Author Archives: Samantha Suarez

Samantha Suarez

About Samantha Suarez

Samantha is the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s resident Communications Specialist.

Member Spotlight: RC Caylan Atelier

Filipino fashion designer RC Caylan first migrated to Grand Rapids for love. Today, he has a new dream: to bring Grand Rapids into the spotlight as a city of fashion.

Born in Iligan City and raised in Batangas City, Philippines, RC grew up close to his grandmother, who was a seamstress. Constantly surrounded by sewing machines, pattern papers, and scissors, he aspired to be a designer someday. Of course, it would take some time, lots of hard work, and a little good luck to get there.


Back in the Philippines, RC worked as a cosmetologist in the pageanting industry. “I was kind of a gay stereotype,” he joked. Later on, he worked as a spa manager for a cruise ship. It was there where he met his future husband. “He was one of the guests on the cruise, and he had me exclusively do all of his treatments. He saw me every day and got almost every treatment we offered!” The two became a couple by the end of the 8-day cruise. “It was like a Titanic moment,” he recalls. After a year of long distance, RC made the move to Grand Rapids to be with his now-husband in 2012. Shortly thereafter, he decided to pursue a career as a fashion designer.

Since his big move, RC received his associate degree in Fashion & Merchandising from Grand Rapids Community College in 2015, interned with big-name designers in Hollywood, and went on to showcase his work in runway shows in San Francisco, Detroit, and even Rome Fashion Week. Finally, his studio RC Caylan Atelier, located at 80 Ottawa Ave, Suite 308, came to life in 2016.

Today, RC crafts trendy creations inspired by modern and classic aesthetics blended with functionality. With exquisite attention to detail and quality, his goal is to make a masterpiece out of every project – whether it’s a special occasion gown, a wedding dress, or anything else. He also emphasizes the importance of intimate consultations to ensure he captures clients’ personalities through his designs. “Everything I do is custom-made for my clients’ wants, needs, and dreams,” he said. “I’m just here to bring that to life.”


RC Caylan receives a standing ovation at the end of “An Enchanted Evening,” his first solo show

Most recently, RC had his first solo fashion show entitled An Enchanted Evening. The event took place at the JW Marriott Hotel in Downtown Grand Rapids on September 15, 2017. Almost 300 attended. “It was the grand launch of my brand here in Grand Rapids. Before that, not that many people knew who I was and what I do,” said RC. “It was great that not only was my brand recognized on a large scale, but I was also able to give back to the community!” An Enchanted Evening benefited the American Cancer Society and Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, Grand Rapids.


Photo by David Specht

How did it feel to plan and execute your first successful solo show (An Enchanted Evening)?

I was overwhelmed! I never expected so many people to come. It was the proudest moment in my career. I’ve been to Rome fashion week and shows in Detroit and San Francisco – and that was all amazing, but to have a fashion show just for me with all the chairs filled up, seeing everyone enjoy themselves was even better!

What’s the most satisfying part of your job?

When I make something for my clients and they’re completely happy with it. That’s the greatest satisfaction to me. That’s why I display all the Thank You Cards from my customers on my office wall!

What are the biggest challenges of your job?

Oh, the struggle is real every day! Putting up this business and introducing myself to this community as a designer, and especially as an immigrant, was really hard.


One reason RC chose his studio’s location was superstitious. “I’m Filipino and we tend to be superstitious,” he explained. “I like the address. The suite is 308, so it ends with an infinity sign. The street address is 80 Ottawa, so it starts with infinity too. It’s never ending – like a never-ending opportunity!”

What do you love about Grand Rapids?

Without question, the first reason is that my husband is from here. Second, if you’re an immigrant, you’re always told that the USA is the land of dreams, but to me, Grand Rapids is the city of opportunity. It has so much to offer. This city is growing more and more every day, and there’s so much potential for anyone. Third, I love the cold weather.

What are your thoughts on Grand Rapids’ current fashion scene?

It’s coming up! Even though we’re known for being very conservative, there’s definitely potential. I see more and more people every day moving up in the way they dress. I take pride in representing a smaller city like Grand Rapids. As a designer, that’s one of my goals: To show everyone that we can be as trendy as Parisians and New Yorkers.

Why did you decide to become a member of the Chamber?

As a small business owner and also being new in the community, being part of an organization like this is great. You can use their resources to help grow your brand. It’s also a great thing to have to meet new people and make connections. I’m also trying to learn how to make my business more sustainable. Right now, my marketing is all word-of-mouth, which is very helpful, but I need to do something more if I want to grow.


We at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce congratulate RC Caylan and wish him continued success!

Do you know any members of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber that deserve a feature? Email and they just might be our next Member Spotlight!

Member Spotlight: Preferred Construction Group

In the heart of the booming construction industry is a company that makes more than just buildings. Troy Yarbrough started Preferred Construction Group (PCG) in 2011 with the vision of providing unique construction and remodeling for the medical and education sectors – all while making a positive impact on the community.

It was not an easy road for PCG to become the established company it is today. Despite Troy’s over two decades of industry experience, it took a big leap of faith to start a business with just one man, one truck, and one idea.

Today, PCG has numerous projects with their major clients, including Spectrum Health and Grand Valley State University, and utilizes many building partners and subcontractors from all over the Grand Rapids region. Their renovated facility, formerly a fire station, is located at 1945 Kalamazoo Ave. SE.

With a team focused on reducing intrusive and disruptive renovations in occupied spaces, as well as providing innovative services to meet all customer needs, PCG has proven to be so much more than “just another construction company.”


The PCG Building

“I like to define PCG as a ‘great company that does great work, which happens to be a minority-owned company,’” Troy explained. Another major vision he had for PCG was to be a minority-owned business that gave other minorities the opportunity to spotlight their abilities in the construction industry. A big believer in giving back to the community, Troy is an active member of the Chamber’s West Michigan Minority Contractors Association, wherein he mentors minority subcontractors.

Troy and his partners, Robert Johnston and Ellis McClain, remain focused on growth, boasting a strong team of 16+ employees. Troy’s dedication to building leaders within the organization is evident through the company’s continuous encouragement for furthering education and awarding certifications.

When he’s not answering emails or running his team, Yarbrough enjoys golfing, spending time with his wife and his three kids, and working on carpentry projects at his home workshop. He also finds time to continue his professional development through the Chamber’s CEO & Management Roundtable Program. This Chamber offering is an intimate, peer-to-peer learning program focused on Executives and CEOs. “The discussion in the program meetings are instrumental in assisting with making wise business decisions,” Troy says.


What’s the most satisfying part of your job?

“It brings me great pleasure to see the smiles on the faces of clients when a project is completed. There is nothing more satisfying than the reassurance of a job well done!”


You already know that Troy enjoys golf, but did you know he likes to mix business in the golf course too? He always says, “A bad day on the golf course is better than a good day at the office.”

You’ve been a member of the Chamber since 2012. How has it helped you?

“The Chamber has many beneficial resources which have enabled me to be a better businessman. It has been instrumental in giving small businesses a big voice in the Grand Rapids area. The value for us is knowing that we are not alone but are part of a much larger group of companies that share common goals. I also value the opportunity to meet other business owners. The Chamber can be an excellent vehicle for new businesses to make an impact in the community.”


PCG is one of the nominees for the 2017 EPIC Award for Minority-Owned Business of the Year! Learn more about that here.

Can you share one of your company’s working philosophies?

“A motto I have instilled in my team is ‘failure is not an option.’ We may need to work a little bit harder to arrive at the destination, but all situations have a solution.”

What is it like being part of Team PCG?

“As a growing company, we are learning that our people are our best asset! It sounds cliche, but it’s true. We work hard to find and keep good people. We have a quality team of skilled folks who are even better people at heart. Our staff also represents a healthy cross-section of our community. While this is not a pre-qualification for employment, it is something we are mindful of and value as a company.”

PCG team huddle!

What are your goals for the future?

“We want to have a presence in all of the major medical and educational facilities in the Greater Grand Rapids Area. We strive for positive, yet measured growth as we continually seek to serve our clients.”

We at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce congratulate Troy Yarbrough and the rest of the PCG Team in their continued success!

Do you know any members of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber that deserve a feature? Email and they just might be our next Member Spotlight!

Member Spotlight: Lindo Mexico

What do you get when you combine authentic Mexican flavors, great customer service, and live music? The answer: A restaurant that will stay in business over 16 years (and counting).

Located on 1742 28th Street SW, Lindo Mexico prides itself on cooking food that’s not only authentic but also high quality. That’s precisely why their chef arrives early every morning to prepare dishes fresh for their customers. They are most famous for their fresh chips and salsa, refried beans, guacamole, homemade tamales, and horchata. Let’s not forget their uniquely flavored margaritas, like guava, tamarindo con chile and mango con chile (if you like a little spice!)

With an impressive variety of flavors and a strong emphasis on service, it’s no surprise business is good.

Lindo Mexico has been making diners happy since December 2000 and has moved three times in the last five years, continually outgrowing each previous location.

The Tacos Mexicanos Dinner

“I moved from Texas, and I asked around for a place where I can find authentic Mexican cuisine. A friend directed me to Lindo, and I was not disappointed. The service was amazing, the food was phenomenal, the drinks were great, and the prices were super reasonable. This is definitely one of my favorite spots in Grand Rapids. A must-try!” – Sweedie415 via TripAdvisor


Gricelda Mata, Owner of Lindo Mexico

Gricelda Mata, owner of Lindo Mexico, was born in Michoacan, Mexico and migrated to the United States at the age of 11. From working the fields of her hometown to becoming a restaurant owner, Gricelda has worked hard and persevered to become the dynamic entrepreneur she is today.

Wife, mother, and now successful restaurateur, Gricelda attributes Lindo Mexico’s success not only to the food but also the exceptional service. “I am very strict with the hiring,” she says. “We stress customer service at all times.”

Taking care of their staff members is just as essential to Lindo Mexico’s philosophy. “We decided to give our team a personal day off,” said Gricelda, on deciding to close the restaurant on Mondays. “We noticed they were putting in too many hours to keep with the demand of being open seven days a week. This is not good for them emotionally or physically. I need a great team by my side, and the only way to do this is to take care of them.”

It’s often a full house at Lindo Mexico!

Lindo Mexico’s working philosophy is clearly an effective one. Some of the honors they have received over the years are:

Beyond this, Lindo Mexico is heavily involved with community outreach. From donating presents to kids on Children’s Day to hosting the Pink Fiesta to support Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (and more), they are equally committed to helping the community as they are to providing an exceptional meal to diners.



What is the most satisfying thing about owning and operating Lindo Mexico?

“Lindo has been an incredible journey for me. It has given me the opportunity to grow personally, professionally, and find my mission in life. People ask me sometimes why I do community events. I always say: ‘Because I can!’ I just love knowing that I’m creating an impact on someone else’s life.”


Share a fun fact about you that people might not know!

“I love going to Lowe’s! Going there is like going to my favorite toy store. My husband taught me to use power tools one day because I wanted to build a piece for the restaurant and now I just love to build things! It’s one of my hobbies.”


Why did you become a member of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce?

“I joined mainly to learn more. As my business continues to grow, I need to be on the lookout for new ways to invest in myself and my business. Every stage of a business brings about different challenges and sometimes we aren’t sure how to handle it. This is where we need a group of mentors and experts that have ‘been there, done that.’”


How has the Chamber helped you so far?

“It’s given me exposure to a large number of potential clients. We’ve gotten some new catering orders thanks to them. The Chamber also advises me on next steps to take to reach my goals for the restaurant. I recently attended a Luncheon with the famous Chef Robert Irvine, and it was great to be able to meet him and learn from him!”

Do you know any members of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber that deserve a feature? Email and they just might be our next Member Spotlight!

5 Facts About Diversity in the Workplace That May Surprise You

The society we live, work and do business in is a rich tapestry of diversity – and it’s only growing more diverse by the year. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, our nation will no longer have any single ethnic or racial majorities by the year 2065! 

Despite this, many companies don’t make it a practice to implement diversity initiatives. In fact, 41% of managers said they were “too busy” for it. 

When our workforce does not reflect our population’s ever-growing diversity, it is not only a moral issue but a business issue as well.

Whether it’s diversity of race, gender, or sexual orientation, it is a key ingredient in adapting to the modern U.S. client base. To that end, it’s no surprise that businesses that embrace diversity have a better standing in the marketplace rather than those who resist it.

Here are 5 facts about the benefits of diversity in the workplace that may surprise you:

1. Ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their respective national industry medians.

Despite this, studies show that resumes submitted by those with non-white sounding names are less likely to get a callback.

2. Gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their respective national industry medians.

Yet there are fewer Fortune 500 CEOs who are women (4.1%) than those named David (4.5%) or John (5.3%). Two single male names outnumber an entire gender!

3. Diverse companies bring in more revenue.

15 times more sales revenue than companies with lowest levels of diversity, to be more accurate. At least, according to The American Sociological Review

4. 83% of millennials are more engaged at work when they believe their company fosters an inclusive culture.

It is worth noting that in 10 years millennials will comprise most of the U.S. workforce. On top of this, a study by Glassdoor indicates that 67% of job-seekers say that diversity is an important factor to them when evaluating companies and job offers. 

5. Diversity fosters more creativity and innovation in the workplace.

When people with different skill sets, backgrounds, and experiences are brought together in one workspace, it leads to more effective problem-solving. Similarly, diversity breeds more creative and innovative approaches to business. According to a 2011 Forbes study, 85 percent of 321 large global enterprises (companies with at least $500 million in annual revenue) agreed that diversity is crucial to creativity and innovation in the workplace.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is proudly committed to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion within our organization and business community – both in principle and in practice.

To be a top-of-mind region that keeps talent and grows success for all, we must be open to accepting, welcoming, and engaging all people—whatever their socioeconomic backgrounds, skin color, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, or any other identifying differences.

If you want to gain a deeper understanding of the business case for diversity, look into our D.E.I. (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) Summit.

As of 2017 and onwards, we have combined the annual Diversity Visionary Awards celebration with the annual Diversity & Inclusion Forum to provide you with an educational experience you don’t want to miss: The D.E.I. (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) Summit. Regardless of professional role or experience, the D.E.I. Summit will have something to offer everyone.

Learn More


The 2017 CCL Annual Fundraiser: A Night to Honor the Most Influential Leaders in the Grand Rapids Area

On August 23, 2017, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the Center for Community Leadership Annual Fundraiser at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. At this “Summer Soiree,” CCL alumni and community leaders alike joined together for a night of celebration and connection.

The Center for Community Leadership has been a valued resource of the Chamber since 1985. Its goal is to educate, engage, and challenge current and emerging leaders in the community through various leadership and skill-building programs, such as Leadership Grand Rapids, Emerging Leaders, and Leadership Advantage. Participants in these programs are given a more comprehensive understanding of the community’s opportunities and challenges, allowing them to be better prepared to serve as leaders when they graduate.

The CCL annual fundraiser is critical in helping us raise scholarship funds that enable many to participate in CCL’s various programs. This year, we are happy to share that over 230 people attended and over $30,000 was raised to support CCL’s scholarships. This makes it possible for leaders from across our community to take part in the programs.

PAY IT FORWARD: The Class Competition Fundraiser

To invest in others and carry on your CCL program experiences through scholarship support. Pay it forward and invest in our future community leaders!

This year, Leadership Grand Rapids’ alumni classes were challenged to contribute directly to scholarships by “paying it forward” through a class competition. At the time of publication, the class competition fundraiser raised over $4,025 for scholarships. The winning class will receive the title of “The Best Class Ever” for the next year and a private movie viewing at Celebration! Cinema. The LGR Class of 2017 was strongly in the lead with $2,500 in contributions in memory of their classmate Lynn Locke. Lynn passed away shortly after graduating from the program and was a fierce advocate for people with disabilities and fostering inclusion.

In memory of Lynne Locke


But the giving didn’t stop there!

At the CCL Annual Fundraiser, the Chamber also took the opportunity to recognize some of the community’s most influential leaders with three awards:

1) The Distinguished Community Trustee Award

Recognizes the distinguished accomplishment of an individual in their work as a community trustee

Honoree: Dr. Juan Olivarez, Ph.D., President of Aquinas College

Dr. Olivarez upon accepting his award at the 2017 CCL Annual Fundraiser

Under Dr. Juan Olivarez’s leadership, which began in 2011, Aquinas was named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll in 2013 and 2014. This national designation is the highest honor a college/university can receive for its commitment to volunteering, service‐learning, and civic engagement. The college was also named one of the “Greenest Colleges” by the Sierra Club and has been listed in The Princeton Review’s Guide to 322 Green Colleges.

“I am so humbled and honored to be receiving this,” Dr. Olivarez, who was in the LGR graduating class of ‘88, said upon receiving the award, “We continue to send some of our faculty and staff to the programs. I would encourage all organizations to sends folks to them.” Olivarez has served on many national and regional boards and committees, including Innovation Network for Communities, Council of Independent Colleges, Educational Testing Services, High Education Research & Development Institute, and was even appointed to the National Institute for Literacy by President George W. Bush.

2) The Uncommon Greatness Award

Recognizes the work of an organization to help create a community of uncommon greatness

Honoree: Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF)

The ICCF Team at the 2017 CCL Annual Fundraiser

ICCF is Michigan’s oldest non-profit housing developer, providing affordable housing and related services since 1974. For 43 years ICCF has been on the forefront of our community’s efforts to meet the critical need for affordable, high-quality housing. Today, ICCF leverages private contributions with federal, state and local government grants to maximize its multifaceted impact, utilizing a diverse staff of over 40 individuals. “We recognize that an uncommonly great community is one where there is abundant opportunity, affordable housing for people from all walks of life, where neighborhoods are thriving,” said Ryan VerWys, President & CEO of the Inner City Christian Foundation, “A key part of that is relationships. So thank you to CCL for being a catalyst for transformation. It is foundational for making our community great.”

3) The Create GReat Collaboration Award

Recognizes an outstanding project that benefits our community and was accomplished through a group collaboration

Honoree: Plaza Roosevelt Project

(Partners: Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, Mercy Health Saint’s Mary’s, Grand Rapids Public Schools, Dwelling Place, Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities, Ferris State University, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, and Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association)

Plaza Roosevelt is a mixed-use development that will feature a new Spanish-English immersion Grand Rapids Public Schools high school, expanded health care facilities, community space, affordable housing, art opportunities and retail space. This 5.5-acre development, set in the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood, a predominately Hispanic, traditionally working class Southwest Side community, the project will continue the growth and development of the diverse and engaged neighborhood.

“We hope our project can be a good example of how hopes, dreams, combined with creativity and ingenuity can really create something incredible. We’re working diligently to build a strong and healthy community for ourselves and our families,” Gerol Bailey, member of the Roosevelt Park Resident Committee, said upon accepting the award on behalf of the project team, “True collaboration, instead of competition, is what’s going to drive this development. Thank you, we are humbled and grateful for the recognition by the Chamber and the sponsors. Watch us work!”

The Plaza Roosevelt Team at the 2017 CCL Annual Fundraiser


Leaders, such as those we honored at The CCL Annual Fundraiser, are the heart of Grand Rapids, sparking greatness and growth within the community.  They have made an exceptional impact on West Michigan and have invested their time and energy into pursuing the overall well-being of the community. Without them and the work they do, Grand Rapids would not be the vibrant city it is today.

“As LGR graduates, we’re in this work of community-building together. We must have broad and deep civic engagement to be catalysts for change.”

– George Heartwell (LGR 1992), Former Mayor – City of Grand Rapids


The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Community Leadership programs equip talented professionals with intensive training, active networks, and meaningful resources to shape their careers, innovate within their companies, and engage in community change.

Current and future Chamber members are invited to explore and apply for the many leadership and community programs offered throughout the year. More information available at

Meet the Honorees of The 2017 ATHENA Awards Celebration

Once upon a time, women weren’t accepted in the workplace, let alone in the boardroom. Today, after years of fiercely fighting for equality, women are challenging, re-inventing, and innovating businesses and their communities – and are a strong force for economic change

On September 14, 2017, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce awarded the prestigious ATHENA Leadership Award to Joan Budden and the ATHENA Young Professional Award to Shannon Cohen. Over 600 people attended the celebration held at the J.W. Marriott Hotel’s International Ballroom.

The Grand Rapids Chamber is proud to be one of the early adopters of ATHENA to engage and honor women leaders through programs like the ATHENA Awards Celebration, the ATHENA Scholarships, and the ATHENA Leadership Forum.


Read more: The ATHENA Program in Grand Rapids


We consider it a great honor to recognize some of these exceptional women every year at the ATHENA Awards Celebration. Despite the extra challenges of being a woman in the labor force, these particular women were able to achieve professional success, while giving back to the West Michigan community, and being a mentor and role model to others

The prestigious ATHENA Leadership Award honors an individual who has demonstrated leadership in their professional field, mentored and opened doors of opportunities for women and contributed time and talent to the community

The ATHENA Young Professional Award recognizes an emerging leader for their contributions to the community, professional excellence, and commitment to serve as a personal and professional role model to young women.

Below are the 2017 honorees:

ATHENA Leadership Award Recipient

Joan Budden
President & CEO of Priority Health

Joan Budden, President & CEO of Priority Health, has been described as a “chess player in a world of checkers players” by Robert Roth, President/CEO of Roman Manufacturing. Budden has made it her mission to combat the issue of affordability in the healthcare industry. As a leader, she is often recognized for her positive and engaging presence, as well as her spirit of authenticity. “Joan always shows up as her best self, but it’s her authentic self,” said Kathleen Stewart Ponitz, Founder of Stewart Ponitz Group.

“You see other leaders and you say, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re wonderful! I want to be just like them.’ But you can’t, because you’re a different person. You grew up different, you had different experiences. You can admire other people but you have to have a good self-awareness in order to be a good leader,” said Joan.

Beyond her professional success, Joan is also a Board Chairperson of Michigan Women’s Foundation, Board Member of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, and Vice Chairperson for our very own Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce (and many more!)

Surprising Fact: Joan’s guilty pleasure is milk chocolate. She also enjoys sweating in hot yoga.

ATHENA Young Professional Award Recipient

Shannon Cohen
Founder/Principal/CEO, Shannon Cohen, Inc.

“You think coming to an awards space like this that it would be competitive, but this is a space of sisterhood and I’m very thankful for that intentionality,” said Shannon Cohen (Founder/CEO/Principal of Shannon Cohen, Inc.) upon receiving the award. “[When I heard about] all the women who are finalists, I said, ‘Gosh, this is hard! They all slay!’”

As creator of Tough Skin, Soft Heart, a leadership-wellness movement designed to support the emotional health of difference-makers, Shannon has found an impactful way to teach others the value of self-care. Shannon is also co-founder of Sisters Who Lead, an affinity space for women of color in West Michigan.

Surprising Fact: As a child, Shannon was selected to represent her class during a visit by former Vice President Dan Quayle. When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, she said: “work the slush machine at Kmart.” There was a woman who worked as a cashier at the Kmart in her Detroit neighborhood and she was “the kindest woman ever!”

ATHENA Leadership Award Finalists

Lori Burgess
Executive Director of Kent County Girls on the Run /

Lori has served as the Executive Director of Girls on the Run of Kent and Muskegon Counties since Fall 2009, serving over 25,000 young girls at more than 150 schools. She is also a part-time middle school guidance counselor and maintains a small private therapy practice. Throughout her professional career, Lori has created and implemented programs that empower and advocate for girls and women, including hundreds of abuse survivors. In her free time, she volunteers as a youth leader, goes hiking, reads books, and travels in the company of her husband and friends.

Carol Van Andel
Executive Director of David and Carol Van Andel Foundation

A native of West Michigan, Carol grew up in the Grand Rapids area, earning a business degree from Hope College in nearby Holland, MI.  Her lifetime has been marked by service to others, through volunteer roles with more than a dozen non-profit organizations. She is the Executive Director of the David and Carol Van Andel Family Foundation, a member of the Van Andel Education Institute Advisory Council, on the Board of Trustees at Western Theological Seminary, the Grand Rapids Public Museum Foundation, Grand Action, and GVSU Foundation Board.  Married to David Van Andel, the couple has four sons and reside in Ada, MI.

Surprising Fact:  Carol got a hole-in-one on her birthday!

Dr. Nkechy Ekere Ezeh
CEO of Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative

Dr. Ezeh is an international scholar, a tenured Associate Professor of Education, and the Director of Early Childhood Education Program at Aquinas College.  As she prepares new teachers for Early Care & Education, she is able to draw upon perspectives gained through her direct involvement in the community. A former Early Care & Education teacher, she spent many days in the classroom, especially with vulnerable children, gaining insight on the practical implementation of educational theory. Under her leadership, Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative has created over 500 quality preschool slots in the core city of Grand Rapids.

Christy Buck
Executive Director of Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan

With over 30 years of experience in mental health as a professional licensed social worker, Christy passionately leads the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan (MHF). Her desire for transforming and saving lives through mental health education led her to develop two classroom programs, ‘Live Laugh Love’ for middle and high school students and ‘be nice.’ a program developed for schools, businesses, and communities teaching that how you treat others has a direct effect on their mental health. Christy and her staff educate thousands of individuals each year through their education programs and various other speaking engagements and presentations throughout Michigan. Christy currently serves on the Grandville Public Schools Board of Education and the Kent Education Foundation.

Surprising Fact: Christy is 100% first generation Greek.  She attended Greek school in her younger years, lived in Greece for a while after college (where she visited the Temple of Athena and climbed Mount Olympus), and, yes, she even had a big fat Greek wedding!

ATHENA Young Professional Award Finalists

Sarah Brodhead
Spectrum Health

As Senior Talent Program Specialist, Sarah is dedicated to creating a workplace where employees feel cared about, fulfilled and valued. Whether it’s breaking the Guinness World Record for the Longest Line of Backpacks at Spectrum Health or morphing leaders into competitive superheroes for the United Way Campaign, Sarah is all about bringing big ideas across the finish line and sprinkling in some fun along the way.  She is currently Co-Chair of the Ele’s Place’s (a free-of-charge grieving center) community board in Grand Rapids.

Surprising Fact: Sarah grew up in Northwest Ohio and lived on the state line, so she got on the school bus in Indiana and off in Ohio!

Danielle DeWitt
Spectrum Health Foundation

Danielle is the Senior Foundation Specialist for Donor Relations and Stewardship at the Spectrum Health and Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Foundation. Her role focuses on building the stewardship program to ensure that all donors see the impact of their giving. Danielle serves on the Michigan Women’s Foundation West Michigan Advisory Council, the Children’s Healing Center Community Engagement Committee, and is a member of Inforum and LEAD (Ladies Empowering & Advocating for a Difference)

Surprising Fact: Danielle has been on the launch teams for three books in the last two years! Most recently, for the new Jen Hatmaker book, “Of Mess and Moxie,” her endorsement was printed in the front of the book.  

Afton DeVos
Kids’ Food Basket

Afton joined the team at Kids’ Food Basket as Development Director in August 2012 and was promoted to Associate Director in July 2014.  With an emphasis on growing leaders for good, DeVos focuses on mentoring team members to achieve individual and collective goals to benefit the mission of Kids’ Food Basket.  She is also engaged in the community as a Board Member for the Children’s Healing Center, a member of the J-Board for Van Andel Institute, and is a volunteer at Ada Bible Church.

Surprising Fact: Afton is a childhood cancer survivor of 17 years.

Cailin Kelly
Creston Brewery

Cailin is a managing co-owner of Creston Brewery; local brewery, taproom, and restaurant. She has previously worked and volunteered in the human services field, and currently serves as vice-chair of Well House, a housing-first organization for individuals experiencing homelessness. Cailin has been a social activist and volunteer since she was old enough to speak and knock on doors. She has served two years in the U.S. Peace Corps in Moldova where she taught English and managed community development projects with Moldovan counterparts

Surprising Fact: Cailin once almost got lost in an Egyptian desert on a runaway camel.

Lorena Aguayo-Márquez
Grand Rapids Community College

Lorena has worked at Grand Rapids Community College for the past ten years and currently coordinates the Adult Education English Language Acquisition, Citizenship, and Cruisin’ to College Success programs.  Lorena’s passion for education and social justice has led her to different undertakings. Presently, she is the GRCC Scholarship Chair, social coordinator for the Latina Network of West Michigan, and mentor for the Project NOMAD (Needs and Objectives for Migrant Advancement and Development), to name a few.

Surprising Fact: Lorenna describes herself as “a social butterfly who enjoys time with family and friends, and also loves to dance.”

Alexis Rangel
Lake Michigan Credit Union

Alexis serves as Community Relations Specialist at Lake Michigan Credit Union. Her main responsibility is to develop and implement community engagement programs and events, corporate philanthropy, and public relations efforts. Alexis also works as an adjunct instructor for the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Grand Valley State University. She currently serves on the board/committees of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and GR8 Girls, a program of the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation.

Surprising Fact:  Alexis is a professionally trained clown. Well, sort of. She once attended a clown camp put on by the Shrine Circus (and learned all of the trade secrets.)

Tamara “Tami” Sytsma
Sytsma Wealth Strategies

Tami is a West Michigan native born into a family of entrepreneurs. After receiving her degree from MSU, she began work at her father’s Financial Advisory Firm in 2003.  She then became a Certified Financial Planner and a Certified Private Wealth Advisor before opening Sytsma Wealth Strategies in 2014. Tami is involved with Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, the Family Business Alliance and the Uptown Business Improvement District Board, to name a few.  In 2016, she was named one of the Business Journal’s “40 Under Forty.”

Surprising Fact: To earn some extra money in high school, Tami raised steers/cattle to show and sell at the Hudsonville fair.

LaTarro Traylor
Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

LaTarro is the Community Relations Coordinator for Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. She received her BA in International Studies from Aquinas College and her law degree from Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School. A lifelong Grand Rapids resident, LaTarro is passionate about her community and spends a lot of time conceptualizing strategies that will alleviate poverty and economically empower marginalized people. When she isn’t busy engaging with the community, LaTarro spends her free time with her five-year-old son Colin.

Surprising Fact: Each school LaTarro attended, from preschool to law school, was located in GR proper.  

Alyssa Veneklase
Gold Coast Doulas, LLC

Alyssa is a Postpartum Doula and Co-Owner at Gold Coast Doulas, the first doula agency in West Michigan. She offers mothers a safe space to ask questions, learn about their new roles, and transition into parenthood gently. Judgement-free support is a critical element of her business model. Alyssa is trying to change the way people think about motherhood and is working hard to give mothers and their families the education and support they need to get through pregnancy and enter into parenthood with confidence.

Surprising fact:  As a child, Alyssa’s favorite sandwich was ham and peanut butter.

In addition, five $1,000 ATHENA scholarship recipients were awarded from the stage. The ATHENA scholarship goes to women aged 30 or older working to complete a degree program at an accredited college or university.

All in all, the 2017 ATHENA Awards Celebration was a victory for women leaders and professionals everywhere.

Thank you to everyone who attended this year’s ATHENA Awards Ceremony, to all the women leaders in our community, and to every single person who advocates for women in their daily lives.

We hope to see you next year!



The ATHENA Program: Grand Rapids

ATHENA Grand Rapids supports, develops, and inspires women leaders as well as honors the men and women who empower women in leadership. The program offers the ATHENA Award and ATHENA Young Professional Award, annual scholarships to women over 30, and bi-monthly leadership forums based upon the tenets of the ATHENA Leadership Model® from ATHENA International. This model identifies eight distinct attributes that are reflective of women’s contributions to leadership: Authentic Self, Relationships, Giving Back, Collaboration, Courageous Acts, Learning, Fierce Advocacy, Celebration and Joy.


Once upon a time, women didn’t even have the right to vote or to drive. Today, after years of fiercely fighting for their rights, they are challenging, re-inventing, and innovating their communities and are a strong force for economic change.


ATHENA International is a non-profit organization that aims to support, develop, and honor women leaders in local communities all around the world through scholarships, leadership forums, and recognizing women of excellence. The ATHENA Leadership Award and the ATHENA Young Professionals Award have become the country’s most prestigious awards for women, honoring those who achieve professional success, while also giving back to the community.

In Greek Mythology, Athena was the goddess of wisdom, war, and the arts. Favorite daughter of Zeus, her birth was unique in that a mother did not bear her, but instead sprang out of Zeus forehead fully-grown and dressed in armor. Fierce and brave, it’s no wonder that this award is named after her! Celebrating, inspiring, and advocating for women warriors who possess these goddess’ qualities is central to what the ATHENA Program represents.



Women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population and earn about:

  • 60 percent of undergraduate degrees
  • 60 percent of all master’s degrees
  • 47 percent of all law degrees
  • 48 percent of all medical degrees


Gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their respective national industry medians. (McKinsey)


They lag substantially behind men when it comes to representation in leadership positions.

According to a 2014 report by the Center for American Progress, despite the fact that women hold almost 52 percent of professional-level jobs, they are only:

  • 14.6 percent of executive officers
  • 8.1 percent of top earners
  • 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs

Women of color face an even wider gap regarding representation in leadership roles, with only 11.9 percent in managerial or professional positions, despite making up about one-third of the female workforce.

The ATHENA Program aims to empower women to seek out and succeed at leadership positions, despite the challenges the country faces regarding these issues. By supporting and recognizing them in a great number of ways, the hope is that they are inspired to succeed, make an impact, and are encouraged to guide future generations to do the same.

ATHENA: Grand Rapids

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce ATHENA Award Program is affiliated with ATHENA International. The Grand Rapids ATHENA Award program began in 1989 and exists to honor women and men for professional excellence, community service and for actively assisting women in their attainment of professional excellence and leadership skills. Twenty amazing women have received the prestigious ATHENA Award in Grand Rapids.

In 2000, a Scholarship component was added to the program, funded by corporate sponsorships and individual donations. To date, we have given more than $30,000 to women in our community who are over 30 and have returned to college to complete their degrees.

2008 marked the first presentation of the ATHENA Young Professional Award in our community, and we became one of the first programs in the country to do so. This award recognizes an emerging leader in the community for her/his community service, leadership, and for being a role model.

The ATHENA Awards Program

The ATHENA Awards Program and ATHENA Young Professional Award are founded on the ATHENA Leadership Model® from ATHENA International, which identifies eight distinct attributes, called the ATHENA Tenets, that are reflective of women’s contributions to leadership: Authentic Self, Relationships, Giving Back, Collaboration, Courageous Acts, Learning, Fierce Advocacy, Celebration and Joy.

Learn More

ATHENA Scholarships

The 2015 ATHENA Scholarship Recipients

Each year, the ATHENA Awards Program presents several scholarships to recipients of the unique ATHENA Scholarship, which assists women over 30 who are pursuing their higher-education dreams.

ATHENA Scholarships are unique in that recipients can use the money for whatever helps them achieve their degree, from tuition fees, to childcare or transportation expenses—building a brighter future for careers, family, and personal goals.

Direct donations to the ATHENA Scholarship Fund are always welcome. If you’re interested in contributing to the ATHENA Scholarship Fund and/or can’t attend the fundraiser event, please donate online or contact Megan Smith Jovanovic.

Learn More

Donate Now

“Being awarded this amazing scholarship from such a strong group of powerful women gave me the encouragement I needed to work towards my college education.” — Valerie Cook, 2014 ATHENA Scholarship Recipient

The ATHENA Leadership Forum

A snippet from March 2016’s ATHENA Leadership Forum

The ATHENA Leadership Forum fosters and supports the development of strong female leaders in our community. Rooted in the eight tenets of the ATHENA Leadership Model, the bi-monthly ATHENA Leadership Forum provides professional development opportunities for women of all levels.

Each ATHENA Leadership Forum features a brief presentation followed by a facilitated discussion around one of the eight ATHENA tenets—Authentic Self, Celebration & Joy, Collaboration, Courageous Acts, Fierce Advocacy, Giving Back, Learning, and Relationships.

Join us to learn valuable leadership lessons, interact with leaders in the community, and network with a diverse group of women through dynamic roundtable discussions.

Learn More


“When women succeed, nations are more safe, secure and prosperous.”
Barack Obama, 44th US President

Top 5 Reasons You Should Attend Our Business Exchange Luncheons

Networking is the name of the game at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce’s Business Exchange Luncheons. If you haven’t been to one yet, you aren’t maximizing what the Chamber can do for you.

So bring out your business cards, build some connections, and read our top five reasons you should be attending our BEX’s:

1. It’s the Chamber’s #1 networking event!

Where else would you get the chance to meet over 100 different entrepreneurs in one room? If you haven’t been to one of our luncheons, you aren’t maximizing what the Chamber can do for you.

2. Over 80% of 750 business executives said that in-person meetings are better for long-term relationships.

At least, according to a survey by Forbes Insights!

3. Attending registered networking events that require a small fee actually encourages you to make the most of the opportunity (because you’ll suffer a monetary penalty otherwise.)

Don’t believe us? Ask TIME Magazine! Plus, regularly exercising those social skills will help you appear more confident in front of possible clients and partners… which will, in turn, help your business be successful.

4. As Jay Samit, Vice Chairman of Deloitte Digital, once said: “Networking is all about connecting with people. But then again, isn’t that what life is about? …

… The more time you can find to get out of the office and build true friendships, the farther your startup will go. Entrepreneurs need to remember to spend as much time working on their business as they do in their business.

5. A greater amount of original ideas are developed during in-person meetings over online or digital meetings.

Our Business Exchange Luncheons (BEX) aren’t just an exchange of business cards, but of insights and ideas too!


In short, if you’re not networking, then you’re not working enough to help your business!




Thursday, September 7, 2017
11:30 A.M. – 1:30 P.M.
Stonewater Country Club – 7177 Kalamazoo Ave.
$25 for members, $30 for future members, and late registration starting Sunday, September 3.


Don’t forget to bring your business cards!