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Southwest Michigan’s Entrepreneurs Develop Businesses through First Path

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Do you have an idea or a problem that needs to be solved? A product that needs to be created? Have you had an idea for a business that you’ve been itching to make a reality? Do you feel that with a little guidance, you’d be able to finally launch your concept? If this sounds like you, then First Path is the perfect fit!

Join Southwest Michigan First and program partner Plywood People for a nine-week journey to help you decide in which direction you should take your idea. This course will give insight into the “who, why, and how” to build your business. Designed to help problem-solvers and entrepreneurs, you will not only be introduced to a community of support, but you’ll also get a chance to workshop your business idea.

This program has been intentionally created to cultivate a diverse ecosystem that reflects our community. We encourage anyone and everyone with an idea to take the leap to apply.

Are you ready to take the leap? Read about previous First Path participants below and apply to take your first step with First Path here.

From the UAE to the USA, Cultural Sensitivity is a Universal Need

In the mid-2000s, Cheruba Dhanaraj was called into the offices of an oil and gas company in the United Arab Emirates. The company was having difficulties with its culture and thought lapses in communication were to blame. Following Cheruba’s needs assessment, she realized the root of the problem: employees lacked cultural sensitivity for one another.

“I ended up designing a training program with cultural sensitivity workshops for different levels of employees—from the shop floor and to the managerial level,” said Cheruba.

For three months, Cheruba led different sectors of the organization through her diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops while monitoring employee productivity and attendance. To everyone’s delight, following her workshops, productivity was high and absenteeism was down. As Cheruba moved to the U.S. and continued her education, she realized local companies could benefit from a similar type of program.

To help develop her program for a local audience, Cheruba was recommended to apply for Southwest Michigan First’s entrepreneur incubator program, First Path. While participating in the program, some of Cheruba’s takeaways have been the importance of her company story and the power of community.

“I think the major piece is your narrative, your story behind the business, behind the passion. So, I think the program gave me a lot of clarity on that,” said Cheruba. “And the second one was people. People are very important period. In terms of networking and giving you the community that is required to make this dream possible”

While Cheruba completes her Ph.D. program, she is committed to developing her business strategy with the tools she’s gained through the First Path program.

“One of the things that they ask us to do is consider: what is one thing that you will do to help you move closer to your goal? Every week, even as we part as a group, I’m always thinking about that question. What is one thing that I’m doing to move closer to my goal of making this business idea happen?”

Play Space Meets Coffee Shop at Little City Play Café 

With young kids of her own at home, Beccah Kesterson understands the need for local outlets that can provide for both parents’ and kids’ needs. Beccah’s prospective business, Little City Play Café, provides the best of both worlds: a coffee café combined with a play space. But Little City Play Café has a twist.

“My take on it is just a little bit different. I see more of a play space with function for older children,” said Beccah. “So, in my space and my vision, I see pods for older kids and parents to sit at, really giving it a cohesive space for everyone.”

The deciding factor that encouraged Beccah to further explore the business was the limited opportunities available to her family during the pandemic. “I have a two-year-old and I have an almost nine-year-old stepson, and we found ourselves being really isolated and not really knowing where to go. The museum was closed, we’ve done all the trails around town, we just wanted something different.”

To help Beccah flesh out her business plan, a SCORE mentor recommended she check out Southwest Michigan First’s First Path Program.

“I joined First Path to grow the idea of a play café, and it has been a really great experience so far,” said Beccah. “Having sounding boards and getting support from complete strangers is something that I wouldn’t normally go out and find. So, creating the support group of like-minded individuals and resources has really been what I was looking for.”

Throughout First Path, Beccah said the program provided her the opportunities to really dive into her passion for her business and make concrete decisions on the next steps. While she finalizes her business plan, she has also started to consider locations and financing options.

“I think it is a really, well-oiled machine. The program is designed to get you inspired, thinking, and connecting with other people around you,” said Beccah. “I highly recommend it for anyone thinking about going into business for themselves.”

Fix Up Your Space with the Halal Handyman

Working as a handyman throughout his life, Samuel Hunter filed the articles of incorporation and officially opened Halal Handyman LLC in 2020.

“I’m trying to not be one of those businesses that collapse within the first year to five years. So, I’m working diligently to get my name out there, to get my work out there, and to get word of mouth,” said Samuel.

Although Samuel officially opened his own business in 2020, his commitment to helping people in his community adapt their spaces has been his mission since he first started helping others. “My objective is to give them some relief, give them back a smile and the comfort that things are working appropriately.”

As Samuel began the journey of starting his own business, he was referred to Southwest Michigan First’s First Path program by a friend to access mentors and resources. “I’m like a freshman, so I’m sucking up knowledge like a sponge and just trying to do what’s right,” said Samuel. “It’s not just we sit in a group and just talk. It’s literally about trying to move you forward, give you focus on what you’re doing. That’s the biggest part about it. I’m learning from everybody.”

In addition to the hard skills of developing his brand story and communication strategies, Samuel said the First Path program also helped to motivate him. “It was getting discouraging for a while. But the program has helped me to know that there’s outside help and push me a little further.”

Life-Saving Bracelets For Change

For Kristen Allen and her family, her business is more than just a product, it’s a lifesaving tool. “I have a type one diabetic daughter, so she was diagnosed when she was eight years old and now is 23. So, I’ve had this idea since she was young because as an individual with a health diagnosis where she could faint because of low blood sugar levels, she is supposed to wear medical ID jewelry all of the time. And it is so challenging to find customizable, affordable medical ID jewelry,” said Kristen.

Now, with some free time on her hands, Kristen is diving back into her dream of developing a business around her idea to create customizable, affordable medical ID jewelry. “I’ve gone down this journey a ways before,” said Kristen. “I created the business. I hired a marketing company, but I didn’t have a product.”

As she decided to reembark on her business, she decided she could use some guidance and applied for Southwest Michigan First’s First Path program.

“It is kind of a lonely journey. But, when you’re passionate about it, you find a way and that’s what has been really nice with our cohort is it’s full of those passionate entrepreneurial people that want to solve a problem.”

Throughout the program, Kristen has been able to further develop her business plan and product in ways that she wouldn’t have considered alone. “Now, I’m exploring different technology solutions,” said Kristen. “Through his encouragement, I’ve found the time and the focus to reinvigorate this idea. And I think that’s been something I’ve really learned from this process, as well, is that you need to create a community and that it’s so hard to get these ideas off the ground. It takes your dedicated effort and a group of trusted advisors that you’ve built.”

The 2021 fall session of the First Path program is brought to you by Target.

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