In March, The Right Place, Inc. hosted its first investor webinar session of the year featuring the organization’s new President and CEO, Randy Thelen.

During the session, Randy shared his thoughts on future economic growth opportunities in Greater Grand Rapids. This was followed by a Q&A session moderated by President and CEO of Spectrum Health and Vice Chair of The Right Place’s board of directors, Tina Freese Decker.

People, Place, Prosperity

One of the first items on Randy’s agenda was to simplify The Right Place’s 2020-22 Strategic Plan into three core buckets: People, Place, and Prosperity. While the goals and objectives of the Strategic Plan that was put together with input from hundreds of regional stakeholders remains the same, Randy said this realignment aims to make the plan more approachable and adoptable for community and business leaders outside of The Right Place team.

Economic development, he noted, is a collaborative effort and requires buy-in from all corners of a community. ‘People, Place, Prosperity,’ is intended to provide a common goalpost for the community to keep in mind while everyone plays their own role in building upon the region’s economic strengths.

Additionally, Randy emphasized the importance of leaning into ‘People’ and ‘Place,’ as the two are generators for a prosperous community.

“If we get ‘People’ and ‘Place’ right, if people are being developed to the best of their abilities and choose to stay in our region because of the quality of life we deliver, ‘Prosperity’ is going to occur more naturally,” said Thelen.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

“Our DE&I metrics are well below acceptable levels,” Randy commented when addressing another key part of his vision for Greater Grand Rapids’ economic future. “If we do not do something about our shortcomings in the DE&I space, we as a region will not be able to advance further.”

Randy has seen DE&I initiatives flourish in economic development, particularly during his time with the Greater Omaha Chamber, when he helped launch the award-winning REACH program. By dramatically increasing the number of diverse business owners, he witnessed the tangible impact it made on the Greater Omaha community.

“We are well below the mark on two key measurements here: business start-ups founded by people of color, and job opportunities for people of color,” said Randy. He referenced the recent Inclusive Learning Lab The Right Place conducted with the Brookings Institution, which outlines some key gaps in the Greater Grand Rapids region’s DE&I progress and identified strategies to address them.

To continue the momentum generated from the Inclusive Learning Lab, Randy said The Right Place is now working with its partners to identify key metrics that will help drive results to further DE&I in the community, both for the short- and long-term.

Moving Forward

Aspirational thinking was a top lesson Randy took away from his time in Denver, and one that he believes Greater Grand Rapids will benefit from in the years to come.

“Looking at all of the facets that make up both our community and economy, it’s clear our region has been driven forward by aspirational thinking. It is important for us to use that momentum and keep pushing for more as we continue to grow. We should be excited for all we have accomplished already, but not satisfied. Our competitors are not sitting back and waiting for their next opportunities to come along, and neither should we.”

Bridging the gap between labor needs and talent is also a critical piece of moving the needle for future growth. Thelen mentioned local companies that are early adopters of top-tier talent strategies, like Gentex and Autocam Medical, are setting the standard for talent attraction and retention. Morphing these into best practices that are more approachable and easier to integrate across more companies will be a gamechanger for our region’s talent pipeline.

“We have to find ways for our businesses to engage with students at a high school level so students can start to see what their future might hold,” said Randy.

When asked about the primary goal of economic development, Randy reiterated his focus on the three pillars of ‘People, Place, Prosperity.’ “The groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings are the events that capture headlines. Those business growth projects are the means to an end. At the end of the day, people are the drivers. People differentiate one region from another, and our work’s purpose is to help them reach their full potential within our community. We achieve that by executing an aggressive business growth strategy, which in-turn drives opportunity for all people in our region.”

Concluding the webinar, Randy let attendees know he plans to continue meeting with hundreds of business and community leaders in the months to come to further collaboration and learn more about the challenges and opportunities facing our region, “The more input we get, the more feedback we get, the better we can perform as a region, both at The Right Place and throughout the community.”