Angel Vanas opened her alternative hair salon Star Studio
in 2011 after returning to Ypsilanti, which she says "felt like home like no place else did." She says it didn't take long for her to realize that "business isn't all numbers."
"Business is actually really spiritual, and connects you to the community like no other thing can," she says.
Vanas is just one of many Ypsi business owners who give back to their community in a variety of ways outside of running their businesses. For her part, Vanas has acted as the president of the Ypsilanti Enterprise Association
, organized community events through the Ypsilanti chapter of Junior Chamber International (JCI) Michigan
, taken charge of the Ypsilanti 4th of July Parade, and much more.
Vanas has served on the Ypsilanti Enterprise Association, formerly known as the Downtown Association of Ypsilanti, for the past two years. She hopes that expanding the organization's reach beyond the downtown area and into the rest of the city and Ypsilanti Township will bring business owners together for more collaborative opportunities.
"There's no reason why people shouldn't be collaborating all across Ypsi," she says. "Being a business owner is hard. It's so much harder than people think it is. The value is in camaraderie but also advocacy."
Through JCI, Vanas assisted with a number of seasonal events and programs such as Bountiful Baskets, which provided Thanksgiving meals to families in area elementary schools, and Ypsi's annual Fourth of July parade. Unfortunately, the local JCI chapter closed in 2017 due to a lack of membership, but that hasn't stopped Vanas from keeping its community impact alive.
Star Studio owner Angel Vanas.
Vanas has been running the Fourth of July parade, using it as an opportunity to highlight Ypsi's creative community. Vanas explains that the scale of the event is much larger than many realize, with planning typically beginning in January, and the planning committee fundraising to adequately pay performers and others involved with the event.
"We try to give people what they need to bring their specialness to the parade," she says. "That day is the one day where we all have the same title, Ypsi-Americans. We're all there for the same thing. It's a beautiful experience."
Vanas also worked alongside Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels
(YMOW) earlier this year on the organization's annual Pi(e) and a Pint Day
at Corner Brewery
, but gave the fundraiser an unusual twist.
"We added Dungeons and Dragons," she explains. "We played a game live. We all dressed up and streamed it on YouTube. At one point our live feed dropped out, and we had people come down to Corner Brewery in person to find out how the story ended."
Attendees not only helped YMOW raise money through food and drink sales, but also were able to donate by participating in choose-your-own-adventure style polls that impacted the live gameplay. These efforts combined allowed YMOW to surpass its $5,000 donation goal, raising close to $7,000 in total. The event was so successful, in fact, that Vanas says the Dungeons and Dragons story will continue this Giving Tuesday.
"We don't have a location hammered down, but it's happening," she says. "We need to make sure Ypsi Meals on Wheels stays functioning and that people are getting what they need to survive."
Vanas isn't the only local business owner giving back to the greater Ypsi community. Brian Jones-Chance, COO of 734 Brewing Company
, not only aids Ypsi's community by seeking out partnerships with businesses owned and operated by people of color (POC), but also participates in change at the city level.
"I'm the sixth of seven generations to live in Ypsi. We've been here for a while," he says. "Being a part of the fabric of Ypsi is just something we do automatically."
734 Brewing Company COO and Jones Chance & Co owner Brian Jones-Chance.
As a former Ypsilanti City Council member, Jones-Chance began to do extensive work regarding gun violence on the city's Southside. He also co-founded the nonprofit Association of Businesses of Color
, and holds multiple board positions in city development – all in addition to his work with 734 Brewing and his real estate business, Jones Chance & Co
734 Brewing, like Vanas and Star Studio, also has partnered with YMOW, and often partners with local POC-owned food trucks with the intent to diversify the restaurant and hospitality industry. Chance explains that he and his fellow business owners want to find ways to "crack the door open" for minority-owned businesses, and leave the community that they serve "better than they found it."
"In general, I'm a big believer in the existence of the social contract between commerce and community," Chance says. "I think that beyond the bottom line of businesses, it's our responsibility to take care of the people around us, even people that may not interact directly with your business."
The idea of businesses collaborating to uplift one another is a common one among Ypsi's small business community. But it's the crux of the mission at Back Office Studio
, a co-working space in the heart of downtown that provides meeting and work spaces for a number of industries. The team at BOS also continuously works with other local businesses and nonprofits to bring even more entrepreneurs to the city.
BOS Community Manager Kristin Danko highlights BOS' work with SPARK East Innovation Center
through their 9th Hour
networking events, as well as providing meeting space for community events like First Fridays
. She notes that she and other BOS team members are "really ingrained" in the Ypsi community.
"We all try to put ourselves out there and not only open the doors to allow us to be a resource, but also BOS to be a resource," she explains. She notes that she and many other BOS team members teach at Eastern Michigan University and hold board positions in organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters
and the Ypsilanti Youth Orchestra
Because BOS is available for business owners and entrepreneurs from any industry, Danko and the BOS team have had a number of opportunities to see businesses and nonprofits grow from the ground up. Many local nonprofits, such as A Brighter Way
and Hope Clinic
, have utilized the space, and Danko hopes to see even more nonprofits and small teams discover and utilize BOS' resources.
Back Office Studio Community Manager Kristin Danko.
"With our community connections, it enhances the member experience and hopefully the Ypsilanti business experience," she says. "Having more businesses down here so that we can connect with other nonprofits or community leaders is a really wonderful thing."
After seeing a number of Ypsi businesses close
over this past year, these business owners hope that continuing their work in the community will aid not only residents, but their fellow business owners. Danko, Jones-Chance, and Vanas all hope that their various community roles will keep residents, business owners, and visitors coming back to Ypsi for years to come.
"I think what's really cool about Ypsi is that we are all so invested in Ypsi and its success and growth," Danko says. "Our neighbors' success is our success."
"Developing that local ecosystem is really important," Jones-Chance says. "We want to add to that or keep that going in any way we can."
"Community service gives you purpose. It can increase your network, which is important even if you aren't a business owner," Vanas says. "This work can be taxing, but so rewarding."
Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
All photos by Doug Coombe.