Raising the Bar Through Social Entrepreneurship

Philosophy major Bill Holsinger-Robinson ’91, founding executive director of Art Prize and organizer of TEDxGrand Rapids, helps socially innovative businesses get off the ground.

Bill Holsinger-Robinson ’91 has long been ahead of the curve.

If you have ever heard of the “diffusion of innovation” — the theory that explains the rate at which new ideas are spread — Holsinger-Robinson would be amongst the innovators, the first 2.5 percent who adopt something new before it gets “big.”

How did a philosophy major end up becoming a business consultant with a vision for social entrepreneurship — and involvement in Grand Rapids’ highly acclaimed ArtPrize, as well as TEDxGrandRapids, an independently-organized version of the inspirational TED Talks?

After graduation from Alma College in 1991, he worked as a chef while pursuing a master’s degree in comparative religion. Later, during the dot-com boom, he worked at furniture company Herman Miller, where he explored ways of using the web to do business and sold chairs to dot-coms and start-ups in Silicon Valley.

Then he met a guy in Grand Rapids who had an idea for a start-up about creating a social recommendation engine for films.

“The type of thing that you see on Netflix and Amazon right now, ‘If you like this, you’ll like these things,’” says Holsinger-Robinson. “We were kind of the first ones to do that.”

The “guy” with the start-up idea was Rick DeVos, businessman and grandson of the co-founder of Amway. While the project captured the attention of Hollywood and the film industry for its potential for helping movies find audiences — the start-up itself failed.

But in 2009, Holsinger-Robinson and DeVos started Pomegranate Studios, an incubator for business start-ups. One of the projects they hatched was ArtPrize.

They anticipated bringing between 10,000 to 15,000 people to downtown Grand Rapids. Instead, 200,000 people showed up to the first ArtPrize in 2009.

“The first Sunday downtown, it was just a beautiful day,” says Holsinger-Robinson. “Thirty thousand people showed up to hum a tune together while 100,000 paper airplanes were thrown from the tops of buildings. And it was awesome. It gives me chills just to think about it.”

What is ArtPrize? On its website, it’s described as “a radically open, independently organized international art competition” that takes place in Grand Rapids.

“ArtPrize is the opposite of a film festival,” says Holsinger-Robinson.

Unlike film festivals, ArtPrize takes place in any venue. Any artist, both professional and amateur, above age 18 may enter. There’s no upfront curation; an artist simply has to get a local business to agree to display his or her artwork.

What’s revolutionary about ArtPrize is that the winners are chosen by a public vote. (Though ArtPrize 2014, which takes place Sept. 24 through Oct. 12, added a juried award to attract international artists.) The grand prize: $200,000. Local newspapers speculate on which pieces might win and profile the top artists.

ArtPrize: A Celebration of Art

ArtPrize boasts that it is the largest art competition in the world. Last year there were 1,500 entries, 49,000 registered voters and 400,000 visitors.

For about 19 days, art takes over. It’s inside buildings and in the middle of sidewalks. Notable pieces last year included a towering dragon sculpture (with signs asking children not to climb it); quilts of the Sleeping Bear Dunes (last year’s first place winner); a wall plastered with massive replicas of old-style candy wrappers; and hundreds of pieces of bamboo suspended from lines to form a mythical creature called a griffin.

ArtPrize is a shining example of social entrepreneurship — pursuing innovations to create positive change and solve social problems.

“The problem that was being tackled was, how do you get the public to care about art?” says Holsinger-Robinson. “A lot of it had to do with how the event was able to lower the barrier to entry into having a discussion about art.”

Art museums are typically churchlike and quiet, with proper distance between the artwork and visitors. But during ArtPrize, the Grand Rapids Art Museum transforms.

“It’s filled with people, and everybody’s loud,” says Holsinger-Robinson. “You can ask questions because everybody else has the same question you have: ‘What the heck is that? What does that mean? How did they do that?’”

ArtPrize is also an economic boon to the city. Businesses and services are being launched to serve ArtPrize, and restaurants see a huge uptick during the event. ArtPrize has about $17 million of economic impact from only a $3.2 million investment into the event itself. When factoring in the innovations that ArtPrize might inspire, its economic impact down the road is impossible to measure.

“I left ArtPrize in 2011 because that was the plan with Pomegranate Studios,” says Holsinger-Robinson. “We would launch something, get it to success, and then bring people who knew how to grow things.”

New Opportunities

Since then, he’s done more consulting, led boot camps for start-ups, and sought funders to help create HUB Grand Rapids, a co-working space where innovators could meet. He currently teaches at Grand Valley State University as its first Endowed Chair for Entrepreneurship and Innovation through the honors college.

He also is the vice president of the Understanding Group, a consulting firm that does digital placemaking — creating websites and other digital environments for communities that are as well-planned, easy to navigate and inviting as the physical aspects of the community, such as parks, roads and businesses.

In addition, he has been involved in TEDxGrandRapids for all four years of its existence. TEDx events are modeled after the popular TED Talks, in which people give short, powerful talks on topics from science to business to global issues.

“TEDxGrandRapids is one of the largest TEDx’s on the planet right now,” says Holsinger-Robinson. “This year we had the founder of TED open the event for us.”

Every year, the event sells out before the speakers are even announced. About 800 people pack into the Civic Theatre in Grand Rapids to listen to 16 speakers.

One speaker talked about becoming trans-human in the digital age. A man from Chicago spoke about helping at-risk students re-think what it means to get an education. A digital strategist spoke about giving up everything to do homesteading with her husband and new baby on a remote island in Vancouver.

The philosophy behind it? TEDxGrandRapids is a way to expose people in Grand Rapids to organizations that are finding innovative solutions to problems, says Holsinger-Robinson.

“I want to be one of the people that’s helping make Grand Rapids and West Michigan be the place that they want it to be,” says Holsinger-Robinson. “By getting exposure to people and making those types of connections, we can continue to raise the bar.”

This story first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Accents magazine.


Story published on December 22, 2014