Keeping it local

Hanna Schulze champions small businesses at Local First.
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As executive director of Local First, Hanna Schulze puts the spotlight on local businesses in Grand Rapids.Photo by Michelle Cuppy

In June, Local First selected Hanna Schulze as its new executive director. An Ann Arbor native, Schulze moved to West Michigan while attending Grand Valley State University, graduating in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree. Starting as a part-time program assistant, Schulze has been with Local First for over eight years, working up the ranks and succeeding former Executive Director Elissa Sangalli when she stepped down last February. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Schulze has continued to lead Local First with a special emphasis on diversity and inclusion.

Grand Rapids Magazine: How has working in the service industry changed or impacted your perspective on local business?

Hanna Schulze: As many folks in ‘the industry’ will eagerly tell you, working in service truly highlights the best AND worst of humanity. My biggest takeaway from this part of my life and career has been empathy — even on those worst days, when faced with a challenging customer or situation, I pushed myself to lead with empathy and compassion for my coworkers and our customers, recognizing that everyone is fighting battles that we may never see. This lesson has been invaluable to my career as I have grown.

GRM: What makes Grand Rapids businesses unique in your eyes?

HS: Grand Rapids is an incredible place, with a deeply rooted entrepreneurial spirit. Early economic successes have benefitted our community (as have) families that have intentionally invested in our city, cementing our place as a cultural hub that far surpasses what is typical for a city our size. In my experience working across the state and country, it strikes me that many other cities look to Grand Rapids as an example of how community investment can benefit a place.

GRM: How have you adapted or been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic?

HS: The work that I do with small, independent businesses has always been extremely relationship-based, which has resulted in many close friendships with business owners across the region. In truth, my biggest personal challenge has been the heartache that I feel for my friends, family and colleagues that are navigating this crisis as entrepreneurs. Small businesses, particularly those owned by our Black and Latinx community members, have been largely overlooked by governmental assistance and financial institutions for decades, and the public health and economic crisis has compounded those barriers. I have been and will continue to advocate every day for independent businesses to be prioritized as we move through this pandemic into recovery.

GRM: What is your experience with diversity and how do you plan to implement cultural values in Local First?

HS: It is my privilege as well as my greatest challenge as a white person in a leadership role to center equity in every aspect of my life and work. My journey of learning will never be over, and it is my duty to step aside at every possible opportunity to elevate the voices of our neighbors of color and community members that have been historically marginalized. This means working with a team that prioritizes justice and equity as a current that runs through our every activity, a board of directors that enforces intentionality, and a trusted circle of friends, colleagues and partners that will continue to hold me accountable for my actions in my position of privilege.

This story can be found in the January 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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