Tech wiz Melanie de Vries coaches startups and has helped hundreds of entrepreneurs statewide grow their businesses
By Carmen Nesbitt
Featured photography by Hayden Stinebaugh
As a first-generation American, Melanie de Vries’ parents taught her to value education.
“My dad was German and my mom was Dutch,” she says. “Both came to America wanting a better life. It was difficult as immigrants and both of them had limitations put on their own education. [They] really did believe it was a great equalizer.”
Today, de Vries not only shares her parents’ passion for education — she’s using it to assist Michigan business owners as a technology business consultant for the Michigan Small Business Development Center (SBDC), where she coaches startups and helps founders grow their businesses as part of what’s known as the TechTeam. In four years in the role, she’s provided support to hundreds of clients statewide “in just about every technology you can imagine, from artificial intelligence to mobility to health sciences to education” and beyond, she says.
Her goal is to be a resource for them throughout the business process. “It’s everything from the product development path, to marketing strategy, to financial forecasting and planning to how you’re going to bring in money revenue building and/or investor relations,” she says.
While de Vries caters to all types of businesses, she’s known for helping women and minority-owned companies. “Women and minorities kind of always get the short end of the stick and Melanie is really committed to supporting female founders and diverse teams,” says Kylee Guenther, whom de Vries has been mentoring since 2018. Guenther is the CEO of Detroit-based Pivot Materials, an alternative-plastic manufacturing company.
De Vries’ path to the startup world wasn’t linear. After graduating from the University of Michigan she went on to a law firm in Washington, D.C. but realized she wasn’t passionate about the field. “Law wasn’t a good fit for me,” she says, “But I loved thinking about the overall strategy of business.”
She pivoted to marketing and navigated through various high-level positions, including global director of marketing for Deloitte Consulting. She also founded two educational technology startups in an effort to “equalize” access to education. “I was just passionate about education,” she says. “And so, finding technologies that could help in that environment were critical to me.”
Eventually de Vries decided to take the lessons she’d learned as an entrepreneur to the SDBC. “[She] is so committed to what she does, helping all of us entrepreneurs here,” says Guenther. “When I started this business, I was so shy. I would not even talk to people. I used to hide behind my team. And [de Vries got] strangers to practice in front of so I could build up my confidence.”
Under de Vries’ guidance, Pivot Materials took third place at Detroit Demo Day 2020, an annual pitch competition where startups compete for grants. Last year, Guenther’s team won three out of seven prizes — a sweep no company had ever achieved before — at Accelerate Michigan, one of the state’s biggest pitch competitions. De Vries cheered on Pivot Materials from the front row.
Due to the pandemic, de Vries’ responsibility to her clients has shifted. The pandemic has “created some unique new needs,” from supply chain to e-commerce to education technology, and she’s worked with companies “to identify short-term ways to stay afloat or longer-term ways to pivot and adapt,” she says. She’s also on hand for moral support: “I’ve tried to be there for my clients when they just need someone to talk to and cry or celebrate with,” she says. “Our relationships with clients become very personal – I really work to become someone they know they can talk to about anything.”
For de Vries — who loves to spend time with her husband and two daughters and produces films for an indie production company she co-founded — watching her clients reach their personal and professional goals inspires joy. “When clients tell me stories that their own personal financial situation isn’t so precarious anymore…when somebody can say, ‘I was finally able to buy a house’…anything that shows that success is phenomenal.”