Could Detroit Become the Silicon Valley of Social Entrepreneurship?

11/7/11Follow @XconomyDET

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sleeping bag to help homeless people survive Michigan’s harsh winter climate.

Scott, who’s a student at the College of Creative Studies, was inspired by a humanitarian group that visited her classroom to design something with a greater purpose. She had recently learned that as many as 30,000 Detroit residents are homeless—nearly 1 in 42 people. She began contacting homeless shelters to get real-world input on a product that homeless people could use.

“I found out that there weren’t many homeless shelters left,” Scott says. “I found a warming station at Martin Luther King and 3rd, and I naively went there at 8 o’clock one night. I told the group of people there that I needed their help designing something. I ended up going back three times a week for the next five months.”


Empowerment Project's Hybrid Coat


What Scott created is a Tyvek coat with a synthetic wool layer inside. It’s warm, it’s waterproof, and it only costs $10 in materials to make. Since becoming more intimate with Detroit’s homeless community, she has expanded her mission to include a factory of sorts. She and her crew rehabbed a building on Vermont owned by Phil Cooley. She now employs three full-time seamstresses (formerly homeless women whose compensation includes a place to live and a meal plan) and hopes to expand to 25 in the next two years.

Scott says that she was initially “in denial” about the scope and success of her project.

“It took a while, but I think it finally sunk in after the CNN appearance,” she says. “I realized that I employ people now. Suddenly, I have a responsibility. I realized I’m not going anywhere, and I’m more than OK with that.”

Charlie Cavell, who started Pay It Forward, could certainly empathize with Scott’s commitment to improving the lives of the people of Detroit.

“There are two things about Charlie that are insanely great,” says Terry Cross, founder of Windward Associates, a Michigan venture consulting business, and a mentor of Cavell’s through the Blackstone LaunchPad program. “He’s passionate beyond belief, and there’s no end to … 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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