Category Archives: Blog

Fierce Advocacy: A Journey with Shelley Irwin

ATHENA Shelley Fierce Advocacy

Take the journey of personal advocacy with Shelley Irwin, 2016 ATHENA Award recipient and host/producer of The WGVU Morning Show who spoke at the January ATHENA Leadership Forum.

IT keeps you up at night. IT drives you to action. IT just may be the spark that lights your fire. IT… is one of the 8 ATHENA tenets. May I discuss the tenet …of FIERCE ADVOCACY.

What an honor it was to receive the 2016 ATHENA Award on behalf of our Greater Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. It is my obligation to uphold and put to work the daily practice of ALL the ATHENA tenets, including Celebration and Joy, Giving Back, Collaboration, Learning, Relationships, Courageous Acts, Authentic Self AND this idea of FIERCE ADVOCACY.

FIERCE ADVOCACY: Supporting and acting on your passion for people, causes or ideas, creating an unstoppable force for the greater good.

Take the journey of personal advocacy with Shelley Irwin, 2016 ATHENA Award recipient and host/producer at WGVU Radio.

Just Do It.

I’m an “advocate” for taking advantage of opportunities presented. When asked to co-chair a committee, say yes! Twice this happened to me. Twice I said yes. I’m waiting for third times the charm!

When you serve in this community, you witness like minds coming together for a similar cause. And you become friends.

One of my first committees I worked with mentors I call dear friends to this day. When asked to join the GR Lions Club, I hit the ground running, not only making history as the first female president in 89 years (glad you got your act together, gentleman!), but was able to witness how dollars FUNDRAISED went right back into the community to help those with visual impairment!

Lives are touched by those who unite in passion. Take advantage of an invite. It’s a compliment that someone believes in you. Just do IT!

Stick To Your Commit

What’s your level of Commitment? When I commit, I’ll be at the meeting and play the role I can best bring to the table. Commit to take on a new project, to meet with a new mentee, to beginning a new exercise program, but take it seriously. Commitment takes time, talents and treasures.

Commitment will keep you focused plus is necessary for the group’s puzzle to come together … if you are the missing puzzle piece, the picture won’t be complete … if you are the loose spoke … the wheel will wobble. How about a commitment to yourself?

In September, I committed to finishing a race of a lifetime. The World Championships Long Distance Duathlon included somehow surviving Switzerland Mountains, that’s straight up and straight down on my “red devil”, followed by and preceded by hill running, 12 hours allotted to do this task. Two things consistent on my mind … “you must finish, and you mustn’t crash. You have a September 15th ATHENA celebration that would not be pretty in a body cast!” I stuck to the commitment, made the deadline with thirty minutes to spare. You CAN and MUST commit.

Your teammates, committee mates, your FAMILY deserves your commitment. Pair that commitment with your advocacy. That will get you to your seat before the meeting is called to order.

Be Well

Be a fierce advocate for wellness. If you don’t create a healthy foundation from which to build, how can you leap into the many projects and life goals you have in store? I take on the 80/20 rule. I focus 80% of my lifestyle on healthy choices in mind, body, and spirit yet I sure look forward to the 20% of a free day! Dare we use the moderation rule? Life comes at us full speed ahead. Good things happen, bad things happen. Armoring ourselves with the best defense TO life just may include a “health” plan. Yes, for me, a goal to run, skip or jump high.

We are what we eat. You “feel” what you eat. Mind you, I’m not a fan of diet cheese, but am a fan of making choices, some rigid and some due to celebration! Be a role model for your loved ones. Set the bar high for yourself and those who aspire to be YOU! Carrots DO help the eyes, an apple a day COULD keep the doctor away. Just sayin’!

Take the time to move. Your body craves this action more than you know. Today, park a little further away and take a set of stairs. It’s my advocacy to see us all reap the benefits of taking care of our personal machines.

Find Your Passion

One of my favorite advocacies is doing what you love, vocationally and/or avocationally. Change your career if you’re not happy, mentor young men and ladies to prepare the next gen, or find forever homes for every four legged critter in the world. Therein lies my mighty mission.

I made a major career change in my late thirties to follow my vocational passion. Practicing Physical Therapy for fifteen years was rewarding and a necessary service, but today, I have the honor of serving a broader reach through messaging, sharing stories of health and more through following my passion and making a purposeful change. Blood, Sweat, Tears and JOY!

I look to serve as best I can to role model FOR our future. You bet I’ll advocate for Young women to find their voice, to serve at the table, to follow their dreams. Multiple local organizations are waiting for those who advocate for future development of young leaders. If not you, who?

And … if only I could adopt one more Jack Russell! It’s no secret there is an overpopulation of pets needing homes. To serve in the arena of animal rescue is one of my callings, but I can’t take them all home. Or can I? Advocate for those who don’t have a voice.

These advocacies keep me up at night, drive me to action, and are the sparks that light my fire. Find yours and start acting. Begin…yesterday.

GR Chamber and Metro Chambers head to Washington D.C.

Members of the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition took part in a fly-in this week focused on infrastructure, immigration, energy, trade including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other issues impacting businesses and communities across the Midwest and Great Lakes.

Fifty-four meetings took place on Capitol Hill with legislators and committee staff as part of the annual event and included information on policy specifics and critical infrastructure projects for the region. Our collective voice is stronger together and as a region, the Great Lakes has a combined GDP of more than $5.7 trillion, making it the third largest economy in the world.

Specifically, Andy Johnston and Josh Lunger spoke with federal lawmakers on:

  • Transportation infrastructure including funding for a new Soo Lock, the Gordie Howe International Bridge, I-96 reconstruction and enhancement, and interchange improvements to serve business demand in Walker.

  • Immigration for highly skilled labor through the H1B visa program.

  • Support for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GRLI) including maintaining the current funding level of $300 million.

Other issues on the Chamber’s radar with federal lawmakers in Washington this week include tax reform, education policy and the changes to the Affordable Care Act.

Special thanks to Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters and Congressmen Bill Huizenga, Fred Upton, Mike Bishop, Paul Mitchell, Jack Bergman and Tim Walberg for meeting in person with the Chamber.

Talent Wanted: What everyone is saying, and what your Chamber is doing about it

Talent Wanted: What the Chamber is doing to help its members' talent needsFor the first time in recent history, members reported difficulty finding qualified talent as their top concern, surpassing the cost of health care which had been the top issue for the past four years. Seventy-two percent reported difficulty finding qualified applicants, up from 51% in 2014. Digging a little deeper, the availability of skilled labor and general talent retention were noted as two of the top obstacles to business growth.

Talent is not a new initiative for the Chamber, but there is added urgency to addressing our region’s immediate talent shortages while also ensuring we have a qualified workforce for the future. In the survey, members identified the most difficult positions to fill, highlighting positions from skilled trades, to STEM careers, to positions that require advanced degrees.

The Chamber’s advocacy efforts are linked directly to what we are hearing from our members – fighting for programs and initiatives at the State level to address our immediate and future talent needs.

Short-term Initiative

  • Skilled Trades Training Program (Going Pro): The Chamber is advocating for a significant increase of funding for this program which provides grants to employers to upskill their current workforce or new hires. The Chamber is pleased to see Governor Snyder’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget recommendation included a $10 million increase, and will be asking the Legislature to confirm this recommendation. These grant dollars may be used in a variety of fields, including professional trades, information technology, health care and other high-demand jobs.
  • Career and Technical Education Equipment Upgrades: To address talent development, the Chamber is also supportive of Governor Snyder’s recommendation of $20 million to support (CTE) Career Technology Education program equipment upgrades.

Mid-term Initiatives

  • 21st Century Skills/High School Graduation Flexibility: The Chamber has been working alongside the West Michigan Talent Triangle for the passage of House Bill 4114, which seeks to provide high schoolers greater flexibility in the courses they must take to graduate. This bill would allow students the flexibility to take rigorous courses in computer science, coding, CTE, foreign language or the arts.
  • Michigan State Standards: There have been some recent efforts to repeal Michigan’s State Standards, but the Chamber is fiercely advocating alongside our community education partners for their continuation. These standards set the foundation of what Michigan’s student should know at each grade level, and are a critical component to ensure our students can graduate college and career ready.

Long-term Initiative

  • Early Childhood Education: The Chamber is a vocal supporter of Michigan’s funding for early childhood education and is asking the Legislature to continue the funding to ensure Michigan is a no-wait state and our children can start their education with high quality programming.

Every year, the Chamber conducts an annual survey of members to better understand the issues you’re facing. Nearly 600 members responded to the survey this year with more than two-thirds of the responses from small and medium-sized businesses.

More than 93% of Chamber members reported a favorable or very favorable perception of West Michigan’s business climate. Our community and region has seen great growth coming out of the recession, but we are not without some challenges.

Want to read the Chamber membership survey results? Please visit

Questions, comments or ideas of how to address talent needs? Please contact Joshua Lunger at or 616.771.0336.

First Breakfast with Legislators – find out what you missed!

The Chamber held its first Breakfast with Legislators of 2017 on February 27. It has become a tradition to kickoff of the series at The Rapid and we are grateful for their continued sponsorship of the February breakfast.

These events are an important opportunity to engage lawmakers with the business community and there was a lot to discuss – including the previous week’s effort by the State House to roll back the income tax.

The hot topic of the meeting was the failed voted on an income tax reduction from 4.25% to 3.9% pushed for in the State House by Speaker Tom Leonard. House lawmakers in attendance voted both for and against the measure which was voted down 52-55.

March_BWL_RoomWhile some may have expected fireworks, lawmakers on both sides were not that far apart. Case in point: Representative Rob VerHeulen and Representative Chris Afendoulis.

VerHeulen voted for the measure after working to lessen the impact on the budget.

“I had concerns with the original bill. I think taking it to zero without a plan to replace it would jeopardize our ability to provide essential state services,” said VerHeulen, R-Walker. “But I support it going to 3.9%. This will ensure that we will not jeopardize our constitutional mandate to balance the budget. I’ve always been motivated to stretch on behalf of the taxpayers.”

Representative Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township, opposed the measure but indicated how close he was to those that voted for it. He shared VerHeulen’s concern about the impact the cut would have on the ability of the state to fund critical priorities like roads, talent investment and pay down long-term debt saying.

“This plan will jeopardize our state’s bond rating and will create a structural deficit in the general fund of over $2 billion by 2022,” he said.

Other House members at the breakfast weighed in including Representatives Tommy Brann, Holly Hughes, and Steve Johnson. Ultimately, the accelerated process, coupled with not simultaneously putting forth what programs would be cut to keep the budget balanced led to the bill’s defeat.

The aftermath of the vote will likely shade policy-making in Lansing over the short term while the House works to continue to move Michigan forward.

March_BWL_PanelA question was posed to State Senators Peter MacGregor and Tonya Schuitmaker on the impact President Trump’s budget priorities would have on the State’s budget.

The Senators pointed out that they can’t build a budget on what may happen and will continue to work to have a budget passed by June 1. That being said, they anticipate having to come back later in the year if the federal government moves to block or grant Medicaid to the states or requires state matching dollars for infrastructure projects.

Discussion also focused on: the Gordie Howe International Bridge (going forward), the Soo Locks (which needs the federal government to step up with dollars and Chamber staff is headed to DC to lobby for it), a possible sales tax on services (not going anywhere), and redistricting and election law changes.

It was also mentioned at the breakfast that Grand Rapids has made the list (89) of top 100 US cities for congestion and the cost. A few years ago, some supposed that the drop-off in vehicles miles traveled was a sign of younger people opting for multiple modes. We now know it was tightly tied to the economic downturn.

People are driving more than ever. Witness the I-96/I-196 lane merge any morning or evening.

March_BWL_AudienceThere is a need for an all-of-the-above solution to mobility – strong public transportation like The Rapid; transportation network companies (ex. Uber and Lyft); reliable transit and rail, forward thinking and preparation for connected and automated vehicles; and an understanding that most of us will choose our personal vehicle for many years to come.

That being said, downtown parking has been highlighted as a hindrance to member growth and the Chamber is working on a set of short- and long-term recommendations with the City of Grand Rapids to advance solutions.

Our relentless, member-driven advocacy supports businesses of all sizes and types. If you have never been to one of these breakfasts, give it a try! Hear from those that represent you and make your voice heard. And if you have thoughts on these topics or others, let us know!

Questions? Contact Andy Johnston, Vice President of Government Affairs at 616.771.0335 or

Find Your Place with Chamber Affinity Groups

The secret is out. Grand Rapids is a city on the rise and you live here!


Get tapped into the local scene with fresh connections through the Chamber. We’re here to help foster the relationships and create the spaces so you can dig deep roots into the community. Here are a few options—for you, your new hires, and your long-time talent!

Inside Grand Rapids

Get a behind-the-scenes look into Grand Rapids and what drives us as a magnetic, top-of-mind region. We’ll be diving into the city’s history, growth of downtown, and arts and entertainment culture on May 24, 2016. Offered every quarter or so. Join the tour at

“I couldn’t believe how many things I learned about the city even after growing up here. It’s certainly something that anyone new or wanting to learn more about the community should do!” — Mike Kerkorian, Heart of West Michigan United Way

Black Women Connect GR

After one year of gathering, this affinity group of professional black women has created a lively and engaged community—in person and online. Follow the discussion with over 1,220 women in the Facebook group or meet up at an event. On June 20, 2016 we’re throwing a garden party to celebrate our first anniversary! RSVP or connect via


Created just for LGBT professionals and allies, OutPro continues to grow as an outstanding experience. Monthly events and diverse Facebook discussions create dynamic opportunities for both social and professional networking in a fun environment. With two stellar events coming up—a comedic brunch with David Sedaris May 15, 2016 and a Broadway Grand Rapids show (Book of Mormon) on June 23, 2016—there’s no better time than now to go out with OutPro! Sign up at

This article first appeared in the May 2016 edition of The Chamber News, written by AliciaMarie Belchak, Senior Communications Specialist at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. Visit to find more thought leadership like this.


Creating Connections & Community: You Belong Here!

Nearly 11,000 people call upon the Chamber each year to get connected, reach decision-makers, and grow successful businesses and careers right here in the greater Grand Rapids area. Why not you?

You Belong Here!

No matter who you are or where you are, having a sense of belonging and being part of a larger community is essential. Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow even cites it in his hierarchy of basic human needs, and studies over the decades have reinforced belonging as a key to happier, healthier people and stronger, more supportive societies.

“A sense of belonging helps to create a thriving community. People who feel like they
belong work very hard to make Grand Rapids a great place to live and work,” said Mike
Kerkorian, vice president of Resource Development at Heart of West Michigan United Way.

Today more than ever, we live in a fast-paced world with an always-on mentality driven by a stream of information and social media. Swimming in our busyness, it’s easy for the human psyche to start creating a sense of separation or “otherness” for us. That’s why returning to meaningful relationships and generating new networks of people and places is crucial for our well-being and productivity.

“We do have people who feel excluded and the community needs to continue to work on being inclusive,” Kerkorian added. “It’s been exciting to see Grand Rapids start to have those conversations and step in the right direction. There are so many opportunities for gathering and sharing in common experiences.”

Here are a few stories from those who have found their unique path to belonging through the Chamber—and benefited from the supportive connections, thoughtful conversations, and new (or renewed) inspiration they were looking for.

I Found a Unique Space to Build Relationships

“The Chamber has been a wonderful conduit for many initiatives in Grand Rapids including Black Women Connect. The group has been a great way to connect with women both professionally and personally.” — Angela Nelson, Amway

I Discovered My Inner Leader

“The Chamber introduced me to so many wonderful people through their leadership development programs. I was able to find out about different organizations that I had no idea were in the community. Got plugged into a lot of different volunteer opportunities and now I’m actually sitting on boards for both Saint Mary’s Foundation and Habitat for Humanity of Kent County. I would never have been connected to those organizations without my experience going through the Chambers leadership development programs.” — Lizzie Williams, Open Systems Technologies (OST)

I Can Make a Difference

“The Chamber has helped me as a young professional build my network in Grand Rapids. One way that they did that was through the Emerging Leaders Series that I did last year. I really benefitted from this program by meeting other young professionals like myself that were looking to expand and do greater things in Grand Rapids.” — Shauna VanderStel, Northwood University

My Community is Diverse

“When I saw that the Chamber of Commerce was doing this (OutPro), that in itself was huge because it wasn’t like just a couple of people got together at a bar and decided to create a networking opportunity – because there are lots of those. This was the city of Grand Rapids saying this is important to us and that people like me matter.” — Mira Krishnan, PhD, OutPro council member, formerly of Hope Network

My Connections are Stronger

“I enjoy Politics & Pints because it gives me a great way to connect with people that I wouldn’t normally spend time with or meet up in my social circles or in the community that I work. It’s a great way to build relationships and to even grow and find other people that share an interest in similar things I do—and maybe get introduced to new ideas.” — Emily Post Brieve, Kent County Commissioner, 10th District

I Found a Welcoming Home

“I moved back to Grand Rapids about five years ago after living on the east coast for almost 15 years. It was a very different Grand Rapids when I returned, but I quickly got connected with both the Chamber and another professional organization. Both groups welcomed me and I quickly felt like a part of the community again. I encourage anyone who wants to make Grand Rapids their home and feel connected to attend community events, volunteer, find a mentor, or join a group.” — Mike Kerkorian, Heart of West Michigan United Way

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber nurtures a vibrant community that promotes inclusion, innovation, and growth…and most importantly, provides a place where Grand Rapids business leaders and professionals feel like they belong.

Make the Chamber a part of your success story too. Contact us for community and talent engagement ideas and leadership development assistance.

A version of this feature article first appeared in the May 2016 edition of The Chamber News, written by AliciaMarie Belchak, Senior Communications Specialist at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. Visit to find more thought leadership like this.


Chamber Survey: Health Care and Talent Top Concerns for West Michigan Businesses

Grand Rapids, MI—Results of a public policy survey released today by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce show the cost of health care continues to be the top concern for members heading into 2016 for the fourth year in a row. Difficulty finding qualified talent was cited as the number two concern for the second year in a row. The ranking of the two issues are much closer than in previous years.

The annual survey was completed by nearly 700 members.

gr chamber results“The feedback we received from our members is critical to inform our efforts to eliminate obstacles to business success,” said Rick Baker, President and CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “Momentum continues to build in the Grand Rapids business community, and we need to continue to focus on policy that supports a healthy business climate. These results reinforce the work we are doing on both health care and talent.”

This year the Chamber survey dug deeper into health care and talent to better understand member concerns.

On the health care front: If costs were contained, 57 percent reported that they would increase wages and 34 percent reported they would hire more employees. There was also strong support for increased price transparency and reducing the burden of compliance with the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“The message from members has been clear and consistent on health care. In 2016, the Chamber will remain fiercely opposed to additional health care mandates and efforts to extend or increase the uncompetitive Health Insurance Claims Assessment Tax,” commented Andy Johnston, vice president of Government & Corporate Affairs for the Chamber. “Lansing policymakers need to take note of the impact this continues to have on job providers.”

On the talent front: 80 percent responded that their firm80 percent business growth hired and/or added new positions in the last 12 months due to business growth.

Businesses continue to struggle to find qualified applicants, however, and responses on that issue increased from 51 percent in 2014 to 61 percent this year. As a result, members noted that they used multiple strategies to fill open positions:

  • 71 percent increased their recruiting efforts
  • 32 percent increased wages to attract more qualified talent
  • 32 percent trained current staff to fill the position
  • 31 percent hired less qualified workers
  • 27 percent increased overtime for current employees

Thirty-one percent responded that positions were not filled because they could not find qualified talent. When it comes to finding qualified employees, social media replaced recruiting events as the top tool.

“We remain committed to addressing these issues from a policy perspective,” said Allie Bush, former Director of Government Affairs. “We will continue to advocate on behalf of our members in support of creating a strong talent system from early childhood education to the K-12 system as well as programs like Michigan’s Skilled Trades Training Fund that raise the capabilities of our existing workforce.”

On the local level, members supported funding for infrastructure and core services as priorities.

“The Chamber will continue working with our local government partners to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent effectively,” said Josh Lunger, director of Government Affairs. “Michigan’s economic recovery has taken some pressure off local government budgets, but wise investment remains critical to help us address legacy costs and better prepare us for the next rainy day.”

Other top issues that garnered support in the survey include: access to primary care for employees, affordable energy, invasive species, high school graduation rates, skilled-trades training, and public transit.

A summary of the survey can be found at


About the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce leads the business community in creating a dynamic, top-of-mind West Michigan region. Together with over 2,500 member businesses (80% of which are small businesses with fewer than 50 employees), we work to expand the information, influence, and access required to actively encourage entrepreneurial growth and community leadership. We offer the connections, resources, and insights needed to develop strong leaders, engage a diverse workforce, foster an inclusive and welcoming community, and advance a vibrant business environment that nurtures economic prosperity for all. Learn more at

5 Easy Steps to Create Employee Brand Advocates for Your Business

There are many ways to create influence for your business. Whether it’s offering an amazing product or implementing a PR strategy, the opportunities are endless. However, there’s one tool your business might be overlooking: The power of employee brand advocates.

Your employees have an incredible opportunity to increase your brand’s reach. Whenever they speak positively about your business, offer recommendations or create engagement through different social channels, they’re supporting your brand. In fact, research shows brand messages are re-shared 24x more frequently when distributed by employees.

Employee brand advocates have the ability to boost your company’s reputation, which means more opportunities to attract clients, customers and irreplaceable talent. Ready to transform your employees into your best advocates? Here are some ways to get started:

1. Create a planned onboarding strategy. 

Transforming employees into brand advocates starts with grabbing their attention the moment they’re hired. According to a Forbes article by James Kelly, U.S. brand leader at PwC LLP, the strength of a company’s brand is greatly influenced by the values and behaviors of its employees. Kelly also explained that it’s crucial for employee evangelists to be an essential part of your overall branding strategy.

Design an onboarding strategy that teaches employees about your organization’s mission, goals and communicates their value as a member of your team. Incorporate tools such as ongoing training, classes, certifications or professional development workshops into your onboarding program.

2. Clearly communicate your company culture.

Before employees can promote your business, they need to understand the company as a whole. In addition to onboarding, provide new hires with one-on-one meetings with different leaders throughout the organization where they can receive an overview of company policies, goals and communication procedures.

3. Encourage employees to be active on social media.

A 2014 study by Weber Shandwick found 50% of employees post photos, messages or videos about their employers. Establish a social media policy encouraging employees to tell a story about your organization through their perspective. Provide them with social media messaging and ideas for photo opportunities.

4. Give employees opportunities to be advocates.

Social media is just one of the many tools employees can use to advocate for your organization. Encourage employees to volunteer in the community and attend events that can help boost exposure for your business. For example, send employees to networking events such as the Chamber’s Business Exchange Luncheon where they can connect with the local business community.

5. Reward employees for their hard work.

Don’t let your employees’ brand advocacy go unnoticed. When an employee lands a client because of their advocacy, reward them for their hard work. Whether it’s recognizing them in front of the entire company, through a congratulatory email or giving them a gift card, make sure you recognize employees in an impactful way.

Remember, your employees are your company’s brand. Whenever they post a photo on social media or tell a friend about work, they’re contributing to the overall reputation of your organization. By harnessing the power of employee brand advocates in your marketing strategy, you’ll expand your reach and establish trust with more customers.

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of the Chamber News, written by Olivia Adams, Communications and Social Media Specialist at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. For more thought leadership like this, visit  

Employee Activists Spark a New Social Movement in the Digital Age, According to Groundbreaking Global Study from Weber Shandwick

Infographic: Social Employee Advocacy

Employee Training: ‘Brandable’ Moments