Urban Entrepreneurship Event Looks at How Startups Can Revitalize Flint

The Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative’s (UEI) annual symposium kicks off today and brings together startup founders, academia, community organizers, government officials, and other interested parties to discuss how entrepreneurial solutions can improve economic opportunities and quality of life for city dwellers.

Now in its third year, the event is being held in Flint for the first time. David Tarver, UEI founder and conference leader, is a Flint native. He felt that the shadow of the Flint water crisis, which still hangs over the city, might provide fertile ground in which to hatch business ideas. The multi-day format, he says, allows the symposium participants to interact with community members for a deeper dive into how entrepreneurship can guide revitalization efforts.

“Entrepreneurship is especially important to revitalization in Flint because there isn’t a well-developed entrepreneurial ecosystem there,” Tarver says. “Flint’s wealth has historically been driven by entrepreneurs like those in the automotive industry, but today, the model has changed because there’s no money. We need more private, for-profit businesses—Flint is ground zero.”

Also new this year is the length of the symposium. It runs today through Friday, the first time it’s being held over multiple days, with events hosted by Mott Community College and U-M Flint. “We want to spend the time and effort to engage the broader community,” Tarver says.

As part of that effort, symposium organizers have fanned out across Flint over the past few weeks recording conversations with residents for “Give Us What You Got,” a community pitch session where people can gripe about problems that need solutions or offer ideas for how to fix those problems. Tarver said the best resident pitches will be rewarded.

This year’s event will showcase the final round of two business model competitions: the Urban Infrastructure Challenge and the Urban Jobs Challenge. The Urban Infrastructure Challenge, managed by the University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship, asks participants to come up with an idea for improving the way the city functions. The proposed idea must take into account actual circumstances in the Flint community and be a model for a profitable, sustainable, scalable business. The entries must also address transportation, physical infrastructure elements such as bridges and roads, telecommunication, or civic engagement. The winner will get $2,500 and an advisory session on strategy, funding, and marketing with Flint-based SkyPoint Ventures and the Center for Entrepreneurship.

The Urban Jobs Challenge, managed by U-M Flint’s School of Management, calls for business ideas that result in a significant number of entry-level jobs. The winner of this business model competition will also get $2,500 and a session with SkyPoint Ventures.

“We’re doing these things for the first time and letting people in town see how entrepreneurs can develop and propose solutions,” Tarver says.

This year’s keynote speakers are Andrew Highsmith, author of “Demolition Means Progress,” and Jeffery Robinson, a returning guest who leads the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development at Rutgers University.

As for why he chose Flint as this year’s location, Tarver says the city is emblematic of the deep infrastructure challenges that many urban areas face. He also felt the devastation wrought by the ongoing water crisis and the lack of a cohesive entrepreneurial ecosystem presented big opportunities.

“We’ve seen a lot of cities that have been taken to the mat,” Tarver says. “If we can go to Flint and highlight these issues as part of the symposium, that makes more of an indelible impression. We’re hoping to have a lot of participation from around the state.”

Tarver says that the symposium will serve bottled water and adds that attendees have no reason to worry about their health or safety. Tonight’s opening reception is free to attend with pre-registration; click here for details.

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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