from left: Kim Bode, Nate Koetje, J.D.
and Emily Loeks
are 20 young leaders who are shaping
the future of Grand Rapids — and beyond.
Photography by Michael Buck
in many forms: a work of art, a new cure
for disease, a construction project that
changes the face of a city.
throughout West Michigan are using their
creative impulses — in
the arts, sciences, business and civic life — to
make a mark in their communities.
were born in West Michigan or have chosen
to make it their home, the
20 people, all age 40 and under, demonstrate
the spirit of innovation that’s shaping
life throughout the region — and,
in some cases, throughout the world.
AGE: 29 ORGANIZATION: West
Michigan Science & Technology
Initiative TITLE: Marketing
Director RESIDENCE: Grand
SERVICE: Member, marketing
committees, Cattle Baron’s Ball, MichBio
and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts;
member, steering committee, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture
Park; member, Young Leaders Board, Goodwill Industries.
“I’m a workaholic,” said Kim
lot of times, I’ll work until 7 or 8 at
night, and then go home and work some more. But
I truly enjoy what we’re doing.”
As marketing director for the West Michigan
Science & Technology
Initiative, Bode handles public relations, marketing,
fundraising and graphic design for the nonprofit
group that offers resources for entrepreneurs
in the science and technology industries.
Bode works with the West Michigan Medical Device
Consortium, which offers a forum for medical
device companies to collaborate with each other.
“We’re helping them grow their customer
base and get the word out about the great things
they’re doing,” Bode said.
She also helped start the Connect2 program,
which provides networking opportunities for member
“Every day is a challenge,” said
Bode, noting that because she comes from a communications/public
relations background, she had a learning curve
when it came to the science industry. “But
it’s exciting. We’re seeing the growth
of the life sciences in West Michigan. It’s
such an exciting time to be here.”
Age: 32 COMPANY: Feyen
Zylstra TITLE: Chief Operating
Officer RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY
Grand Rapids Planning Commission; volunteer,
Schools of Hope program through Heart of West
Michigan United Way and Grand Rapids Public
Schools; graduate, Leadership Grand Rapids
Feyen Zylstra LLC takes pride in being part of
the Grand Rapids community.
“We’re on the river in an old building that
we’ve been in since before it was cool
to rehab old buildings,” said Nate Koetje,
chief operating officer for the electrical services
Despite its vintage location, the company has
a progressive ethic, and Koetje is guiding its
“We reward risk-taking and entrepreneurial behavior,” Koetje
said. “We really focus on getting into
clients’ facilities and into their minds.”
Feyen Zylstra has installed electrical systems
in such places as the JW Marriott, DeVos Place
and Van Andel Institute. The company also works
with mid-sized manufacturers and smaller businesses.
“I’m not technical in nature by any stretch,” said
Koetje, who’s been with Feyen Zylstra for
Instead, Koetje joined the company because of
its forward-thinking attitude.
“It’s a business in the core of Grand Rapids,” said
Koetje. “We have an awareness of a business’s
responsibility to the community at large.”
AGR: 31 COMPANY: Loeks
Theatres Inc. TITLE: Chief
Operating Officer RESIDENCE: Grand
SERVICE: Board member, Stepping Stones
“Watching movies and eating popcorn.”
J.D. Loeks acknowledges that’s part of
his job, but as chief operating officer of
Loeks Theatres Inc., he also leads a team of
and works on growth strategies for the company
that operates movie theaters throughout West
Loeks’ grandfather, Jack, opened his first
theater more than 60 years ago.
“I’ve always had a level of interest,” Loeks
said of joining the family business.
He worked there for a few years before leaving
the state in 2001 for graduate school. Three
years later, he came back.
“I realized I had an opportunity sitting
on a plate for me,” Loeks said.
Since then, Loeks Theatres has seen 6 percent
revenue growth, and has made the transition from
film projectors to digital cinema projectors.
“We’re now capable of putting anything
said, noting that this has opened up the theater
to use by nonprofit organizations and other groups. “It’s
enabled us to work with other community partners.”
AGE: 34 COMPANY: Loeks
Theatres Inc. Title: Director,
Education and Community Partnerships RESIDENCE: Grand
Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member,
board of directors, West Michigan Environmental
“I don’t know if I’ve seen
a similar job description at other theaters,” says
Emily Loeks of her position as director of education
and community partnerships at Loeks Theatres
Inc. “But it’s a fantastic fit.”
Loeks works with local groups to create tie-ins
between their events and programming at the Loeks
chain of theaters. When “The Human Body” appeared
on IMAX, Loeks Theatres paired that film with
the “Grossology” exhibit at the Grand
Rapids Public Museum.
In October, the chain hosted a “Pink Bucket
Project” to raise money for Susan G. Komen
for the Cure, which supports breast cancer research.
“We’re in a unique business in that
we have as wide a demographic passing through
as any business in the country,” said Loeks,
adding that this makes the theater an ideal venue
for raising awareness of issues. Her position
also helps Loeks merge her professional life
with her interest in community involvement.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to
use the business to impact a lot of the things
passionate about,” she said.
Left to right:
Kevin Stotts, Shelly Klein, Albert
and Eric Messing
AGE: 37 ORGANIZATION: Grand
Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce TITLE: Vice
President, Community Programs RESIDENCE: Grand
Junior Achievement; member, board of directors,
Guiding Light Mission; member,
Grand Rapids board, Catholic Charities West Michigan;
member, executive committee, Leadership West
Kevin Stotts had lived in several areas throughout
the state, but when he and his wife were looking
for a place to set down roots, they chose West
“Of all places in the state, I thought Grand Rapids
was the most attractive,” Stotts said.
Now Stotts plays a key role in developing the
community’s leaders. As vice president
of community programs for the Grand Rapids Area
Chamber of Commerce, he oversees the Center for
Community Leadership, whose initiatives encourage
leadership development and help area professionals
connect with each other.
Whether professionals are well-known or new
to the area, they’ll find a program that
promotes their growth and civic involvement.
“The gratifying thing is seeing the tremendous
work alumni are doing in our community,” Stotts
said, noting that Grand Rapids is an ideal venue
for the center’s work. “It’s
a ‘can-do,’ results-oriented community.
We’re excited about the way we’re
meeting the needs of Grand Rapids and its community
AGE: 36 COMPANY: k studio TITLE: Owner RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, visual
arts committee, Urban Institute for Contemporary
When Shelly Klein sees a blank surface, she
wants to make it more exciting. “I’m
interested in applying images to I-don’t-care-what,” Klein
As owner of k studio, the Grand Rapids-based
artist does just that, covering pillows, bags,
journals and wall art with her ethereal, embroidered
designs. Klein earned a painting degree from
Kendall College of Art and Design and worked
as a consultant for the contract furniture
industry before starting k studio with her
mother, Mary, five years ago.
Now, Klein’s work gets attention from
national magazines: Real Simple, People and
Better Homes and Gardens. Locally, k studio
products are sold at Home Fabrics and Underground
Business is so good, k studio recently hired
a sewer to keep up with demand.
“We’ve had an awesome five years,” Klein said. “We started
out of the gates running, and we’ve been so well received. We’re
Albert Yu Chang
AGE: 36 COMPANY: Warner
Norcross & Judd
TITLE: Associate RESIDENCE: Ada COMMUNITY
member, Chinese Association of West Michigan;
board member and corporate secretary, Asian
Health Outreach Foundation.
Albert Yu Chang was an attorney for the largest
law firm in the Philippines before moving to
the United States and enrolling at Northwestern
University. Once he’d earned his American
law degree, he accepted an offer from Warner
Norcross & Judd.
“I get to do typical bread-and-butter
legal work, but what people find more interesting
is the international part.”
As a member of the international business group,
Yu Chang works with business leaders in Asia,
helping them establish presences in Michigan.
“I’m Warner’s face to the clients,” Yu
Chang said. “I help them with issues
like dealing with government agencies, and
how to consider relationships with Michigan
Yu Chang anticipates that these opportunities
for collaboration will continue growing.
“In the past three or four years, there’s
been a greater interest in Asian companies
coming to do business here,” he said.
“I’ll be working as a lawyer until I retire — if
Age: 29 ORGANIZATION: Broadway Grand Rapids
TITLE: Executive Director RESIDENCE: East
Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, Combined
Theatre Scholarship committee, Grand Rapids
Community Foundation; volunteer, Kelly Phillips
Memorial Scholarship run.
“Nothing motivates me more than when somebody looks me in the face and
says, ‘It can’t be done,’” Eric Messing said.
As executive director of Broadway Grand Rapids, Messing embraces the challenge
of bringing high-quality shows to DeVos Performance Hall.
“I represent — and fight for — Grand Rapids on the national
stage by negotiating with New York producers to secure the most prominent shows
West Michigan audiences deserve,” he said.
After graduating from Aquinas College, Messing
became director of marketing for Circle Theatre.
He left for Wayne State University, where he
degree in theater management.
Local theatergoers might recognize Messing
from his onstage work in “Corpus
Christi” for Actors’ Theatre. Now, behind the scenes, he
hopes to provide audiences with similarly memorable performances.
“I am very passionate about what I believe in, and I believe that Grand
deserves a Broadway series in our hometown,” he said. “And with
the level of Tony Award-winning shows that our city is now attracting, BGR
is just steps away from Times Square.”
from left: John Helmholdt, Rosalynn
Jared Rodriguez and Mat Nguyen
AGE: 33 ORGANIZATION: Grand Rapids Public Schools
TITLE: Director, Communications and External
Affairs RESIDENCE: Georgetown Township COMMUNITY
SERVICE: Member, Grand Rapids Area Chamber
of Commerce policy and education committees,
Michigan School Public Relations Association,
West Michigan Public Relations Society, Neighborhood
Ventures marketing committee.
“If you see a guy with a cell phone glued
to his ear, and his hair on fire, that’s
me,” said John Helmholdt
Helmholdt has been director of communications
and external affairs at Grand Rapids Public
Schools for about a year, and in that short
time, he’s overseen major changes in
“We’ve spent the better part of
the past year bringing things into the 21st
That includes simple efforts such as collecting
e-mail addresses from parents. Major tasks
include a redesign of the district’s
newsletter, and the use of automated calls
and door-to-door visits to let parents know
about events like parent/teacher conferences.
An updated Web site is another of Helmholdt’s
projects, as is a more visible presence at
the state capital. Helmholdt’s background
as a political consultant and lobbyist influences
“We’ve started our own campaign,” Helmholdt
said of the school district. “We’re
changing the philosophy that a letter home
is all you do.”
AGE: 33 ORGANIZATION: KidsFirst TITLE: Director
RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY
SERVICE: City Commissioner (2nd Ward); Michigan State
Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control
Commission; co-chair, Kent County Domestic
Violence Community Coordinated Response Team;
board member, Michigan Professional Society
Against the Abuse of Children, Grand Rapids
Youth Boxing Foundation, Children’s
Assessment Center and Dyer-Ives Foundation;
chair, Local Advisory Committee for LISC
(Local Initiatives Support Corporation);
member, Economic Development Corp., City-School
Liaison Committee, Green Grand Rapids, Fulton
Street Farmer’s Market Canopy Committee;
serves on the Kent County Solid Waste Commission;
volunteer for Camp Compass.
When people ask Rosalynn Bliss about her vision
for Grand Rapids, she has a ready answer. “It’s
not my vision — it’s the community
As 2nd Ward commissioner, Bliss, 33, brings
a young professional voice to local politics.
“It’s important to have a diversity
of thought,” Bliss said. “There
has to be a balance between people who have
active for years, and also people who are coming
up. I hope I’m a mentor to encourage
In addition to her work with the city commission,
Bliss is director of KidsFirst, a program
at St. John’s Home that provides emergency
shelter for abused and neglected children.
That experience informs her political work,
and prompted her decision to run for office.
“Through my background in social work,
I became aware of the effect policy has on
lives,” Bliss said. “I chose to
jump in and be a part of the development process.”
AGE: 31 ORGANIZATION: Grand
Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce TITLE: Vice
President, Public Policy and Government Affairs RESIDENCE: Portland COMMUNITY
SERVICE: Football coach,
Portland Middle School; tee ball coach, Portland
Parks & Recreation Department.
Jared Rodriguez’s goal is to make sure
politicians hear the voices of West Michigan
“I have oversight of all of the chamber’s
public policy initiatives at the local, state
and federal levels,” said Rodriguez,
who serves as vice president of public policy
and government affairs for the Grand Rapids
Area Chamber of Commerce.
A variety of efforts are helping Rodriguez
advance his goal. He was involved in creating
the West Michigan Chamber Coalition, which
includes four area chambers of commerce — Grand
Rapids, Grand Haven, Holland and Muskegon.
In 2007, he also worked behind the scenes to
help repeal the state’s single business
tax, and sat in on sessions that resulted in
the current Michigan Business Tax.
“Being a part of that was monumental,” Rodriguez
This past September, Rodriguez helped organize
the first-ever West Michigan Regional Policy
Conference, which drew business leaders and
legislators to Grand Rapids.
“We’d never tried it,” Rodriguez
said. “Clearly, it’s going to increase
our voice in Lansing.”
AGE: 29 COMPANY: Worksighted
Inc. TITLE: President
RESIDENCE: Holland COMMUNITY
board of directors, Holland Young Professionals,
Holland Area Chamber of Commerce and Holland
Area Arts Council.
Mat Nguyen was wrapping up his final year
at Hope College when he and a friend, Mike
formed Worksighted Inc. in 2000. The company
provides information technology support to
small and medium-sized companies that can’t
afford their own IT departments.
“We step in and offer the flexibility
of an IT team at their disposal,” he
really is a full suite of services.”
Nguyen earned a master’s degree in business
administration from Grand Valley State University,
and now focuses on Worksighted’s business
development, while Harris handles the technical
end. In the past eight years, the company has
outgrown a few offices; its employees now work
out of a space in downtown Holland. Worksighted
also has an office in Lansing.
Despite its growth, the company’s focus
“As far as our specialty, we’ll
stick to what we’re doing,” Nguyen
want to be the best at what we do.”
right: Harrison Withers, Peter Jacob,
and Craig Webb
AGE: 35 COMPANY: Media
1 TITLE: Production
Director RESIDENCE: Grand
SERVICE: Volunteer, March of Dimes;
member at large, board of directors, West
Shores Chapter of the Society for Technical
Media 1 is a consulting company that creates
custom training programs for everyone from
call center technicians at Hewlett-Packard
to retail workers at Meijer.
“We’re experts in the way adults
Harrison Withers, the company’s production
director. “We have an incredible group
of folks who have high-level experience, and
we have an incredible breadth in terms of the
topics we address.”
The company creates computer-based training
courses and other learning systems that address
“We consult with clients to find if they
have performance gaps,” Withers said.
He oversees it all, keeping track of production,
budget and schedule. He has been involved in
computer-based training since his college days.
He spent seven years at Dominos Pizza as an
eLearning director before moving to Media 1.
That experience has helped bring Media 1 to
the forefront of its industry, but Withers
credits the company’s success to the “broad
background” of its workers.
AGE: 27 COMPANY: Peter
Jacob Design TITLE: Owner RESIDENCE: Grand
Alumni Board of Directors, Kendall College
of Art and Design; board member,
American Society of Furniture Designers;
satellite member, Saugatuck Center for the
After graduating from Kendall College, Peter
Jacob worked as a designer at Kindel Furniture
Co. in Grand Rapids.
“I really liked it, but I needed to go
in a more independent direction,” Jacob
Now, as owner of Peter Jacob Design, Jacob
collaborates with locally and nationally known
designers on a variety of projects.
He’s teamed up with Los Angeles-based
designer and HGTV host Kenneth Brown on a
series of home accessories for the QVC network.
also works with local businesses, such as
Covet Furniture and Jeup Furniture.
Hopcat patrons notice Jacob’s work every
time they step up to the wood-paneled bar;
he worked on renderings of it in collaboration
with Think Design.
Jacob subcontracts some of his graphic design
work, but otherwise he has a one-man operation.
“It’s been a huge learning curve,
but I’ve had a lot of mentors,” Jacob
said. “The reward is flexibility in who
I work with.”
AGE: 35 ORGANIZATION: Metro
Health Hospital TITLE: Director, Noninvasive
Services RESIDENCE: East Grand Rapids COMMUNITY
SERVICE: Donor, Helen DeVos Children’s
For Matthew Sevensma, medicine runs in the
family. His father and brother are doctors,
and so are his aunt and cousin.
“I’ve been immersed in it my whole
Sevensma, who followed the family tradition
by becoming a cardiologist.
He is director of noninvasive cardiovascular
services at Metro Health Hospital. “When
people hear ‘cardiologist,’ they
always think of open-heart surgeons,” he
said. Sevensma specializes in techniques such
as nuclear cardiology and echocardiography
that use minimal or no invasion to diagnose
He noted that devices formerly half as big
as a Volkswagen can now be carried around on
a laptop. The next frontier in research involves
enhancing noninvasive techniques that determine
risk factors for heart attacks.
Sevensma, who attended Hope College, then got
his medical degree from the Michigan State
University College of Osteopathic Medicine,
plans to stay on top of the latest advances.
“I dedicate all my time to what I do,” he
AGE: 39 ORGANIZATION: Van
Andel Research Institute
TITLE: Senior Scientific
Investigator RESIDENCE: Rockford COMMUNITY
SERVICE: Volunteer, Kids
Fighting Cancer camp, Mel Trotter Ministries,
Extended Hands (building homes for widows
and orphans in Guatemala); adviser, Spectrum
Health’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.
The Van Andel Research Institute is on the
cutting edge of inquiry into the genetic
and molecular origins of disease. From the
earliest days, Craig Webb has helped guide
Since joining VARI in 1999, Webb has been
involved in a variety of programs that promote
mission of discovering ways to develop new
treatments for diseases such as cancer and
Among them is ClinXus, an alliance of organizations
that focuses on the clinical trial process.
“The idea was to compete on a national
and international level,” Webb said,
noting that the organizations have more success
collectively than if they
worked as individual units.
Webb was completing his postdoctoral fellowship
at the NCI-Frederick Cancer Research and Development
Center in Frederick, Md., when the institute
approached him about joining its staff.
“I had no idea where Grand Rapids was
at the time,” said Webb, who comes from
Nearly 10 years later, Webb is proud of VARI’s
“It took a lot of time to build the infrastructure,” he
“Now that the infrastructure is accomplished,
I’m focusing on the science again.”
right: Jeff Meeuwsen, Joe Hooker,
Luisa Schumaker and Matt Jung
AGE: 40 ORGANIZATION: Urban
Institute for Contemporary Arts TITLE: Executive
Director RESIDENCE: Grand
Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member,
board of directors executive committee, ArtServe
Michigan; member, board of directors, Michigan
Association of Community Arts Agencies and
Jeff Meeuwsen became executive director of
the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts six
years ago, when the institute was in danger
of closing its doors. Now, the UICA is thriving
and anticipating a move to the Gallery on Fulton,
an entertainment, residential and retail complex
being built in downtown Grand Rapids for which
UICA will serve as anchor.
Meeuwsen was a Kendall College student and
head of his own landscape design firm when
he heard about the UICA’s troubles. He’d
spent several years on its board of directors.
“I could not imagine living in West Michigan
without the UICA,” Meeuwsen said. “I
began placing calls, and the more I learned,
the more I knew I needed to do something.
“The first two years were incredibly
acknowledged, “but by year three, we
had rebuilt the board, staff and programming — and
we were operating in the black. As I neared
my fourth year, the opportunity to move the
UICA to the Gallery on Fulton came knocking … and
here we are, on the verge of something truly
amazing for our community.”
AGE: 39 COMPANY: The
Christman Co. TITLE: Development
Services Manager RESIDENCE: Grand
COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member,
executive committee, Michigan chapter of
the National Brownfield
Grand Rapids’ life sciences infrastructure is stimulating the
West Michigan economy,
and Joe Hooker is playing a key role in that
development services manager for Christman
affiliated with The Christman Co., Hooker
oversees the Michigan
Street Development between Division and Coit
Avenues in downtown Grand Rapids. The project
includes Spectrum Health’s Lemmen-Holton
Cancer Pavilion and the Secchia Center, which
will house the Michigan State University
College of Human Medicine.
who also oversees construction of a building
on Front Street
that will house
offices for Plante & Moran, said the
projects reflect a key philosophy of The
“We have a corporate commitment to urban
For Hooker, who was born and raised in East
Grand Rapids, the chance to help revitalize
his community is personally rewarding, as well: “My
history is all here.”
AGE: 27 ORGANIZATION: West
Michigan Center for Arts and Technology TITLE: Executive
Director RESIDENCE: Grand
SERVICE: Member, board of directors,
Local First and Arbor Circle.
When Luisa Schumacher saw a posting for the
executive director position at the West Michigan
Center for Arts and Technology, she visualized
herself in the role so intensely, she got it.
“It’s a lot more inspiring than
what I expected,” said Schumacher just
a few months after becoming head of the organization
that provides art and career training programs
for urban youth and underemployed adults. “One
thing I didn’t anticipate was falling
in love with the people we serve.”
Schumacher previously was deputy finance director
for the House Democrats. Looking for a change
of pace, she accepted positions at Goodwill
Industries of Greater Grand Rapids, then at
Metro Health. Both opportunities helped Schumacher
in her current role by showing her the traits
regional employers seek in potential workers.
Now, the Center for Arts and Technology is
working toward becoming an accredited institution,
and is establishing partnerships with other
community groups. Schumacher anticipates success
in both areas.
“We’re an organization that is
really looking toward the future,” she
is the coolest place in the world.”
AGE: 34 COMPANY: Comfort
Research TITLE: President
RESIDENCE: Ada COMMUNITY
in Comfort Research’s “Books
for Chairs” school reading program;
donor, Ronald McDonald House and the Boys & Girls
A broken beanbag and falling-apart sofa were
all the inspiration Matt Jung and his friend
Daniel “Chip” George needed to
start their own business.
“We filled up the beanbag with parts
of the sofa cushions,” said Jung. He
and George made additional prototypes and showed
to friends. “The reaction was incredible.”
From that start 10 years ago, Comfort Research
has evolved into a 75-person company that produces
the signature Fuf Chair, in addition to other “alternative
seating” products. Comfort Research sells
its chairs wholesale to stores such as Wal-Mart,
Target and JC Penney.
The company collaborates with Vista Ventures
of Holland. Jung is president and George is
CEO, but Jung notes the titles have little
“By no means is it two guys doing it
all. We have an awesome team here, and I’m
blessed with great business partners,” Jung
“I believe very much in what we’re