Attah Obande is the director of dream fulfillment at SpringGR, an organization devoted to helping small businesses in Grand Rapids reach their full potential. The SpringGR program is divided into two parts — in-class training and post-class business development.
“Our class starts with learning their learning style, and then we tap into everything from identifying your customer, to crafting the right kind of message, to how to start small and grow your business idea into the vision that you have for it,” Obande said. “It’s a 12-week training class, but then we follow that 12 weeks of training with at least two years of support. When you go through a class like SpringGR, it’s easy to have this mountaintop experience — you’ve done this great thing, you’ve accomplished this feat, but then once you get out, life happens. We wanted to be able to support our entrepreneurs even through that.”
At its core, SpringGR seeks to help local, minority-owned businesses flourish, though the program is open for anyone to apply.
“SpringGR, our focus is minorities and being able to come alongside them and give them the tools they need to be able to launch and run a successful business in a city like Grand Rapids,” Obande said. “We have our classes hosted in different areas, and we try to put them in areas where there are large minorities as a way to take away barriers.”
Though it’s inspirational and custom-made, director of dream fulfillment is a title Obande doesn’t take lightly.
“We have two co-directors — me, as the director of dream fulfillment, and Arlene Campbell, who is the chief creator of opportunities,” he said. “Our original titles were director of business development and program director, and we just thought, ‘Those are cool, but we want to have fun titles.’ We take them seriously, but we want to show our entrepreneurs that we have fun,” he continued. “My specific role focuses on post-class. Once they graduate, my role comes into play with how I help them to connect with other resources in the city, whether that’s individuals or organizations, and making sure they have access to the things that they need and moving forward from there.”
Before SpringGR, Obande worked in banking for 10 years. Back in those days, he got his first taste of working with small businesses, but it wasn’t all he hoped it would be.
“We want to see African Americans, Latinos, Asians and anyone in-between say, ‘I can start a business, and this is a great place for me to
“Businesses are like people’s babies,” he said. “I mean, when you hear an entrepreneur talk about their business idea, there’s a ton of passion behind it. When I was working at the bank, people would bring business loans to me and business plans and the whole nine yards, and I could look at them and say, ‘Hey, I see your passion. I understand and everything; however, your business plan is not ready,’” he added. “And I just felt like I was killing people’s dreams.”
So, Obande left banking behind in search of a new path. In 2014, he was recruited to join SpringGR’s pilot program as a business coach and saw the effects of the course first-hand.
“During that first pilot, I was sitting with an entrepreneur, and we’re halfway through the program, and she looks up from across the table, and she’s like, ‘I actually think this is possible. I actually feel like I’m getting past my fears,’” he said. “And so for her, it was a lightbulb moment, but it was a lightbulb moment for me as well because at this point in time, I was like, ‘This is the first time I think that she isn’t identifying herself as just somebody with an idea, but she is actually identifying herself as somebody that is an entrepreneur that is going to birth something that is going to be of affect.’”
Where he once had to deny entrepreneurs the funds they needed to build their small businesses, now he could give them a leg up.
“Dreams have become a big thing for me ever since I left the banking world,” Obande said. “In transitioning to SpringGR, I felt like now this is my opportunity — as opposed to killing dreams — to help give people the resources they need to be able to bring those dreams to life.”
Though COVID-19 threatens small business as we know it, SpringGR is doing everything possible to help keep those dreams alive.
“We’ve seen a lot of relief efforts that are out there, but one of the things we’re finding is that a lot of those efforts were just not trickling down to our entrepreneurs because they’re smaller businesses,” Obande said. “We have been able to pull from our operating budget to create a small relief grant for our entrepreneurs.”
In the wake of COVID-19, there’s plenty of work to be done, and Obande is hoping to see more minority-owned businesses thrive
in the city.
“I’m originally from Nigeria, but Grand Rapids is now home away from home,” he said. “Seeing that statistic of Grand Rapids being the second-best city to start a business — I love to see that. But when we know that only touches one group of people … I believe our work is important because we want to see Grand Rapids become the second-best city to start a business for everybody. We want to see African Americans, Latinos, Asians and anyone in-between say, ‘I can start a business, and this is a great place for me to do that.’”
There’s a lot of uncertainty about what comes next after COVID-19, but Obande urges small business owners to be as flexible as possible through these tumultuous times.
“Be nimble,” he said. “The people that remain rigid during this time are the ones that aren’t going to be able to, unfortunately, come out of this on the other side. Pay attention to what exactly is happening in the climate and be able to pivot just enough to be able to still bring in revenue and still maintain your identity.”