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Clockwise from left: Kim Bode, Nate Koetje, J.D. Loeks
and Emily Loeks

The Creative Class

Here are 20 young leaders who are shaping
the future of Grand Rapids — and beyond.

By Tonya Schafer
Photography by Michael Buck

Creativity comes in many forms: a work of art, a new cure for disease, a construction project that changes the face of a city.

Young leaders throughout West Michigan are using their creative impulses — in the arts, sciences, business and civic life — to make a mark in their communities.

Whether they were born in West Michigan or have chosen to make it their home, the following 20 people, all age 40 and under, demonstrate the spirit of innovation that’s shaping life throughout the region — and, in some cases, throughout the world.

Kim Bode
AGE: 29 ORGANIZATION: West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative TITLE: Marketing Director RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, marketing committees, Cattle Baron’s Ball, MichBio and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts; member, steering committee, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park; member, Young Leaders Board, Goodwill Industries.

“I’m a workaholic,” said Kim Bode. “A lot of times, I’ll work until 7 or 8 at night, and then go home and work some more. But I truly enjoy what we’re doing.”

As marketing director for the West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative, Bode handles public relations, marketing, fundraising and graphic design for the nonprofit group that offers resources for entrepreneurs in the science and technology industries.

Bode works with the West Michigan Medical Device Consortium, which offers a forum for medical device companies to collaborate with each other.

“We’re helping them grow their customer base and get the word out about the great things they’re doing,” Bode said.

She also helped start the Connect2 program, which provides networking opportunities for member companies.

“Every day is a challenge,” said Bode, noting that because she comes from a communications/public relations background, she had a learning curve when it came to the science industry. “But it’s exciting. We’re seeing the growth of the life sciences in West Michigan. It’s such an exciting time to be here.”

Nate Koetje
Age: 32 COMPANY: Feyen Zylstra TITLE: Chief Operating Officer RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, Grand Rapids Planning Commission; volunteer, Schools of Hope program through Heart of West Michigan United Way and Grand Rapids Public Schools; graduate, Leadership Grand Rapids program.

Feyen Zylstra LLC takes pride in being part of the Grand Rapids community.

“We’re on the river in an old building that we’ve been in since before it was cool to rehab old buildings,” said Nate Koetje, chief operating officer for the electrical services firm.

Despite its vintage location, the company has a progressive ethic, and Koetje is guiding its business strategy.

“We reward risk-taking and entrepreneurial behavior,” Koetje said. “We really focus on getting into clients’ facilities and into their minds.”

Feyen Zylstra has installed electrical systems in such places as the JW Marriott, DeVos Place and Van Andel Institute. The company also works with mid-sized manufacturers and smaller businesses.

“I’m not technical in nature by any stretch,” said Koetje, who’s been with Feyen Zylstra for 10 years.
Instead, Koetje joined the company because of its forward-thinking attitude.

“It’s a business in the core of Grand Rapids,” said Koetje. “We have an awareness of a business’s responsibility to the community at large.”

J.D. Loeks
AGR: 31 COMPANY: Loeks Theatres Inc. TITLE: Chief Operating Officer RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Board member, Stepping Stones Montessori School.

“Watching movies and eating popcorn.”

J.D. Loeks acknowledges that’s part of his job, but as chief operating officer of Loeks Theatres Inc., he also leads a team of executives and works on growth strategies for the company that operates movie theaters throughout West and Mid-Michigan.

Loeks’ grandfather, Jack, opened his first theater more than 60 years ago.

“I’ve always had a level of interest,” Loeks said of joining the family business.
He worked there for a few years before leaving the state in 2001 for graduate school. Three years later, he came back.

“I realized I had an opportunity sitting on a plate for me,” Loeks said.
Since then, Loeks Theatres has seen 6 percent revenue growth, and has made the transition from film projectors to digital cinema projectors.

“We’re now capable of putting anything onscreen,” Loeks said, noting that this has opened up the theater to use by nonprofit organizations and other groups. “It’s enabled us to work with other community partners.”

Emily Loeks
AGE: 34 COMPANY: Loeks Theatres Inc. Title: Director, Education and Community Partnerships RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, board of directors, West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a similar job description at other theaters,” says Emily Loeks of her position as director of education and community partnerships at Loeks Theatres Inc. “But it’s a fantastic fit.”

Loeks works with local groups to create tie-ins between their events and programming at the Loeks chain of theaters. When “The Human Body” appeared on IMAX, Loeks Theatres paired that film with the “Grossology” exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

In October, the chain hosted a “Pink Bucket Project” to raise money for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which supports breast cancer research.

“We’re in a unique business in that we have as wide a demographic passing through our doors as any business in the country,” said Loeks, adding that this makes the theater an ideal venue for raising awareness of issues. Her position also helps Loeks merge her professional life with her interest in community involvement.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to use the business to impact a lot of the things I’m passionate about,” she said.


Left to right: Kevin Stotts, Shelly Klein, Albert Yu Chang
and Eric Messing

Kevin Stotts
AGE: 37 ORGANIZATION: Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce TITLE: Vice President, Community Programs RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Volunteer, Junior Achievement; member, board of directors, Guiding Light Mission; member, Grand Rapids board, Catholic Charities West Michigan; member, executive committee, Leadership West Michigan.

Kevin Stotts had lived in several areas throughout the state, but when he and his wife were looking for a place to set down roots, they chose West Michigan.

“Of all places in the state, I thought Grand Rapids was the most attractive,” Stotts said.

Now Stotts plays a key role in developing the community’s leaders. As vice president of community programs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, he oversees the Center for Community Leadership, whose initiatives encourage leadership development and help area professionals connect with each other.

Whether professionals are well-known or new to the area, they’ll find a program that promotes their growth and civic involvement.

“The gratifying thing is seeing the tremendous work alumni are doing in our community,” Stotts said, noting that Grand Rapids is an ideal venue for the center’s work. “It’s a ‘can-do,’ results-oriented community. We’re excited about the way we’re meeting the needs of Grand Rapids and its community development.”

Shelly Klein
AGE: 36 COMPANY: k studio TITLE: Owner RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, visual arts committee, Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.

When Shelly Klein sees a blank surface, she wants to make it more exciting. “I’m interested in applying images to I-don’t-care-what,” Klein said.

As owner of k studio, the Grand Rapids-based artist does just that, covering pillows, bags, journals and wall art with her ethereal, embroidered designs. Klein earned a painting degree from Kendall College of Art and Design and worked as a consultant for the contract furniture industry before starting k studio with her mother, Mary, five years ago.

Now, Klein’s work gets attention from national magazines: Real Simple, People and Better Homes and Gardens. Locally, k studio products are sold at Home Fabrics and Underground Studio.
Business is so good, k studio recently hired a sewer to keep up with demand.

“We’ve had an awesome five years,” Klein said. “We started out of the gates running, and we’ve been so well received. We’re definitely growing.”

Albert Yu Chang
AGE: 36 COMPANY: Warner Norcross & Judd TITLE: Associate RESIDENCE: Ada COMMUNITY SERVICE: Board member, Chinese Association of West Michigan; board member and corporate secretary, Asian Health Outreach Foundation.

Albert Yu Chang was an attorney for the largest law firm in the Philippines before moving to the United States and enrolling at Northwestern University. Once he’d earned his American law degree, he accepted an offer from Warner Norcross & Judd.

“I get to do typical bread-and-butter legal work, but what people find more interesting is the international part.”

As a member of the international business group, Yu Chang works with business leaders in Asia, helping them establish presences in Michigan.

“I’m Warner’s face to the clients,” Yu Chang said. “I help them with issues like dealing with government agencies, and how to consider relationships with Michigan companies.”

Yu Chang anticipates that these opportunities for collaboration will continue growing.

“In the past three or four years, there’s been a greater interest in Asian companies coming to do business here,” he said.

“I’ll be working as a lawyer until I retire — if I retire.”

Eric Messing
Age: 29 ORGANIZATION: Broadway Grand Rapids TITLE: Executive Director RESIDENCE: East Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, Combined Theatre Scholarship committee, Grand Rapids Community Foundation; volunteer, Kelly Phillips Memorial Scholarship run.

“Nothing motivates me more than when somebody looks me in the face and says, ‘It can’t be done,’” Eric Messing said.

As executive director of Broadway Grand Rapids, Messing embraces the challenge of bringing high-quality shows to DeVos Performance Hall.

“I represent — and fight for — Grand Rapids on the national stage by negotiating with New York producers to secure the most prominent shows that West Michigan audiences deserve,” he said.

After graduating from Aquinas College, Messing became director of marketing for Circle Theatre. He left for Wayne State University, where he earned a master’s degree in theater management.

Local theatergoers might recognize Messing from his onstage work in “Corpus Christi” for Actors’ Theatre. Now, behind the scenes, he hopes to provide audiences with similarly memorable performances.

“I am very passionate about what I believe in, and I believe that Grand Rapids deserves a Broadway series in our hometown,” he said. “And with the level of Tony Award-winning shows that our city is now attracting, BGR truly is just steps away from Times Square.”


Clockwise from left: John Helmholdt, Rosalynn Bliss,
Jared Rodriguez and Mat Nguyen

John Helmholdt
AGE: 33 ORGANIZATION: Grand Rapids Public Schools TITLE: Director, Communications and External Affairs RESIDENCE: Georgetown Township COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce policy and education committees, Michigan School Public Relations Association, West Michigan Public Relations Society, Neighborhood Ventures marketing committee.

“If you see a guy with a cell phone glued to his ear, and his hair on fire, that’s me,” said John Helmholdt

Helmholdt has been director of communications and external affairs at Grand Rapids Public Schools for about a year, and in that short time, he’s overseen major changes in district communications.

“We’ve spent the better part of the past year bringing things into the 21st century,” Helmholdt said.
That includes simple efforts such as collecting e-mail addresses from parents. Major tasks include a redesign of the district’s newsletter, and the use of automated calls and door-to-door visits to let parents know about events like parent/teacher conferences.

An updated Web site is another of Helmholdt’s projects, as is a more visible presence at the state capital. Helmholdt’s background as a political consultant and lobbyist influences his approach.

“We’ve started our own campaign,” Helmholdt said of the school district. “We’re changing the philosophy that a letter home is all you do.”

Rosalynn Bliss
AGE: 33 ORGANIZATION: KidsFirst TITLE: Director RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: City Commissioner (2nd Ward); Michigan State Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Commission; co-chair, Kent County Domestic Violence Community Coordinated Response Team; board member, Michigan Professional Society Against the Abuse of Children, Grand Rapids Youth Boxing Foundation, Children’s Assessment Center and Dyer-Ives Foundation; chair, Local Advisory Committee for LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation); member, Economic Development Corp., City-School Liaison Committee, Green Grand Rapids, Fulton Street Farmer’s Market Canopy Committee; serves on the Kent County Solid Waste Commission; volunteer for Camp Compass.

When people ask Rosalynn Bliss about her vision for Grand Rapids, she has a ready answer. “It’s not my vision — it’s the community vision.”

As 2nd Ward commissioner, Bliss, 33, brings a young professional voice to local politics.

“It’s important to have a diversity of thought,” Bliss said. “There has to be a balance between people who have been active for years, and also people who are coming up. I hope I’m a mentor to encourage that involvement.”

In addition to her work with the city commission, Bliss is director of KidsFirst, a program at St. John’s Home that provides emergency shelter for abused and neglected children. That experience informs her political work, and prompted her decision to run for office.

“Through my background in social work, I became aware of the effect policy has on people’s lives,” Bliss said. “I chose to jump in and be a part of the development process.”

Jared Rodriguez
AGE: 31 ORGANIZATION: Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce TITLE: Vice President, Public Policy and Government Affairs RESIDENCE: Portland COMMUNITY SERVICE: Football coach, Portland Middle School; tee ball coach, Portland Parks & Recreation Department.

Jared Rodriguez’s goal is to make sure politicians hear the voices of West Michigan businesses.

“I have oversight of all of the chamber’s public policy initiatives at the local, state and federal levels,” said Rodriguez, who serves as vice president of public policy and government affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

A variety of efforts are helping Rodriguez advance his goal. He was involved in creating the West Michigan Chamber Coalition, which includes four area chambers of commerce — Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, Holland and Muskegon. In 2007, he also worked behind the scenes to help repeal the state’s single business tax, and sat in on sessions that resulted in the current Michigan Business Tax.

“Being a part of that was monumental,” Rodriguez said.

This past September, Rodriguez helped organize the first-ever West Michigan Regional Policy Conference, which drew business leaders and legislators to Grand Rapids.

“We’d never tried it,” Rodriguez said. “Clearly, it’s going to increase our voice in Lansing.”

Mat Nguyen
AGE: 29 COMPANY: Worksighted Inc. TITLE: President RESIDENCE: Holland COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, board of directors, Holland Young Professionals, Holland Area Chamber of Commerce and Holland Area Arts Council.

Mat Nguyen was wrapping up his final year at Hope College when he and a friend, Mike Harris, formed Worksighted Inc. in 2000. The company provides information technology support to small and medium-sized companies that can’t afford their own IT departments.

“We step in and offer the flexibility of an IT team at their disposal,” he said. “It really is a full suite of services.”

Nguyen earned a master’s degree in business administration from Grand Valley State University, and now focuses on Worksighted’s business development, while Harris handles the technical end. In the past eight years, the company has outgrown a few offices; its employees now work out of a space in downtown Holland. Worksighted also has an office in Lansing.

Despite its growth, the company’s focus is simple.

“As far as our specialty, we’ll stick to what we’re doing,” Nguyen said. “We want to be the best at what we do.”


Left to right: Harrison Withers, Peter Jacob, Matthew Sevensma
and Craig Webb

Harrison Withers
AGE: 35 COMPANY: Media 1 TITLE: Production Director RESIDENCE: Grand Haven COMMUNITY SERVICE: Volunteer, March of Dimes; member at large, board of directors, West Michigan Shores Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication.

Media 1 is a consulting company that creates custom training programs for everyone from call center technicians at Hewlett-Packard to retail workers at Meijer.

“We’re experts in the way adults learn,” said Harrison Withers, the company’s production director. “We have an incredible group of folks who have high-level experience, and we have an incredible breadth in terms of the topics we address.”

The company creates computer-based training courses and other learning systems that address client needs.

“We consult with clients to find if they have performance gaps,” Withers said. He oversees it all, keeping track of production, quality, budget and schedule. He has been involved in computer-based training since his college days. He spent seven years at Dominos Pizza as an eLearning director before moving to Media 1.

That experience has helped bring Media 1 to the forefront of its industry, but Withers credits the company’s success to the “broad background” of its workers.

Peter Jacob
AGE: 27 COMPANY: Peter Jacob Design TITLE: Owner RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: President, Alumni Board of Directors, Kendall College of Art and Design; board member, American Society of Furniture Designers; satellite member, Saugatuck Center for the Arts.

After graduating from Kendall College, Peter Jacob worked as a designer at Kindel Furniture Co. in Grand Rapids.

“I really liked it, but I needed to go in a more independent direction,” Jacob said.
Now, as owner of Peter Jacob Design, Jacob collaborates with locally and nationally known designers on a variety of projects.

He’s teamed up with Los Angeles-based designer and HGTV host Kenneth Brown on a series of home accessories for the QVC network. Jacob also works with local businesses, such as Covet Furniture and Jeup Furniture.

Hopcat patrons notice Jacob’s work every time they step up to the wood-paneled bar; he worked on renderings of it in collaboration with Think Design.

Jacob subcontracts some of his graphic design work, but otherwise he has a one-man operation.

“It’s been a huge learning curve, but I’ve had a lot of mentors,” Jacob said. “The reward is flexibility in who I work with.”

Matthew Sevensma
AGE: 35 ORGANIZATION: Metro Health Hospital TITLE: Director, Noninvasive Cardiovascular Services RESIDENCE: East Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Donor, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital

For Matthew Sevensma, medicine runs in the family. His father and brother are doctors, and so are his aunt and cousin.

“I’ve been immersed in it my whole life,” said Sevensma, who followed the family tradition by becoming a cardiologist.

He is director of noninvasive cardiovascular services at Metro Health Hospital. “When people hear ‘cardiologist,’ they always think of open-heart surgeons,” he said. Sevensma specializes in techniques such as nuclear cardiology and echocardiography that use minimal or no invasion to diagnose heart problems.

He noted that devices formerly half as big as a Volkswagen can now be carried around on a laptop. The next frontier in research involves enhancing noninvasive techniques that determine risk factors for heart attacks.

Sevensma, who attended Hope College, then got his medical degree from the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, plans to stay on top of the latest advances.

“I dedicate all my time to what I do,” he said.

Craig Webb
AGE: 39 ORGANIZATION: Van Andel Research Institute TITLE: Senior Scientific Investigator RESIDENCE: Rockford COMMUNITY SERVICE: Volunteer, Kids Fighting Cancer camp, Mel Trotter Ministries, Extended Hands (building homes for widows and orphans in Guatemala); adviser, Spectrum Health’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

The Van Andel Research Institute is on the cutting edge of inquiry into the genetic and molecular origins of disease. From the institute’s earliest days, Craig Webb has helped guide its progress.

Since joining VARI in 1999, Webb has been involved in a variety of programs that promote the institute’s mission of discovering ways to develop new treatments for diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Among them is ClinXus, an alliance of organizations that focuses on the clinical trial process.

“The idea was to compete on a national and international level,” Webb said, noting that the organizations have more success collectively than if they worked as individual units.

Webb was completing his postdoctoral fellowship at the NCI-Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center in Frederick, Md., when the institute approached him about joining its staff.

“I had no idea where Grand Rapids was at the time,” said Webb, who comes from the U.K.
Nearly 10 years later, Webb is proud of VARI’s success.

“It took a lot of time to build the infrastructure,” he said.

“Now that the infrastructure is accomplished, I’m focusing on the science again.”


Left to right: Jeff Meeuwsen, Joe Hooker,
Luisa Schumaker and Matt Jung

Jeff Meeuwsen
AGE: 40 ORGANIZATION: Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts TITLE: Executive Director RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, board of directors executive committee, ArtServe Michigan; member, board of directors, Michigan Association of Community Arts Agencies and ArtWorks.

Jeff Meeuwsen became executive director of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts six years ago, when the institute was in danger of closing its doors. Now, the UICA is thriving and anticipating a move to the Gallery on Fulton, an entertainment, residential and retail complex being built in downtown Grand Rapids for which UICA will serve as anchor.

Meeuwsen was a Kendall College student and head of his own landscape design firm when he heard about the UICA’s troubles. He’d spent several years on its board of directors.

“I could not imagine living in West Michigan without the UICA,” Meeuwsen said. “I began placing calls, and the more I learned, the more I knew I needed to do something.

“The first two years were incredibly difficult,” he acknowledged, “but by year three, we had rebuilt the board, staff and programming — and we were operating in the black. As I neared my fourth year, the opportunity to move the UICA to the Gallery on Fulton came knocking … and here we are, on the verge of something truly amazing for our community.”

Joe Hooker
AGE: 39 COMPANY: The Christman Co. TITLE: Development Services Manager RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, executive committee, Michigan chapter of the National Brownfield Association.

Grand Rapids’ life sciences infrastructure is stimulating the West Michigan economy, and Joe Hooker is playing a key role in that process.

As development services manager for Christman Capital Investment Group, affiliated with The Christman Co., Hooker oversees the Michigan Street Development between Division and Coit Avenues in downtown Grand Rapids. The project includes Spectrum Health’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and the Secchia Center, which will house the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

Hooker, who also oversees construction of a building on Front Street that will house new offices for Plante & Moran, said the projects reflect a key philosophy of The Christman Co.

“We have a corporate commitment to urban redevelopment,” he said.

For Hooker, who was born and raised in East Grand Rapids, the chance to help revitalize his community is personally rewarding, as well: “My history is all here.”

Luisa Schumacher
AGE: 27 ORGANIZATION: West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology TITLE: Executive Director RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member, board of directors, Local First and Arbor Circle.

When Luisa Schumacher saw a posting for the executive director position at the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, she visualized herself in the role so intensely, she got it.

“It’s a lot more inspiring than what I expected,” said Schumacher just a few months after becoming head of the organization that provides art and career training programs for urban youth and underemployed adults. “One thing I didn’t anticipate was falling in love with the people we serve.”

Schumacher previously was deputy finance director for the House Democrats. Looking for a change of pace, she accepted positions at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids, then at Metro Health. Both opportunities helped Schumacher in her current role by showing her the traits regional employers seek in potential workers.

Now, the Center for Arts and Technology is working toward becoming an accredited institution, and is establishing partnerships with other community groups. Schumacher anticipates success in both areas.

“We’re an organization that is really looking toward the future,” she said. “WMCAT is the coolest place in the world.”

Matt Jung
AGE: 34 COMPANY: Comfort Research TITLE: President RESIDENCE: Ada COMMUNITY SERVICE: Participant in Comfort Research’s “Books for Chairs” school reading program; donor, Ronald McDonald House and the Boys & Girls Club.

A broken beanbag and falling-apart sofa were all the inspiration Matt Jung and his friend Daniel “Chip” George needed to start their own business.

“We filled up the beanbag with parts of the sofa cushions,” said Jung. He and George made additional prototypes and showed them to friends. “The reaction was incredible.”

From that start 10 years ago, Comfort Research has evolved into a 75-person company that produces the signature Fuf Chair, in addition to other “alternative seating” products. Comfort Research sells its chairs wholesale to stores such as Wal-Mart, Target and JC Penney.

The company collaborates with Vista Ventures of Holland. Jung is president and George is CEO, but Jung notes the titles have little meaning.

“By no means is it two guys doing it all. We have an awesome team here, and I’m blessed with great business partners,” Jung said.

“I believe very much in what we’re doing.” GR

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