund that is already making investments (unfortunately I can't disclose yet) that will continue to elevate Spectrum Health and Grand Rapids as a destination for healthcare.
If you're an entrepreneur in healthcare there is no better time or place to be than Grand Rapids right now. The systems need changing, the demand is growing and there will be both low and high-tech solutions that solve billion-dollar problems.