Could Detroit Become the Silicon Valley of Social Entrepreneurship?

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the demographics of program participants. Love estimates that 25 percent are Middle Eastern, 35 percent are African American, and 30 percent are women.

LauchPad’s secondary mission is to convince participants to play an active role in the community’s economic revitalization by launching their businesses in metro Detroit. Love named three student social entrepreneurs who are already running successful startups here: Bobby Smith of EnGarde Detroit, Veronika Scott of The Empowerment Plan, and Charlie Cavell of Pay It Forward.

Bobby Smith, a self-described “social venture capitalist,” was born in Jamaica and grew up in New Jersey. As a young man, he won a scholarship to attend an elite school in Newark that required all students to pick a sport. Smith was an avid chess player, and after hearing fencing described by a coach as “chess at 100 miles per hour,” he signed up for the team. After the first year, he took sixth in the state and eventually trained with the U.S. Olympic team for two years. Fencing, he says, changed his life.

“I’m from a low-income background,” Smith says. “Fencing afforded me a way out.”

He received a fencing scholarship to Wayne State, a university that ranks third nationally in producing NCAA fencing champions. (Smith says Detroit actually has a rich fencing history despite the fact that the closest fencing club is 22 miles away.)

Smith says he ran out of money to finish his education, so he reluctantly dropped out. While searching for something to do with his time, he hit upon the idea of combining his interests in business and fencing. He also felt moved to help kids in Detroit, some of whom reminded him of his younger self.

“Detroit should really be a fencing town,” Smith says. “The first women to ever wear pants in the sport of fencing were from Detroit.”

He started En Garde Detroit not only to teach kids how to fence, but also to offer lessons in financial literacy, health, and nutrition. His program continues to grow, now serving hundreds of kids each year through schools, non-profits, and youth groups. His fundraising goal for 2012 is $60,000, nearly twice the 2011 goal of $33,000. He even won a Spirit of Detroit award for bringing a national fencing tournament to Detroit, where 10,000 participants spent $2 million in the city over the course of the tournament.

Smith says his long-term goal is to help transform Detroit into the “Silicon Valley of social entrepreneurship.”

“Detroit is the perfect place for it—Detroit created the middle class. People here are not afraid of hard work,” he adds.

If Bobby Smith is a social venture capitalist, Veronika Scott is practically an accidental entrepreneur. She describes her startup as a “class project gone awry.” Her company, The Empowerment Project, makes something that is part coat, part … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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