More than just funding: Collaborative Support for Michigan Entrepreneurs

With support from organizations like CRFS, the MSU Product Center, and Michigan Good Food Fund, food and farm businesses have access to necessary business resources and funding assistance.

“MSU Product Center has made everything a lot easier and a lot smoother,” Aiye Akhigbe, owner of Sticky Spoon Jam in Niles, MI, said at the annual Michigan Good Food Fund Pitch Competition on April 23, 2024 at the Lansing Center. “Through even just getting my products tested and working on my labeling, having someone there who I can call and just say ‘Am I doing this right for my business?’ It's really important that we have that resource.”  

Hosted by the Michigan Good Food Fund and the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS), in collaboration with the MSU Product Center’s Making it in Michigan conference and trade show, the Pitch Competition provided the opportunity for three food entrepreneurs to present their business in front of a panel of judges to receive funding for their business.  

Left to Right: Jamie Rahrig of MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, Aiye Akhigbe of Sticky Spoon Jam, Fernando Rios of Guac N Roll, Kahleea Washington of Sweet Lee's Teas, Theresa Dubiel of Lake Trust Credit Union, and Aaron Jackson of Michigan Good Food Fund.
Photo Credit: Melissa Hill

This year’s awardees:  

  • $5,000 cash award: Kahleea Washington, owner of Sweet Lee’s Teas, of Holt, MI  
  • $3,000 cash and $5,000 in technical assistance services awards from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation: Aiye Akhigbe, Sticky Spoon Jam of Niles, MI 
  • $2,000 cash award: Fernando Rios, Guac N Roll of Frankenmuth, MI 

The cash and technical assistance awards will support the growth and resilience of these businesses. The awards were powered by the Fair Food Network, Lake Trust Credit Union and Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development 

“MSU [Product Center] helped me out with a lot of stuff that I didn't know Michigan actually helped small businesses with,” Rios said. The Product Center helped Rios find information for his business and connect with a lab to get this guacamole and salsas tested. He said that he would definitely recommend their services to other business owners, “They’re great people.”  

This event kicked off the Making it in Michigan Conference, an annual conference and trade show organized by the MSU Product Center, that attracts hundreds of Michigan food entrepreneurs to network and connect with retail buyers.  

Collaborating to support Michigan Food and Farming Entrepreneurs 

Food and farming entrepreneurs know that Michigan State University (MSU) offers a wealth of support for their businesses. CRFS and the MSU Product Center are two groups dedicated to connecting business assistance resources and funding to Michigan food entrepreneurs. Through direct counseling, networking events, and linking entrepreneurs to new markets, both organizations bolster the success of small food and farming businesses to strengthen Michigan’s local and regional food system.  

Starting a food business requires more than just a delicious product. Entrepreneurs also need a business plan, funding to grow their business, and access to kitchen space or their own business space. Through a team of experts who directly connect with clients, the MSU Product Center offers customized services that support innovation and growth for entrepreneurs in the food, agriculture, and natural resource sectors. This counseling service is open to both budding entrepreneurs and well-established businesses.  

Kahleea Washington smiles at the camera.
Kahleea Washington of Sweet Lee's Teas was awarded $5,000 at the Michigan Good Food Fund Pitch Event. Photo Credit: Melissa Hill

“I am very big on utilizing the resources that are available to you,” Washington said. She has been a client of the Product Center since November 2023. “You never know where they're going to help you get to next. Don't try to do it all on your own and also take your time to build things correctly.” 

Members of the food and farm business assistance team at CRFS are among the Innovation counselors and experts who work with the Product Center’s clients. One way that they support entrepreneurs is through crafting free digital resources, like the Loan Readiness Toolbox or Time Management Workbook for Farm and Farm Businesses. Additionally, they also work with businesses to help them navigate available funding through their annually updated resource, Funding Sources for Food and Farm Businesses. On top of this resource, CRFS team members specialize in connecting entrepreneurs to other funding opportunities on both the national and local level.  

“Scaling businesses need this type of early investment. Pitch events and technical assistance awards offer unrestricted financial support to help these small- and mid-sized food processors grow,” said Jamie Rahrig, Michigan Good Food Fund Specialist at CRFS and Innovation Counselor at the Product Center. “By partnering with the MSU Product Center’s Making it in Michigan event, the three good food enterprises were able to share their brand to a wide audience. Sharing a business pitch is good practice for speaking to a lender or investor. It is our pleasure to offer these types of opportunities in our state.”  

Together CRFS and the Product Center provide sector-specific business coaching, and depend on collaboratives like the Michigan Good Food Fund to reach more food and farm entrepreneurs across the state. Since 2015, Michigan Good Food Fund has offered flexible financing and tailored business assistance to businesses at various stages and across the food value chain to help them succeed. Their annual pitch competition is one testament to their dedication to furthering promising food businesses to reach their goals.  

“Michigan Good Food Fund’s lenders and technical assistance providers – like MSU CRFS – are the backbone of the collaborative. MSU CRFS and Product Center’s expertise, specifically in the packaged goods and food processing industry helps us provide the knowledge, experience, and advice needed to help Michigan’s food and farm businesses address their unique challenges and scale up,” shared Aaron Jackson, Director of Michigan Good Food Fund at Fair Food Network. “We’re proud to partner with MSU CRFS and MSU’s Product Center for the past several years to make our annual Pitch Competition a success.” 

With support from organizations like CRFS, the Product Center, and Michigan Good Food Fund, food and farm businesses have access to necessary business resources and funding assistance. By building a strong network of support around their business, the entrepreneurs have a greater chance of sustainable success.  

About Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems 

The Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems advances regionally-rooted food systems through applied research, education, and outreach. We do this by uniting the knowledge and experience of diverse stakeholders with that of MSU faculty and staff. Our work fosters a thriving economy, equity, and sustainability for Michigan, the nation, and the planet by advancing systems that produce food that is healthy, green, fair, and affordable.  

Learn more at 

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