Breaking the Myopic Mold: Q&A with David Egner of Detroit’s New Economy Initiative

4/26/10Follow @wroush

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other cities. If the city of Detroit had the same proportion of people under-35 population with college degrees as Chicago, there would be 136,000 of that cohort living in the city. If it had the same proportion as Minneapolis-St. Paul, there would be 85,000. In the City of Detroit, there are 15,000 in this cohort. Even the suburban density of young talent is half what it is in Chicago or Minneapolis.

The bottom line for the Hudson-Webber Foundation is that if we don’t develop an urban core that is attractive to young talent, nothing else works. They are the spine of the economy for the next 30 to 40 years. Without them, you don’t have a tax infrastructure, health and human services would collapse, arts and culture would collapse. So, while keeping its general focus, Hudson-Webber is now focused on attracting 15,000 new under-35 college-educated people to the downtown area by 2015. In other words, doubling the current number, which we think is a tipping point. We picked that number because, as I’ve heard it said, “Some is not a number and soon is not a time.” We wanted to lay down a very ambitious goal, with a time frame to keep us on track.

That brings us back to the New Economy Initiative. There’s a direct link to Hudson-Webber’s work. Without young talent, you can’t grow new businesses or support existing businesses. The entire spirit bought by that cohort, if they are densified, should drive the creation of first- and second-tier companies. We have an aging workforce, and if we don’t find a way to get young talent in, and create our own talent through K-12 education, there is no work force to sustain or attract business. All of that lined up to have Hudson-Webber support the New Economy work. It was those very connections that had the Hudson-Webber board, in a sense, loan me to the New Economy Initiative at 50 percent of my time.

X: How does the initiative work? How do you decide what to do?

DE: That is the beauty of the structure. The governing council meets four times a year. That group listens to national experts and then has a spirited discussion about what we need to do in Detroit. If we can’t pound the table and disagree or push the envelope, then there is no reason for any of us to be there. So, four times a year you have the best philanthropic minds sitting at a table with economic experts talking about what matters in this region and how to best leverage it. Once that dialogue started, we were able to narrow down the work into some pretty specific buckets. Keeping everyone together has not been a chore.

The other thing that is unique about the structure is that there is an executive committee that meets every three weeks by phone, so we are never more than three weeks away from a decision on any grant. That is pretty unusual in the foundation world. Not only do we move everything on that three-week cycle, but the staff has worked hard to err on the side of being good rather than perfect. If we want movement, we have to act. If we tinker on the edges of some of this creative work, we will destroy it, or it won’t grow fast enough to matter.

X: It sounds like you have a certain sense of urgency about helping the city.

DE: There is a real sense of urgency. When we started this, we were standing on a burning platform. By the time we were ready to make grants in mid-2008, we were no longer on a burning platform—we were in an inferno. We need to have activity, we need to create hope, and we need to do it in a way that is going to have an impact on the region beyond the dollars we are putting out.

Coming soon in Part 2 of Xconomy’s interview with David Egner: How the New Economy Initiative is working to build bridges between entrepreneurs and investors, how the automotive industry can contribute to Detroit’s rebirth, and exactly where New Economy Initiative is spending its money and why.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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