Passion changes and career growth lead to Lansing entrepreneurship

Al Lopez never had any intention of being a business owner or inventor. After serving as a field service supervisor at the Lansing Board of Water and Light for 30 years, six years ago with his position at BWL, he recognized a need for a product to help him while on the job doing primary metering.

This product is called Utilishelf and its primary purpose is to help field workers have a place to put their laptop and supplies while doing daily tasks. The product has two magnets and a drop-down shelf, so it is easily transportable.

Lopez took his product to an electric meter school in Grand Rapids to see if others would have a need for this too. After his demonstration, he completed 220 orders within the first hour.

“I just saw the need for a product and was so intrigued and excited by it,” Lopez said. “I really enjoyed working on Utilishelf and now my company. I saw the opportunities to grow with it. When I saw how much interest it generated, I knew this was a potential for a thriving business.”

For Lopez, whose son served in Iraq, the next step was to aim for distributing to the military. He and his wife worked together to reach that goal and are now selling to the government.

Why does he keep doing this everyday?

“The reason is that I know my market really well,” Lopez said. “I know the needs of the guys in the field. I know my customers and I know the electrical utility business. Since I was doing it for 30 years at BWL, this is fun for me – creating stuff.”

Managing up

Scott Duimstra started at Capital Area District Libraries 13 years ago as a public service librarian and worked in almost every position you can think of, including training specialist and associate director of public services. Now, he’s just a few months in as CADL’s executive director.

“My passion professionally is to make libraries relevant to the modern age,” Duimstra said. “I want to make sure we are serving the needs of our community, which often means evolving to fit what people are interested in.”

What did he see himself doing today 5 years ago?

“It wasn’t this,” Duimstra joked. “I worked in libraries ever since high school, shelving books at the Grand Rapids library. I knew I wanted to stay in libraries for my career and the more I worked for CADL, the more it seemed like a natural fit.”

Duimstra plans to stay in this role for the next five years and beyond to see the brand of the library continue to grow. He credits his moving up the ladder to always looking ahead.

“I think you have to go with the mindset of never being satisfied,” Duimstra said. “I am a big data geek, so I wondered how many people were walking through our doors and how we can reach people who are not using the library right now. You always have to look beyond what you’re currently doing and work toward those goals.”

Working his way up through CADL, Duimstra understood the full picture of the organization.

“I have a knowledge and history of the organization, and I know how everything works. That will help tremendously in this position,” Duimstra said. 

What do these two have in common?

They are entrepreneurs, they are successful career seekers and they are looking to fulfill a need in the community. One’s passion has changed and another’s has evolved through an organization, but both have a common goal in mind for their company and organization: to grow and expand.

Switching mindsets

Stephanie Murray developed her business from a lifelong passion for design and creativity. She and her husband Ryan started their business, R.S. Improvements to focus on helping others repair and beautify their spaces.

“I know what it's like, even as a contractor, to walk into home improvement centers and be talked down to because I'm a woman,” Murray said. “I know what it's like to call someone into my home and worry about my safety or if I'm being misled. When I knock on the door of a stay-at-home mom or dad and their wide-eyed children see a woman in a tool belt, I feel like a superhero.”

Murray began her career in graphic design and writing fresh out of high school. She was always an artistic kid with a passion for writing, so she landed jobs that allowed her to use both skill sets through college.

Late in 2015, she got involved in a large, private Facebook networking group of local women, as a freelancer. She would regularly check the page for opportunities to use her skills in the community. 

She found that calls for assistance with marketing and design would result in lengthy threads of fellow members jumping in to help share their frustrations. Calls for home improvement needs were often answered with shared frustration over finding contractors who were not able or willing to tackle small projects. 

“Being a long-time DIYer, I felt like that was my opportunity to truly make a difference in our community,” Murray said. 

For Stephanie, it's always been about helping vulnerable members of her community. 

She said this is why they keep going.

“To make a difference one person, one family and one building at a time,” Murray said.

Going back and stepping up

For Steve Demeulenaere, going back to school meant something much more than just switching to another job. After completing Capital Area Michigan Works! ePathways program, he went back to Lansing Community College to advance his career path and meet his passion.

“I have reinvented myself a few times,” Demeulenaere said. “But my passion has always been to lead and inspire people. I discovered when going back to school and as a growing professional that my passion is to achieve excellence.”

Going back to school didn’t come without its obstacles.

“You have to kind of get over your own ego,” Demeulenaere said. “You are not fresh out of college and you are basically starting over, not knowing what to expect. But my situation benefitted me. I could really dedicate myself to the learning and understanding.”

He first got a bachelor of science in electrical engineering and went into manufacturing making semiconductors. He then spent eight years in sales, giving presentations and gaining public speaking skills. He also dabbled in personal training and an orthopedic sales internship, before his wife convinced him to look into the ePathways program.

“The ePathways program really opened up doors and I saw advantages from the opportunities the program presented me with,” Demeulenaere said. “The program gave me the skills I needed to get the job that I have now. As soon as I got into class, I knew I needed to make myself as employable as possible. I really got out of it, what I put in.”

As a software engineer at Vertafore, Inc., Demeulenaere is thinking about what’s next in his professional life.

“I think I would like to do more mentoring,” Demeulenaere said. “When I was a student at LCC, I was a supplemental instructor and I really enjoyed that and felt like I was able to help people.”

Demeulenaere would also like to work his way up into management, as he likes to be on the strategic planning and responsibility side of tactics.

“I just like to be happy with what I do; that’s what keeps me going,” Demeulenaere said. I don’t look for money or big promotions or having titles; being happy is what’s important. That desire for coming to work everyday.”

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Meg Dedyne is a freelance writer for Capital Gains. 

Photos © Dave Trumpie

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

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