There are few Grand Rapidians who seemingly have their hands in as many endeavors as Jonathan Jelks.
All his efforts are intentionally developed as well, not only to fit his own personal life and where he envisions himself but where he believes the greater Grand Rapids and Michigan communities can go.
“I can never feel any true satisfaction in my business endeavors until I can make those moves translate into uplifting my community,” Jelks said. “As of 2015, Grand Rapids was rated the second-worst city for African Americans economically in the country. I don’t sleep well at night knowing the probabilities for Black youth in our town, especially when that same publication and others rate us as the best mid-size city to live and raise a family in. In a place where we have robust advanced manufacturing, Medical Mile and an emerging tech industry, we have to figure out how to ensure the rising tide lifts all.”
Jelks has seven ventures stretching across four Michigan communities and there is plenty more in sight. His businesses include Motu Viget Spirits, Motu Lakeshore Wine Bar/Prohibition Cocktail Bar & Lounge, The Botanical Co. Dispensary Middleville, Sip Coffee and Cocktails, GR USA Apparel Company, Fields Cannary and the Midwest Tech Project. The businesses range from alcohol manufacturing to hospitality and cannabis to technology — and span from Muskegon to Grand Rapids to Detroit.
Growing up, Jelks had his parents to look up to; both were first-generation college students. His mother, Mari Beth Johnson-Jelks, founded her own private law practice in Grand Rapids. She ended up as an executive within the city of Grand Rapids and now is vice president of the Grand Rapids Public Museum. She “instilled and modeled” discipline and encouraged tunnel vision for career execution, Jelks said.
His father, Dr. Randal Jelks, helped shape the way he looks at the broader world, sharpening his world view and his understanding of politics and community.
“His civil rights and social justice advocacy are what inspired me to want to not only work hard to try and become successful, but it embedded in me the need to give back and create opportunities for others from underserved communities,” Jelks said.
Organizations: Motu Viget Spirits, Motu Lakeshore Wine Bar /Prohibition Cocktail Bar & Lounge, The Botanical Co. (BOCO) Dispensary Middleville, Fields Cannary, Sip Coffee and Cocktails, GR USA Apparel Company, The Midwest Tech Project
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids
Biggest Career Break: “I have not had a biggest career break yet in my opinion. The business momentum myself and partners are receiving is a culmination of working hard for years, finding ways to source new opportunities, as well as pursuing our passions. Each entrepreneurial endeavor is a step in the right direction because we learn new things about the ecosystem. It’s the continual process and evolution that are the ‘watershed’ moments for me. The so-called big break has yet to happen. We are learning how to become better entrepreneurs through experience.”
Even with two solid parental figures, Jelks still was distracted by his neighborhood. He grew up on Sherman Street in southeast Grand Rapids, before the area embarked on the recent gentrification.
He said his direct block was calm, but the overall neighborhood was turbulent, with drugs and guns a common sight. As an older millennial, Jelks was one of the last generations to spend a lot of time outside without the constant draw of the Internet and social media, learning through his own adventures.
“There were a lot of distractions that could take you off the beaten path,” Jelks said. “Our particular block was like being in the eye of a storm or tornado, very calm, but significant instability in the surrounding area. Luckily, I had a great peer group who encouraged and supported me. Some of my friends growing up weren’t so lucky.
“I was challenged by the fact Grand Rapids was a well-run city on the precipice of great things, but that historically had excluded Black people from wealth building and ownership opportunities. Unfortunately, these are still issues we deal with today.”
Once Jelks was able to envision his future as a young man, he knew making his own wealth would be best. He knew entrepreneurship was the key to attain his own goals. Hip hop moguls like P. Diddy, Nas, Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Russell Simmons helped show him a viable path to corporate America.
“Those guys, to me, were like what Berry Gordy, Joe Kennedy, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford were to previous generations,” he said.
Now, with more than half a dozen of his own ventures, Jelks said the variety in his businesses is by design.
“Diversification is a safety net,” he said. “If one industry collapses you have other revenue streams to anchor you while the market changes. I was always taught never have all of your eggs in one basket. My philosophy is spread out and secure yourself and your family.
“If nothing else, the economic downturn in the late 2000s and the great pandemic of 2020 reinforced those lessons.”
Likewise, Jelks has gone into business with a great number of partners. That helps mitigate risk and brings new ideas to the table, which in turn helps all the other ventures and partners.
“Different partners help you to lessen the risk,” Jelks said. “They provide ideas and have strengths where you may be lacking. Never underestimate having a sounding board, or a consigliere who can help advise you through your emotions to make the best business decision. From resources (and) political connections to the creative side of things like marketing and branding, when you have strong partnerships the problem-solving that all businesses deal with is less of a weight.
“It’s so much fun making moves and money with people whose company you enjoy. Partnerships also bring about accountability. I’ve made so many mistakes over the years and my partners have been able to help me through those challenges strategically.”
At 37, there’s no slowing down in sight for Jelks. Once he started on his entrepreneurial journey, he saw the good that it does, not just for himself, but for everyone in his community and the entire city.
The good news for Jelks is the more businesses he starts and the further those ventures reach, like Motu Viget’s strong sales in Detroit, the more communities he can help grow. Beyond his own entrepreneurial journeys, however, Jelks does hope to launch a venture capital entity in the future with his variety of partners.
Not only does he hope to make some large-scale investments, he also hopes to make some micro investments through the venture firm as well. From his own experience, Jelks knows small businesses are incredibly important and the backbone of a business community.
He also said bringing more minority figures into the tech industry is an important goal.
“In the words of the great Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, I can’t stop and won’t stop,” Jelks said. “At this point serial entrepreneurship is a way of life. The end game for me is to create as many opportunities as possible not just for my family but for others. The creation of new ventures is not about feeding my ego or just trying to get rich.
“It’s about building community, enriching people with experiences and helping our region evolve.”
Through all his efforts, Jelks said he won’t feel truly successful until his efforts translate into uplifting the entire community. Grand Rapids, too, likely has held Jelks and his cohorts back.
“I’m dedicated to try and build sustainable businesses that positively impact the community in my hometown,” he said. “Truthfully, if me and some of my business partners were in Detroit or Houston, cities where African American upward mobility is embraced, we would be much further along, flouring at another level.
“The struggle in Grand Rapids is there haven’t been any pipelines created for more vulnerable communities to access the jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities of the future.”