Mandy Sentieri: Funding the foundations of Northern Michigan’s economy | Business


We celebrated our vibrant small business community earlier in May during Michigan Small Business Week. Especially here in rural northern Michigan, small businesses are the dominant force in our local economy.

Home to thousands of locally owned and operated small businesses, the economy of the Grand Traverse area is characterized by a unique appetite to buy local and a robust entrepreneurial drive to start something new from the roots.

Despite this, many entrepreneurs in the region note the difficulty of accessing sufficient credit and capital.

In addition to traditional loans and angel investments, there is another player that helps small businesses obtain financing. Venture North Funding and Development is a community development financial institution (CDFI) fund that provides small business loans and makes capital accessible in the 10 northwestern counties of lower Michigan.

With a focus on rural and low-income communities, Venture North works with small businesses that make a big impact. Whether they’re creating family jobs in a remote city or providing essential services to underserved communities, these mission-driven businesses are connecting to the capital they need to start and grow with help from Venture. North.

Initially incubated by the former Traverse City Chamber of Commerce, Venture North has since grown into an independent organization, successfully securing $7 million in capital from a variety of sources to help more than 100 local businesses not only get started, but grow. grow.

Venture North President Laura Galbraith has been there since the very beginning. For Laura, the best part of her job is hearing the stories of local dreamers, seeing the real-world impacts on rural communities, and witnessing the big innovations coming out of small town America.

“Small businesses are the economic heart of our region,” says Galbraith. “We have so many innovative companies in our backyard.”

Even during the difficult years of the pandemic, Venture North has helped small businesses stay afloat through the Regional Resilience Program. Laura lists this program as one of their proudest accomplishments, as they have helped over 300 businesses with $1 million in philanthropic funding.

Venture North fills a critical gap in local lending by providing flexible, low-cost capital and managing more risk than traditional lenders. Therefore, they can work with start-ups and companies with particularly unique needs.

One such company approached Venture North in 2017, asking for $100,000 to import cocoa from Ecuador.

Recently recognized as one of Michigan’s Top 50 Companies to Watch and Michigan SBDC’s Best Small Business Awards at the Michigan Celebrates Small Business Gala on May 3, Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate has grown rapidly since its beginnings in the small bungalow green on the outskirts of Empire.

After Jody and DC Hayden bought the business from Mimi Wheeler in 2013, Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate struggled to secure traditional financing with inventory coming from so far away. With the help of Venture North and several microlenders, they were able to provide sustainably sourced cocoa not only for their own chocolate factory, but also for chocolatiers across the country.

They even returned to Venture North in 2021, borrowing $145,000 to buy another 12 metric tons of cocoa from their friend Jenny Samaniego in Ecuador.

With access to this financial capital, Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate has created full-time, year-round jobs and supports other local producers such as Sleeping Bear Farms in Beulah and The Farmer’s Creamery in Mio. They have also reinvested in their employees by increasing salaries, providing welfare allowances and providing professional development.

“Our team members show up every day with their kindness and impressive intelligence,” says Jody Hayden. “It’s such an honor to work with this remarkable team, and I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve built together.”

They don’t slow down. The chocolate factory has grown from an owner-operated model to a second-stage business with plans to expand its regional reach through the Edward Lowe Foundation’s Integrated Growth System.

“Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate is driven by our mission to positively contribute to the world in every small way possible. We love sharing the story of good chocolate with our customers and being part of our sweet little community.

Mandy Sentieri is Traverse Connect’s Chief Financial Officer.