Category Archives: Leadership Development

The Grand Rapids Chamber Celebrates 20 Years of Healing Racism

When was the last time you had an honest conversation about race with a diverse set of people?

Over the years, racism has become one of several highly sensitive topics that people avoid talking about in public. The sad truth is that racism happens every day, whether or not we choose to discuss it with our peers or coworkers. This silence likely even perpetuates racism, encouraging ignorance through a lack of understanding.

Racism can assume many forms. Whether it’s the explicit judgment of others because of skin color, telling a bad joke in the break room, or more subtle versions where the person doesn’t even realize they carry an implicit bias – like assuming someone is less qualified for a job.

Sonya Hughes, Vice President of Inclusion

To the Grand Rapids Chamber, racism is a disease – and like many other diseases, there is a cure. Take part in the healing process with the Chamber’s Institute for Healing Racism (IHR).

“For 20 years, the Chamber’s IHR has provided a facilitated process, language, and context to examine racism to help move equity forward,” said Sonya Hughes, the Chamber’s Vice President of Inclusion. “We’re proud to have put over 2,000 through the program and are thankful for the many volunteers, partners, and supporters that have contributed to the success and sustainability of the initiative. While we recognize progress has been made, there is still work to be done.”


Facing Racism, IHR’s 2-day program, ultimately teaches that we must bring racism to the forefront of our discussions and embrace it as both a personal and societal problem. Once this is accomplished, the framework is set for not only knowing how to identify racism, but how to take steps in eliminating it from both our workplaces and our communities.

Facing Racism, August 2017 Session

The program is designed to attack the disease of racism from all sides. Throughout the program, a racially diverse group of people commit to learning how to diagnose and heal the disease by first dissecting their own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Most importantly, each participant must be able to listen in a non-judgmental, objective manner.

Once this first step of trust and understanding has been taken, the members of the group are more receptive to open and honest discussions about some of the most understated and controversial topics related to racism. What does it mean to be a person of color? What does it mean to be white? How is this racism affecting my company? By the end of the session, each participant will be empowered with the knowledge and insight of how to combat racism in his or her workplace, personal life, and community.

“We talk about a difficult topic, but we do it in a safe space,” said Kenneth James, Talent Development Program Manager of the Chamber. “We’re not attacking any individual or a group of people. We do have to take a look at our past, and there’s some pain there, but it’s done safely and respectfully.’


We believe the most effective way to combat racism is to educate individuals by use of an honest and open dialogue. Together, we can rebuild our multicultural community into a place where people of all races can live and work in an understanding and affirming manner. Through our program, participants begin a learning process that will enable them to become a catalyst for racial unity, not only within their workplaces but throughout all aspects of their lives.

Kenneth James, Talent Development Program Manager

“I’m a big advocate of IHR. It gives you a lens that the average person hasn’t been exposed to and that’s phenomenal,” said James. “We also give it a business spin by discussing hiring policies and employer relations. A harmonious work environment will positively impact your company’s bottom line.”

Ensure the health of your company and community by becoming a healer of racism.

Questions? Visit or contact Kenneth James at

Meet the 2017 EPIC Award Recipients!

On the 18th of October 2017 at 20 Monroe Live, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the 2017 EPIC Awards – where local organizations and professionals were recognized for their outstanding success stories and contributions to West Michigan’s thriving economy.

“We are proud to support businesses and individuals growing, innovating, collaborating, and creating right here in West Michigan,” said Rick Baker, President & CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber. “They are the economic engines driving growth in the Grand Rapids region.”

Twenty local entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations were in the running as finalists for seven EPIC Award categories. Recipients and finalists alike are honored for their support of the community, their growth and innovation in business, and for their work with others as mentors and as collaborators.

Each finalist was required to complete a comprehensive application as part of the nomination process. Seven selection committees comprised of both Chamber members and sponsors were then formed for each EPIC award category. After careful review of all nominee applications, each committee selected three finalists to interview before finally selecting a winner.

And the 2017 EPIC Award Recipients are…

Young Entrepreneur of the Year
Elizabeth Schenk, Posh Petals

Owner Elizabeth Schenk and the Posh Petals team

WHAT THEY DO: Posh Petals designs and creates fresh flower arrangements in a variety of styles for weddings, events and everyday occasions. They love sharing the beauty they get to experience every day and their passion shows in their work.

Woman-Owned Business of the Year
Mixed Staffing & Recruiting

Sara Sherry Knoester, President of Mixed Staffing & Recruiting

WHAT THEY DO: A certified Woman-Owned professional staffing agency that focuses on meeting their clients’ needs 100% of the time. They work with individuals and find the best fit not only for their clients but their candidates as well. They focus on placing the right people with the right employers, finding today’s talent and tomorrow’s success.

Minority-Owned Business of the Year
Preferred Construction Group

Troy Yarbrough, CEO of Preferred Construction Group

WHAT THEY DO: PCG helps elevate healthcare, educational and commercial facilities in the greater Grand Rapids area through exceptional construction management and general contracting services.

Learn more about Troy Yarbrough and PCG here.

Veteran-Owned Business of the Year
Elevator Service Inc.

Nate McFadden, President of Elevator Service Inc.

WHAT THEY DO: Headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan for over 30 years, Elevator Service Inc. provides safe and quality construction, modernization, and repair services for all elevator applications in many of Michigan’s most noteworthy institutions.

Small Business of the Year

Sara Moylan, owner of SheFit

WHAT THEY DO: A performance-enhancing women’s apparel company with an emphasis on fully custom adjustable sports bras for women of all ages, sizes, and athletic levels.

Non-Profit of the Year
Dégagé Ministries

Marge Palmerlee, Executive Director of Dégagé Ministries

WHAT THEY DO: Daily, Degage Ministries offers dignified and relationship-oriented services to 400-500 individuals who are experiencing homelessness and numerous hardships.

Excellence in Business
Sun Title 

Lawrence Duthler, Owner & President of Sun Title

WHAT THEY DO: Sun Title attracts, retains and supports the very best title professionals, who are able to provide unparalleled levels of expertise and service to professionals and their clients throughout the entire real estate transaction.

And that’s a wrap.

See you at the 2018 EPIC Awards!

It’s always a good time with Chamber Team!

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.

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“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.

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

Take Action. Start the Conversation.

Walk the Walk.

In principle and practice, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce believes in
the value and power of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Without diversity, equity, and inclusion, we limit our talent, resources, and the business
opportunities necessary to thrive in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

In an effort to better serve and represent our membership, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber is committed to actively seeking a diverse and inclusive board, workforce, membership, business environment, and community.

Addressing Racism as a Starting Point for Change

Thirty years ago, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce began the Institute for Healing Racism. Today, we remain the only Chamber to provide an educational program, focused on the impact of racism on individuals, community, and businesses.

Facing Racism is a two-day program offered to members of the West Michigan community. The goal for the program is to provide a learning process that will empower them to become a catalyst for
racial equity; not only within their workplaces, but throughout all areas of their lives.

Inside the doors of Facing Racism, racially diverse members of the community come together, in an inclusive and safe environment, to engage in open and real conversations about race.

Racial inequity continues to be a nationwide concern. Conversations continue to build within West Michigan, leaving some feeling helpless, wondering what they can do to impact change. Facing Racism is a place to start.

Start your healing.

The first step of the program is internal. Through open conversation, objective, and non-judgmental listening, attendees have room to examine their own identity and prejudices.

Attendees gain knowledge around the often misunderstood key concepts of racial inequity. These concepts include: colorblindness, color consciousness, diversity and racial diversity, white privilege, systemic oppression, and implicit bias. The program facilitators guide attendees through each of these concepts, providing historical data and current context. Attendees share their experiences with each of these topics through group conversation and activities.

Bring it to your community.

By the end of the program, attendees experience internal change, they are armed with the tools, resources, and confidence to challenge themselves to take action.

Attendees are empowered to take the information, understanding, and emotional healing they gain and leave with an action plan to implement in their work, family, and/or personal lives.

A section of Facing Racism is dedicated solely to developing different approaches, phrases, and language to use when racial bias is recognized. Through practice, attendees will gain a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw from when correcting the racial bias they witness.

By the end of the program, each participant is empowered to combat racism in all areas of their lives.

How can I get involved with the program?

Facing Racism is for community members, employers, and leaders who are ready to start personal change, start conversations, and impact their circles.

Join your fellow community members in a conversation about understanding racism and impacting change by registering for one of the two remaining sections taking place this year.

Register today

Upcoming summit to address business talent needs


The first of seven events in our Summit Up! Series, the Talent Summit will address how to develop, attract, and retain talent within our state, community, and your organization.

In order to help bring our community up to speed on what’s happening in our region and what they can do to grow their own talent, we’re excited to share the Talent Summit.

Learn more about the breakout sessions and register for the Talent Summit!

Speakers to highlight the importance of talent development at all levels

Our opening speaker is Roger Curtis, Director of the Department of Talent and Economic Development for the State of Michigan. We are proud to have panels of local talent experts, bringing you true examples of talent development from their organizations and strategic plans to implement within your own.

We will also welcome Dr. Irving McPhail, President and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), as our national keynote speaker.

Dr. Irving McPhail and the innovative team at NACME recognized a gap in minority talent in STEM industries. It’s their mission to create and foster opportunities for African American, American Indian, and Latino young women and men in STEM careers. They do so by creating talent pipelines for possible candidates.

Though there are different entry points into these pipelines, NACME begins attracting candidates at a high school level. Through scholarship programs and career centers, young minority students are sponsored throughout their education in STEM fields. Upon completion of their education, students are referred to partners within the industry to help place students in open positions within their communities.

NACME believes diversity drives innovation and that our engineering workforce that looks like America. We couldn’t agree more and are honored to have the opportunity to hear Dr. Irving McPhail give the keynote address at the Talent Summit.

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.

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.