Calvin University launches startup incubator to help students start their own businesses

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Calvin University is helping students turn their entrepreneurial ideas into real businesses with a new startup incubator connecting students with the funding and mentorship they need to get their businesses off the ground.

The new Calvin Startup Garage was founded by Calvin alumnus Jon VerLee, who donated $500,000 to the university to start the new incubator, the university announced this week. VerLee will serve as a volunteer director of Startup Garage and as Entrepreneur in Residence for the next four years.

The incubator will only be available to Calvin students for the first few years. But ultimately, VerLee wants to open the Startup Garage to the broader community in West Michigan, to give people a chance to pitch their business ideas and get advice from Calvin faculty and alumni.

Related: Calvin University unveils new, $11 million, state-of-the-art business school building

“The goal is to plant 100 Christ-centered businesses in the next 10 years,” VerLee said in a prepared statement.

Calvin School of Business Dean Jim Ludema said school leaders hope to bring other Calvin graduates and local business owners into the program to provide mentorship for students who want to start their own businesses.

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“(VerLee) will be meeting with these students regularly to coach them on their business, and then he will bring in a different entrepreneur every Wednesday to talk to the students and listen to their ideas,” Ludema told MLive on Wednesday . 14 Sept

Ludema said he envisions active participation by the Calvin alumni community in Startup Garage and hopes other alumni will help build the program’s endowment to fund the incubator for years to come.

Students enrolled in the program can apply for up to $2,000 in seed funding for their business, Ludema said. The college will also help connect students with potential investors to help grow their businesses.

According to a university press release, the incubator will host pitch-up competitions and shark tanks, where students can compete for seed money for their businesses, and they can also participate in local and regional competitions.

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The startup garage is open to students of all majors at Calvin, not just business students, Ludema said.

“The idea is that students can create and grow businesses that add real value to the marketplace and also serve as agents of renewal in their communities,” he said.

VerLee, a 2008 Calvin graduate and former youth pastor, founded an easy-to-use church management software company in 2014. He grew the business to 9,000 churches and sold it in 2021 “for an amount I am still shocked and blessed by.” VerLee said in a statement from Calvin, without disclosing the amount.

After selling his company, Jon VerLee said that he and his wife Kerrie VerLee wanted to help spread the success that God had given them, which is how they came up with the idea for Startup Garage.

Calvin principals touted the new Startup Garage on Wednesday during a dedication ceremony for the university’s new School of Business building, which officially dedicated last week after more than a year of construction.

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Calvin President Wiebe Boer said the Business Incubator is one of many new, exciting programs the university is launching at the new business school, which launched in 2021 thanks to a $22.25 million donation from an anonymous donor .

“This business school will teach young people how to become the best leaders in business, how to think beyond the bottom line and the social and positive social impact they make for society,” Wiebe told media at Wednesday’s ceremony.

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