Grand Rapids resident aims to bring Black-owned businesses out of the shadows
By Marla R. Miller
GRAND RAPIDS — An ambitious and energetic entrepreneur, Jamiel Robinson looks at areas like Eastown, East Hills and the Wealthy Street district and wants the same for the Southtown area and other minority neighborhoods in Grand Rapids.
He envisions vibrant business districts catering to the city’s African American residents, where they can shop, eat, work and live in thriving urban communities.
“I want to holistically improve the economic condition of the Black community,” he said. “You have to spend money where you live and work or a community is not able to develop any kind of wealth.”
By all accounts, this rising mover and shaker could have chosen a different path after losing his mother and becoming a father as a young man. But, he decided to lead by example, make a positive impact on local youth, and believe in the pursuit of the American dream.
A teen mentor and supervisor by day, Robinson, 30, has added CEO and champion of Black-owned businesses to his résumé. He founded Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, a startup economic development company, to increase exposure and success rates of Black business owners.
Robinson also works to keep kids out of trouble and develop leadership skills as youth and teen director at the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids.
His second passion is serving as a catalyst for business development and cheerleader for economic equity in Black neighborhoods. For his work with GRABB and promoting local purchasing and sustainable living, Local First recently presented him with the Local Hero LocalMotion award. GRABB created the “30 days 30 dollars” challenge to encourage people to spend money at locally owned Black businesses.
GRABB launched in July 2013 and provides a platform for African American entrepreneurs to share ideas, information and exposure through expos and training. Rather than operating a business as a hobby or underground, Robinson wants to help small business owners increase the legitimacy, viability and sustainability of those businesses. GRABB also offers small business support services in the form of consulting, advocacy, networking opportunities and access to capital.
As GRABB continues to grow, Robinson hopes to facilitate revitalization efforts in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city, starting with the Southtown area bound by Wealthy Street on the north, Eastern Avenue on the east, Cottage Grove to Madison Avenue and Garden to Division, he said.
“There aren’t businesses there for them to support,» he said. «Typically, those areas have been neglected from any kind of infrastructure improvements. Investments first come from public dollars, and then attract private investors.»
Life lessons mold and motivate
Robinson has no problem with working hard and charged on despite losing his mother at age 20, when she was only 40 years old. He also has three kids of his own, ages 3, 10 and 12. He prefers to use those life lessons to impact the lives of others, driven by a deep desire to live up to his grandfather’s legacy.
“She would always say ‘I would never leave you until you’re ready,’» he said of his mother’s passing. “Am I ready? God has a plan for us all. If she was still here, I’m not sure I would be working with kids. My life would have been 100 percent different.»
Robinson’s grandfather also died at a young age, 47, when Robinson was only 6. His grandfather, Ronald Robinson, owned commercial and residential property in the city, including most of the block of Division Avenue south of Wealthy Street, he said.
It was anchored by his Robinson Barber Shop, which served as a gathering spot for information and meetings for the Black community, he said. The properties remained in the family until relatives sold them in 2005
Between Robinson’s community activism, parenting and entrepreneurial activities, he also works full time at the downtown David D. Hunting YMCA. He also manages the youth and teen center and outreach programs in select Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Robinson’s childhood and life experiences, choices in high school, and early career indecision influenced his current career path, he said. It also helps him relate to the youth he works with at the YMCA, as many students do not realize their high school years, including graduating and receiving some post-secondary training, will shape the long-term direction of their life, he said.
“I enjoy working with youth in the community to raise their academic performance,” he said. “No longer can you just rest on a high school diploma.”
A native of Grand Rapids, Robinson attended city schools, including East Kentwood and Ottawa Hills and graduated in 2001. He enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College, but soon discovered that his initial pursuit of web and game design and programming wasn’t for him. He switched to business, earning an associate’s degree and taking additional classes at Grand Valley State University.
Robinson grew up understanding the good life, as well as living with economic uncertainty. As an only child reared by a single mom, he rarely wanted for much—until she lost her job at a General Motors factory. Her death in 2003 also changed him.
“She was an angel,” Robinson said of his mother. “She was a cheerful giver and an extremely kind and caring person. I spent a few years not sure what I wanted to do. I knew I had to rediscover my purpose.”
At 24, Robinson started his own nonprofit, the Open Book Project, working to improve college readiness and study habits of students in Grand Rapids schools. He took the job at the YMCA in January 2011.
Robinson oversees the non-athletic programs focused on career and college choices, and the TeenZone, where students can go afterschool to use computers, do homework, learn multimedia skills, and play games in a safe environment.
“What I did with Open Book easily transferred into this position,” he said. “The main focus was getting their GPAs up, attendance up and improving their academic performance.”
Robinson hopes his work with GRABB helps set the stage for those youth to become the leaders of tomorrow and stay in Grand Rapids.
“I still love what I do at the Y,” he said. “I still want to work with the youth because they are the future. They are the ones I am building this for. They need to be prepared to take on that fight. It’s all about progressing the dream that is America. That’s why I do everything I do.»
Empowering businesses, building community
In an activist role, Robinson and a former Ottawa Hills classmate, Jonathan Jelks, have hosted community forums to discuss issues around education and economic opportunity for the Black community. The pair also organized the Empower Michigan tour last spring to encourage conversation and collaboration among predominantly Black communities in Michigan.
“He’s really developed and blossomed into a dynamic leader here in Grand Rapids,» Jelks said of Robinson.
Jelks, owner of JA Jelks Consulting, praised Robinson for wanting to help Black-owned businesses. “GRABB is filled with a ton of potential and has created a dialogue between business owners who didn’t interact with each other,» Jelks said. «There’s a drought of businesses and African American business districts. He’s really bringing these things to the forefront.»
As CEO of GRABB, Robinson also hopes to someday work for himself again. He structured the organization as a for-profit company, “so he can turn $1 into $2,” he said. Still, his goal is to connect Black business owners with each other, capital, consumers and the larger community.
GRABB advocates for Black-owned businesses, as well as provide resources, training, and exposure opportunities to help them grow and thrive as legitimate businesses. Robinson is also working to develop a comprehensive business directory, available on GRABB’s Facebook page. He hopes to see hard copies in businesses, cars, and homes so people can use them when deciding what businesses to patronize.
GRABB also has a monthly newsletter and a website in the works, and Robinson wants to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as a real estate developer.
“It’s really activity-based right now,» he said. «It’s really multifaceted. I also want to work with city officials to revitalize business districts in the Black community, bringing a home base for businesses to land with the aim of helping to create a micro-economy that can support the Black community.”
Currently, Black-owned businesses are scattered throughout the city and places likes Cascade, Wyoming, and Kentwood, he said. By creating defined business districts in minority neighborhoods, it will provide Black-owned businesses with a base to attract customers, employees and regional support, he said. It also will create a sense of community and bring pride back to impoverished neighborhoods.
He said the revenue Black communities generate is pennies compared to their counterparts. “They are flipping over a dollar six to eight to 12 times in other ethnic groups,” he said.
GRABB launched with a mini-Black business expo and reception in July, and held another networking and business showcase in November at the LINC Gallery. The Black Market was a two-day event with booths featuring minority-owned businesses and training and speakers.
Reflective of GRABB’s logo showing a black cityscape shadowed in gray, Robinson said Grand Rapids is a tale of two cities. While it has a flourishing small business community, less than 10 percent of those are owned by minorities.
He wants to bring business faces out of the shadows and help Black businesses become anchors and assets in the city’s urban neighborhoods.
His response when asked how he finds the time for it all: “You just do it,” he said. “These are things I am passionate about. I feel this is my purpose. When God chooses someone to use, you just find the time.”
Marla R. Miller is a social activist, entrepreneur and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids. Learn more about her background and work at marlarmiller.com