Hope in Detroit: An Outsider on Motown’s Entrepreneurial Renaissance

12/18/12Follow @michaelgaiss

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they’ve started to turn the ship with progress made to make a core area of the city more livable and attractive.

Strong Expat Network

Many folks have left Detroit and Michigan over the decades for a variety of reasons, largely economic. Like most grads and expats they have a strong latent desire to help their former community. This is a huge asset waiting to be tapped. Figuring out a way to leverage this in a unique way could accelerate access to outside expertise and capital for Detroit from across the country and world.

Access to Capital

There have been early stage venture capitalists in Ann Arbor and the suburbs for years. With groups like Detroit Venture Partners, there are now VCs emerging in downtown Detroit that are focused on funding startups in the city. Angels are also emerging and collaborating to advise and help provide seed financing for companies. From what I know, this didn’t exist several years ago at the scale we’re seeing today. While not nearly at the same level as the main hubs, it is a significant change in the local environment with the ability to provide early capital to get companies off the ground and running.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still significant challenges facing Detroit. The city needs to continue to focus on ways to make the city an exciting and energetic place to live (not just work). While the lower cost of living will help, other initiatives for attracting and supporting a stronger artisan/creative community could be beneficial on this front (e.g., like the Ride it Sculpture Park). In an era when many young people want to avoid having a car (anathema to the Motor City mindset), the nearly non-existent mass transit system is another major hurdle. Longer term, there needs to be stronger differentiation and brand around “Why Detroit?” to create a compelling story to better compete with other major centers for talent.

Most importantly, to really get a sustainable flywheel going, it will be about making some of those startups in the city today successful. This will be the ultimate indicator that companies can be built in Detroit. In the process, it would also create a generation of successful entrepreneurs and employees that can help build and fund subsequent companies.

You have got to start somewhere though. Curb the exodus of departures and provide a viable reason to stay and contribute in meaningful, valuable ways. Enact public policy to encourage and support development (look to the Bloomberg 13-point model for inspiration). Seek out and pursue cross-collaboration opportunities with universities and corporates that bring more innovation and resources to bear. Engage and embrace the extensive expat community to contribute expertise, help fund and give back in a variety of ways.

Given the way that Detroit appears to be thinking about it, I suspect many of these initiatives are well underway or being considered. It may be a long, slow path but I am more optimistic about their chances than ever before.

In some ways, Detroit has the opportunity to become a rallying point for many parts of the nation. To a certain degree, the city represents what was once great about this country. If they can execute a true renaissance and reinvent themselves for today’s world, it should be an inspiration for all. Let’s all root for them, or better yet, find some way to contribute to their turnaround. What is good for Detroit will be good for America.

Michael Gaiss is an entrepreneurial and marketing-focused executive currently on sabbatical. He blogs occasionally at http://n-days.tumblr.com. Follow @michaelgaiss

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  • ArtNicholas

    This article is spot on, both in sharing the current optimism as well as the assets Detroit can and should tap to make sure the growth continues and the development is sustainable. I’d add there are some very creative efforts being made to make good use of currently abandoned lots both commercial and non profit.

  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Thanks for this Mike. Born and bred in Detroit (within the city limits :) ) I had a novel experience here in Boston recently. I was meeting with a Harvard Business School student who is preparing herself to return to our hometown of Detroit to help with its rebuilding. Her passion and specific words were pretty much what you would hear from an exchange student returning to a third world country. I’m not saying Detroit is third world, but that sense of similar purpose was what was remarkable.

  • dolphins78

    Young people want to live and work in cities, and the good real estate prices in Detroit (for buyers) means that planning out a startup there works because your funds will last much longer there than in any of the big tech towns. The problem is that Detroit still has a very questionable reputation as far as safety, local government horror stories, etc. Not trying to offend anybody, but it seems as if getting the real story out about Detroit is critical for their long term health.