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

Serial entrepreneur Angel Gambino has every right to be arrogant—as people with resumes like hers often are—but she’s as down-to-earth and polite as they come.

Sure, a casual question about which local gym she prefers reveals that she’s currently training to be an Olympic soccer-team liaison, the Olympics’ most senior volunteer role and one which oversees every aspect of the team’s participation in the international games, but the answer is delivered in such a gradual, casual manner that it’s hardly bragging. (She’s awaiting confirmation from the Olympic Committee whether she’ll be overseeing the American, English, Italian, Australian, Brazilian, or Argentine men’s team.)

Trust me when I say Gambino’s life is way more interesting than mine and probably yours. She helped develop, an early gaming site that eventually had 900 employees in nine countries; was instrumental in helping to popularize the social network Bebo, which was sold to AOL Time Warner in 2008 for $850 million; helped oversee the BBC’s expansion into mobile, broadband, and on-demand platforms; and helped launch social and video-on-demand platforms for Viacom channels such as MTV, VH1, and Comedy Central.

Gambino is still a co-owner of Sonico, the third largest social network in Latin America—Gambino describes it as “the Facebook of Latin America before Facebook became the Facebook of Latin America”—as well as Spoonfed Media, a popular website that directs Londoners to upcoming arts and entertainment events.

So what the heck is she doing in Detroit?

Gambino and her partner, Scott Griffin (more on his story later), purchased a massive building on Rosa Parks Blvd. for $270,000 in September, which they plan to turn into retail, restaurants, and space for local startups, the first step in a plan to further revitalize the Corktown area so it attracts not only the suburban visitors that are already coming in droves to eat at the neighboring Slow’s Bar-B-Q, but also to send the message to entrepreneurs around the globe that Detroit is the place to be.

“Detroit is a city of tremendous opportunity—I don’t know any other cities like it in the world,” Griffin says. Responding to the question of why two people as worldly as he and Gambino would choose Detroit as their base of operations, Griffin says, “I wonder why there aren’t more of us here already. I don’t understand why there aren’t a thousand of us here competing for these deals.”

Gambino was actually born in Detroit, though she spent her formative years in the suburbs outside of the city. Even in her youth, she says it was obvious to her that there were a lot of things lacking in Detroit.

“I knew Detroit was famous for sports and music, but not much else,” Gambino says. “I always thought that one day, I’d like to do something to make the city better.”

After graduating from high school, she went to college on a soccer scholarship and debated coming back to town after she finished, but the perceived lack of opportunity stopped her. “I remember thinking that if I came back, I’d be limited to working in the automotive sector, and that didn’t appeal to me in the least bit.”

Instead, she chose to enroll in the University of Oregon’s vaunted environmental law program. While there, she became inspired by the possibilities of the Internet. This was in the early 1990s, when the Internet was little more than chat rooms and email.

During law school, Gambino took over running the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, the largest environmental law conference of its kind in the nation, and she asked the university to find a way to broadcast the conference over the Internet so activists who couldn’t make the trip to Oregon would still be able to participate. She had a “lightbulb moment” when 4,000 people tuned in to the live stream.

When she finished law school, Gambino took what she thought was her dream job—director of legal affairs for the Humane Society in Washington, D.C. But despite the fact that she occasionally rubbed elbows with the likes of Bill Clinton and Bruce Babbit, Gambino says, it became painfully obvious how difficult it is to actually effect change in Washington.

To blow off steam, she played in a weekly volleyball game with a group of NASA rocket scientists. She confided in them how unfulfilled she was, and how she was starting to think her true interest was in building businesses on the Internet. The rocket scientists told her that a former colleague had just left for New York City to build such a business, focused on electronic payment systems, and why didn’t she give him a call?

Their meeting was like one of those first dates when things are going so well you can’t bear to part, so you go from coffee to a movie to dinner to drinks to dancing and then maybe to bed. In Gambino’s case, lunch turned into a six-hour job interview with several people in the startup. At the end of the whirlwind date, she was asked to join the team and help build the company. And so she did, bringing in clients such as Wells Fargo and Capital One, who at the time had no online payment system.

Gambino eventually realized she wanted to work internationally, so she relocated to Britain, beginning a string of high-profile gigs in digital media and entertainment. First, she took over business development and lead generation for Gameplay, helping the company grow to the point that it was able to survive the tech-bubble bust of the late 1990s and become a darling of the AIM, a sub-market of the London Stock Exchange.

Then, in 2001, the BBC offered Gambino the position of Controller of Business 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 residence. To say restoring it would be a labor of love is an understatement.

But Gambino wanted it, and it was shortly after she put her bid in that she found herself on a plane heading to New York City. It was one of those flights from hell, where she was delayed for an hour on the tarmac both leaving Detroit and arriving in New York. She struck up a conversation with a gentleman seated in her row, who turned out to be Scott Griffin.

Griffin, who has spent the bulk of his career producing for film director Robert Altman and playwright Arthur Miller, was on his way back home after … ready for this? Placing a bid on the Roosevelt Hotel.

Though he was (and still is, until he finds a permanent address in Detroit) a resident of the famed Chelsea Hotel in New York, Griffin had been enticed to Detroit by a friend who wouldn’t shut up about the investment opportunities here.

Griffin and Gambino had practically no choice but to keep talking during the many flight delays, and when she began describing her vision for what she wanted to do with the Roosevelt, Griffin came clean that he was the person on the other end of the bidding war.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Gambino says. “Of all people, I’m sitting next to my competition.”

[I’d like to take a moment to point out that this kind of serendipity is a regular occurrence in Detroit, and part of what makes the city so special. It’s partly magic and partly a function of Detroit being, in many ways, the world’s biggest small town.]

Gambino had a driver waiting for her at the airport in New York, and she insisted on giving Griffin a ride to the Chelsea. Along the way, they stopped to see a friend of Gambino’s who is also a Detroit native to tell her about the amazing coincidence, but it turned out Gambino’s friend and Griffin had a mutual best friend and already knew each other. “It was an instant credibility check,” Gambino says. “We met at the Chelsea the next day and decided to go into business together.”

After they couldn’t agree on terms with the Roosevelt’s owner, they decided to focus on the building at 2051 Rosa Parks, a building so plain and 1980s office blah that, in the dozens of times I’ve driven past it, I’ve never given it a second glance.

The 100,000-square-foot building was once a brass foundry that, among other things, made bullets. It’s wrapped around a 19th century house that was built by one of the founders of the Detroit Institute of Arts. It has sky-high ceilings and a maze-like structure that seems to never end. By the 1970s, the foundry had begun to fail so the building was sold. In the ’80s, it was transformed into industrial office space. Developers added drop ceilings and neutral colors so that today it looks like, as Griffin says, “any doctor’s office in Toledo, Ohio.”

Gambino and Griffin are currently in the process of undressing the property to get rid of the “improvements” that buried its original architecture, with plans to eventually install a two-story window facing Rosa Parks that will allow passersby to peek in and see part of the facade of the original 19th century structure. The building also has a sprawling roof that they envision will be a perfect spot for gardens and to hold gatherings. Additional features include glassed-in loading bays with a view of Central Station, Detroit’s most famous urban ruin, that seem ready-made for a restaurant; and flexible spaces that could be used to host receptions like the one that was recently held for the nonprofit THAW, where luminaries such as Gov. Snyder were in attendance.

“On the retail side, I want to focus on existing entrepreneurs,” Gambino says. “I want the suburbanites who are coming in to eat at Slow’s to have more to do so they’ll consider staying and reversing the migration trend.”

Gambino says she and Griffin are considering a number of different models for attracting entrepreneurs to the space, including offering leases that start at $12 per square foot, sharing services, or offering access to capital, whether it’s their own money or that of angel investors they introduce to prospective tenants. Already, the Detroit outposts of Curbed and the Huffington Post have leased space in the building, along with Loveland Technologies and Detroit Soup. The space may one day house the Corktown Cinema or that boutique hotel Gambino still dreams of opening. The only thing set in stone is that Gambino plans for 2051 Rosa Parks to be the first step in her plan to change the face of Corktown by “creating a demand that leads to density” and sustainable revitalization.

“I tell people that Detroit, in its heyday, was like Silicon Valley—an epicenter of technology, scalable innovation, and velocity,” Gambino says. “It still has a combination of engineering talent, creative talent, and core tech talent that are the essential ingredients not just for a comeback, but for an eclipse.”

Gambino feels like she and Griffin are merely early adopters, and that Detroit will one day be a model for what’s possible for an post-industrial American city in a world where the United States is no longer the dominant economic power.

“Some say Detroit was the first city to fail,” Griffin adds, “but I think it will be the first industrial city to succeed again. My standard line is that Detroit is the next New York City, and China is the next Detroit. There’s lightning in a bottle here, and things are moving fast.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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  • Larry

    Awesome. Her X 4 or 5 more like her will turn Detroit upside down, in a good way.

  • Phyllis Muro

    We are lucky to have such an innovative mind in Angel Gambino contributing to our city. She and her partner have taken a leap of faith in Detroit and we as Detroiters need to back anyone so interested in resurrecting our city. It can be done. We need to funnel projects her way.