Angel Gambino: The Ultimate Early Adopter Sets Her Sights on Detroit

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Development and Emerging Markets, one of the most powerful positions in the company. “It appealed to me because I could focus on innovation without commercial pressures,” she says. After her BBC stint, Gambino took the reins of digital business development strategy for Viacom UK, and then brought her seemingly infallible touch to Bebo, a popular European social network, where she served as Global VP of Music and Content.

During Gambino’s tenure, Bebo became the No. 1 site for the coveted 16-year-old to 20-year-old demographic, ahead of Google even, and was able to command the huge price that AOL Time Warner paid in 2008. Gambino says she was rewarded for her hard work with a generous equity package, which allowed her to, as she says, take her young son to the beach. She soon moved to South America.

It turns out Gambino wasn’t made for the life of early retirement, so she began angel investing, doing board advisory work for different companies, and, in 2009, working with Sonico. She helped the company pivot by transforming its business model to develop a lead generation business that helps major brands enter the Latin American markets.

Though she loved living in South America, Gambino decided last year that she wanted to come back to Michigan so she could raise her son closer to her family. By this time, she had developed a powerful network of VCs and major players in the media, technology, and entertainment realms. Plus, she says, her exit from Bebo had given her the capital she needed to live comfortably.

“I thought I’d come back for a summer and check it out,” Gambino says. “When I arrived in Detroit, I found a real sense of hurt pride and desperation. There were lots of great ideas, but few great executions. The timing, from a market standpoint, seemed prime. I thought, if I’m going to stay here, I’ll have to create my own business, because there weren’t any businesses that I wanted to join.”

A self-described fan of boutique hotels, Gambino had planned to stay in one upon moving to Detroit. But, of course, there weren’t any. Seeing a gap in the market, she began scouting properties. She liked what she saw in Corktown, a historic part of the city that was once predominantly Irish and still has streets paved with original cobblestone.

“I thought Corktown had potential,” Gambino says. “The prices were very affordable. Lots of Americans go to Buenos Aires to start businesses because it’s cheaper. I saw the same opportunity in Detroit. [In] how many cities can I go to and buy a hotel?”

She put a bid in on the old Roosevelt Hotel, located a block from Slow’s in Corktown. Although the Roosevelt has its charm (mainly the external architecture), it has also been worked over by years of abandonment and neglect. Scrappers have absconded with much of the building’s metal, and squatters have taken up … 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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