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It's Not All About The Big 3: To Kick-Start Michigan's Economy, Rick DeVos Invests In Art & Startups

A native son of western Michigan, Rick DeVos believes if business can let go of some control and give people big opportunities to test their ideas, they’ll achieve astonishing results.

Rick DeVos is a 29-year-old entrepreneur who wants to jump-start the economy in his home state of Michigan. But don’t file him away between developers of lakeside casinos, film production facilitators, and hybrid auto parts manufacturers just yet. DeVos is taking a decidedly different approach to stimulus. He’s piecing together a collage that aims to encourage creativity and collaboration between fine art and businesses, aspiring entrepreneurs and financial backers, all to be supported and promoted by the general public.

For DeVos, it’s as simple as this: "A culture that innovates is a culture that shares a lot of ideas." All that sharing builds momentum, and you know what happens when you set something in motion. Here’s what else DeVos told Fast Company about social innovation, creative collaboration, and the importance of small-scale experimentation.

The Big Idea(s) 

Burdened by a decades-long recession and the near-collapse of auto manufacturing two years ago, Michigan’s recovery is at the forefront of its native son’s mind. DeVos believes if business can let go of some control and give people big opportunities to try small ideas, they’ll achieve astonishing results. 

With that in mind, DeVos established Pomegranate Studios, an incubator of programs and ideas which most notably spawned ArtPrize. Launched in 2009, ArtPrize is billed as the "world’s largest" social art experiment. ArtPrize doles out $474,000 among 10 artists picked by public vote, who install their work in approved venues throughout the city. To date, the nearly three-week-long event has drawn the works of over 2,000 artists and introduced nearly half a million visitors and residents of Grand Rapids to the world of contemporary art. More than 460,000 people voted for the winners last year. 

Applying the ArtPrize concept to the business of startups, DeVos launched Momentum, an early-stage incubator with a signature event called 5x5. Again, he was thinking how small opportunities could lead to big changes. The platform is specifically designed to lower the first barrier to entrepreneurship—getting people to listen. So, on a monthly basis, five entrepreneurs get five minutes to present five slides to five judges in order to win $5,000. Now, the general public will be invited to vote for ideas they want to see presented during 5x5 Night, which will be held on November 29 at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. 

Family Legacy

The grandson of multi-billionaire Richard DeVos, cofounder of Amway, DeVos says his entrepreneurial roots run deep. "Both my grandfathers were very successful entrepreneurs, so it’s in the family DNA to do things for yourself, so it was never really a question to do my own thing," says DeVos, even though he admits the path of least resistance would have been to join the family business.

Indeed, he says a lot of his exposure to business came from sitting around the dinner table as a child and listening to a variety of situations. DeVos also worked in retail at a guitar store while he was in high school, which cemented his love for the creative and artistic world. "A music store is a unique community," he says.

Soon after, DeVos began forging his own path by attending college at Pepperdine, far from the family homestead. "In West Michigan, yeah, my name is recognized but I am mostly socially oblivious," he admits with a laugh. "It’s always a challenge and a double-edged sword. I have deep roots here and lots of connections and resources, but at the same time, I’m doing my own thing. I’m not trying to fill these shoes. I love to have opportunities to build on [my family’s] legacy in terms of creating a platform to [encourage] a culture of entrepreneurialism and risk-taking."

DeVos maintains that his family’s culture is supportive of his endeavors. "We define the family business broadly, not just as Amway or the Orlando Magic," he says. Indeed, support for ArtPrize has come from the DeVos family, namely his parents’ nonprofit, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, where DeVos is a trustee.

Fear of Failure 

Though he’s got a built-in safety net, DeVos says fear of failure never completely goes away. His experience launching Spout.com, a social networking site for film buffs that was later acquired by SnagFilms, taugh him that "obviously failure sucks. But it was a great learning experience," one which led directly into ArtPrize. 

"It’s challenging in the industrial Midwest where they load failure up with other baggage," says DeVos. In his ideal world, everyone would understand that failure is a by-product of learning. "You are going to fail when you are doing and trying things. I want to get us to a place as a community where we understand that again and don’t see failure that way."

Sharing is the Antidote

DeVos admits there isn’t any one silver bullet to counteract a mindset built on decades of economic downturn, but he is confident that sharing is the key to forward motion.  "We are trying to get our investment community to invest more in smaller enterprises, do it publicly, and not be afraid to be tied to a company that turns out to be a turkey," he maintains. "It’s just a matter of practice."

People need to see that the world doesn’t end when someone starts something and fails. "Maybe the next thing he did was a success. It’s about courage. Not so much about defeating fear as much as feeling it and managing it."

DeVos took sharing one step further with ArtPrize.

"It’s intentionally a large incentive with few rules in order to let people try a lot of things. We don’t curate anything, we just register artists and venues and they work together, so it’s not just artists’ work but business owners experimenting with presentation. It’s a party atmosphere that lets people let their hair down. Our goal is unmeasurable," DeVos says. "Just to open those capillaries and try something different. What if it has an impact on how people approach their business the rest of the year and turns the business owners into more effective innovators?"

What’s Next

DeVos says that Artprize as a nonprofit 501c3 is well on its way to being sustainable. "It’s a great opportunity for sponsors and there are a ton of ways people can plug in and be supportive of the core organization. The full-time staff is 12 people, so quite lean for the scale of the event," he says.

While he’s been approached to replicate the ArtPrize model in other cities, DeVos is keeping his eye on developing more ways to "turbo-charge the earliest stages of ideas of businesses in Michigan," for the time being. 

He underscores, "It’s important to have leadership and culture of investing around the earliest phases of business. We are looking at how those things combine and work together to get to the next level and create an ecosystem."

Check out our Who's Next series for more profiles of the big thinkers everyone's talking about. For more leadership coverage, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Lydia Dishman is a Fast Company reporter and producer of 30 Second MBA. email | Twitter

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1 Comments

  • Leroy Strong

    I heard that "Start a Garden was looking for Ideas .
    We will be starting biodiesel processing shortly.
    Engineering has been completed.
    This is an emerging multi Billion dollar industry.
    We are looking for a good start and great growth.