Detroit in Tech Aims to Boost Diversity, Connect Startups to Resources

A new project to support minority entrepreneurs by highlighting their work and connecting them with the resources they need to grow their companies has launched in the Motor City.

Detroit in Tech, a collaboration between Grand Circus, Google for Entrepreneurs, and Code2040, seeks to even the playing field in a growing ecosystem. According to Detroit in Tech’s website, 88 percent of the city’s population is Black and Latinx; why then, the organization is asking, does the city’s tech revival look so white?

Part of Detroit in Tech’s mission is to “normalize the idea of [people of color] being active participants in the industry.” Tara Reed, founder of Kollecto and entrepreneur in residence at Grand Circus, will lead the project for a year and then hand over the reins to her EIR successor.

“The goal is to increase diversity in tech through monthly events highlighting ways people can get involved,” she explained. A kickoff fireside chat on Thursday covered what it’s like to learn to code as a person of color in Detroit, she said. Upcoming events will explore curricula for students, marketing, and other tech-themed offerings. The project’s website will also highlight the stories of local people working in the tech industry.

“It’s important to me because, as a country, we’ve seen tech drive a lot of economic change,” Reed said. “Right now, there’s a huge opportunity to grow the tech ecosystem as a large part of Detroit’s economy.”

Detroit, she pointed out, has experienced technology-driven growth before, most notably during the first half of the 20th century in parallel with the rise of the automobile industry. However, the current political climate is such that Americans seem open to considering race-based economic and social injustice and how that injustice affects a city’s long-term prospects. If Detroit is truly in the midst of a tech-inspired growth spurt, as Reed and others believe, those opportunities need to find their way to all of the city’s residents, she said.

A native of southern California, Reed has lived in Detroit for the past two years. The former Google and Microsoft employee came to town after hearing of its nascent tech scene. She admitted the Motor City wasn’t initially on her “to-do list,” but then she, like many of us, visited and fell in love.

“I felt that I had a social responsibility, as a black woman, to launch my company in Detroit,” she said. “I love the spirit people have here.”

Reed is the subject of a short profile in this month’s Entrepreneur magazine that examines what she and other members of her team at Kollecto have been able to achieve since launching in 2014. Despite “not knowing a lick of code,” the magazine said, she used a patchwork of existing digital tools to launch a startup where customers can get personalized art recommendations, even if they only have $100 to spend.

When Reed started, she scraped the web to find art from all over the world and then hired a team of curators. Once users land on the site, a bot walks them through a survey and then presents a custom selection of art based on what they find appealing.

“There’s Pandora for music, Netflix for movies, and Amazon for books, but what about art?” she said. “I wanted to fill that gap.”

Kollecto’s success led to a TEDx Detroit talk and “a consulting side gig” that brings Reed’s net worth to the low seven figures, Entrepeneur reports. Not bad for someone who was just looking for a way to brighten the blank walls of her apartment—and that’s her point.

“A lot of people get stuck trying to build the perfect thing, but being scrappy and not coding a full app meant I could move faster, and I wasn’t afraid to make changes,” she told Entrepreneur. “When people ask me for advice, I tell them: Get going. Chances are, you’ll have something wrong, but you won’t know until you test those assumptions with actions.”

Grand Circus, the tech training institute in downtown Detroit where Reed serves as entrepreneur-in-residence, is backed by Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert. Reed said Tech in Detroit is in line with “a lot of work in progress in [Gilbert’s] larger portfolio. Look at diversity at Quicken Loans—he’s doing a good job and really thinking about it. Grand Circus in particular is just a continuation of his core values.”

To help draw attention to people of color working in Detroit’s innovation ecosystem, Tech in Detroit’s website includes a page where people can nominate “great Black/Latinx Detroiters working in tech” (including themselves) to be highlighted in future programming.

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

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