Could Detroit Become the Silicon Valley of Social Entrepreneurship?

11/7/11Follow @XconomyDET

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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 »

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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  • http://www.facethestation.com Jeff DeBruyn

    So sorry Ms. Schmid but in Detroit the first rule re being a successful social entrepreneur in Detroit is “Who do you know and how much have you drank the cool aide they offer.”
    Furthermore, the next test for Detroit’s social entrepreneur is whether you are willing to do what it takes to get the foundation money because merit (the need) is certainly not relevant.
    The last rule: if you don’t comply, an organization from outside Detroit will be funded and brought in to do the service the foundations’ seek.
    So the lesson is: stick to the Woodward Corridor area or downtown and if you are to venture into a neighborhood to do good be sure to partner with a gigantic non-profit or a foundation that will assist you to bring these “innovative” ideas into our neighborhoods.

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  • http://adventuresinimpact.com Brent @ Adventures in Impact

    I am not sure that a litany of problems sets a city up to be a hotbed of business activity, but I do agree that those needs make Detroit an attractive testing ground.

    Entrepreneurs may not move there to found their next big thing, but people with impactful ideas may find it an easy place to start, especially if the programs you mention are successful. Well done Detroit!

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  • Nathan Phenicie

    The social entrepreneurship movement in Detroit is far larger than this article goes into detail about. Not only are there companies who’s entire mission is to “do good” but many of the other entrepreneurs around town support each other to build a strong business community. The Imagination Station comes to mind, which started as a purchase of two homes for under $1000 apiece and led to “inchvesting” which involved selling off square inches of the property online to raise funds for project, as well as local art, and alto to give the “inchvestors” control over their tiny parcels of property.

    Detroit will continue to innovate, there are more business incubators (Tech Town) and plenty of help from non-profit foundations as well as local business.

  • http://www.sanhandesign.com Anika E. Sandy-Hanson

    I just stumbled across this article and I think it is a great story. Also, even though they seem to oppose each other, I agree with many of the comments. In my research I’m finding that there are many hurdles to smaller ventures in neighborhoods outside the “traditional investment hubs”. However, I have also found an untold number of individuals and groups who are using a very, very grassroots effort and are getting a lot done. My desire is to see them linked together so that the power can be seen in the numbers. Perhaps a “social network” map could be constructed to show where energies are being exerted and how they overlap.

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