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Dennis West


Northern Initiatives

1401 Presque Isle Ave.
Jacobetti Center, Suite 202
Marquette, Michigan 49855
Dennis West and his staff at Northern Initiatives help businesses obtain the capital they need to start and expand their operations. This, in turn, helps to create jobs and wealth, which ultimately strengthens local families living in rural northern Michigan.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Northern Initiatives President Dennis West: Being a leader means responsibility, modeling, living the duality of being pragmatic and positive.
Being a leader means responsibility, modeling, living the duality of being pragmatic and positive.
As Parker Palmer has said, being able to have chutzpah, advocating for ideas, and humility, the willingness to listen and hear others.
What is your dream for kids? 
Twenty years ago I had a principal of a public school say to me that “we are loving our kids, right out of the job market.” What that meant to me is that we both need to start early, and be challenging with high expectations, and have relevant content that makes connections between what they study and themselves.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan? 
Peer reviews and peer learning networks. We’ve been in a couple of situations where we have been able to be in learning networks with some of our peers. What that means is we sometimes go to conferences and very seldom do we create places and spaces where we talk management issues, human resources, and how to manage in financially challenging times, and what they’re doing to improve task load. All the things we can pick up by peers that you can’t learn from workshops and conferences.
How do you know you’re making progress?
We measure lots of things: financial performance, achieving goals, evaluating quality. We do an annual retreat with our board of directors and have really good communication and respect for the dual dimensions of governance and management.
What are you most proud of?  
The stories of small business people who are succeeding and profitable due to their relationship with Northern Initiatives. For example, one woman who has a floral business, we were able to help her to be in a position to own her own building and expand her business. It’s a floral business that is really nicely differentiated in that she uses a lot of local growers and builds relationships with local artisans to display jewelry and ceramics and things in her shop. If it was not for us she wouldn’t be able to develop and grow this business. Another is a business in the Western UP that employs 150 people now. We were able to help them discover and use Just in Time Production Systems, a system where you don’t carry a lot of inventory; you produce what a customer wants, not make things and hope he buys it. So he’s been able to grow his business by a factor of three times and be competitive in a global market place.
What role have networks played in your professional career? How have those networks, both personal and private affected the work you are able to do? 
I think they’re really important because that’s where you get some insights into innovations – from your own observations. One of the things we’ve really focused on in the past few years is to use Northern Michigan University students to help support our technical assist work; that was an idea we took from a group in South Dakota. That came about because there were three of us who looked at our organizations. We were about the same size and could learn from each other. We came up with new ideas we could employ at our own places, or at least I did. Having a chance to be part of a network to learn and share ideas has been important to me.
I have greatly appreciated having peers to compare performance against and learn with and from.
I have greatly appreciated having peers to compare performance against and learn with and from.
We had that kind of relationship among the ShoreBank non-profits. I now have it as part of the Opportunity Finance Network/Goldman Sachs Growth Collaborative, where we are one of 21 groups around the country that are in a learning and sharing network. On the personal side, I believe that I am at my best when I am involved in a community, and my two best experiences have been in worshipping communities, one Presbyterian 20 years ago and currently a Episcopalian community.
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