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The Community of Detroit

Sorting through my thoughts about Detroit's bankruptcy (or whatever it turns out to be)

Different ideas about how companies can be organized and run are floating around. What resonates with me are institutions that support communities: "communities" of employees, of local citizens, of people interacting with the natural environment. Too often, though, companies barely acknowledge the importance of these communities while they bend over backwards to better meet the needs (make that wants) of investors.

Many people reflexively respond that the main (or only) purpose of a company is to make money, and that companies must be organized to serve the needs of the "community" of investors.  (They don't). Of course, investors may have no connection to a company at all -- they don't work there, don't live in the towns where their investments are put to work, they may not even like the products the company makes. Yet to business traditionalists -- but not to me -- investors' desire for making money trumps everything else.

I would like to think that when it comes to a real community -- I'm thinking of Detroit -- that we wouldn't even need to question whose rights should be considered ahead of all others: the rights of those who call the community home. Other discussions about social issues can take on a moralistic dimension: deficits somehow correlate with lack of character (though empirical evidence indicates it is appropriate to stimulate a stalled economy); poor people don't deserve to eat; ill-supported (and often mean spirited) advice like that.  

But when it comes to a city -- a place where people live, raise kids, and shape our future -- moralizing or scolding make even less sense. Police, firemen, and other pensioners contributed to the city for years -- some for decades. State law says their pensions cannot be reduced. Those not owed pensions are owed essential services, including timely responses by police and fire fighters, working schools, and working street lights. They did not cause Detroit's decline, but they have suffered greatly from a transformed auto industry and corporations' decisions to decamp to the 'burbs, taking with them their tax dollars.

With change, comes the opportunity to reflect upon new ways of doing business. Shifts in population growth and in spending have made companies aware of new markets in the developing world, if not yet in as dramatic a way at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Similarly, in the next several decades, large-scale transfers of corporate ownership provide an opening for a dramatic shift towards inclusive corporations.

And now Detroit is facing bankruptcy. This grim circumstance creates an opening, too. What kind of city does Detroit deserve to be? Most essentially, for Detroit to "work," people must work. And there is work to be done. With more than a quarter of Detroit's 140 square miles abandoned, projects to raze and re-purpose these properties are being undertaken. Detroit Blight Authority is taking a lead, appealing for federal funds. This is a perfect opportunity for the government to release funds, contingent upon the training and hiring of Detroit's idle workforce. What's more, Detroit can follow the lead of other downtrodden communities, including the South Bronx, to create a green, energy-saving, and even energy-creating city.

Detroit's schools are the next (if not the first) obvious place to make changes. Detroit Public School's newly appointed emergency manager can help foster an environment that couples academic rigor with real-life relevance. If you've followed this blog, you know how high I am on the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship">, a model that creates life-changing educational experiences for low-income students. 

Even with ObamaCare, negotiating the healthcare maze will be daunting. Programs like Rebecca Onie's Health Leads demonstrate how non-traditional health care workers can help cut through red tape to ease the problems faced by the ill, poor, and elderly. Where Health Leads relies on college students to fill "prescriptions" for food, clothing, housing, etc., Onie suggests that local community members themselves can staff similar positions. Such staffing (jobs!) can avoid expensive emergency room visits and head off long term health problems. Suitably structured and financed (possibly with social impact bonds), hospitals can serve more patients, more effectively, and save money.

As Governor Snyder has been saying, Detroit's problems did not just occur; they've been unfolding over decades, caused in large part by a dis-investment in the city. Now at the point of crisis, we can begin to point Detroit in a new direction. Detroit's resurrection will take time, as did its decline. It will take investment, but investment in, and of, the community. Not investment aimed at making investors wealthy ahead of the needs of the city. 

The city that helped more than any other in winning World War II; the city that created a modern society through the automobile industry and industrial efficiency -- this city needs our compassion and support. This does not mean our charity: for by re-making a working, well-educated, healthier Detroit, we set the country on a stronger course.

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Moving Pictures Move the World

Imagine the sound you make when you blow on a long untouched stack of papers, and visualize the cloud of dust you stir up ....

        <insert the electronic equivalent of sound and image here>  

... because, after a days that became months of not writing anything on this blog, starting just before Christmas, I'm back at it.

What's been going on? A few highlights:

1. Significant progress on my "Wish I Knew" book, based on interviews with 100 plus social entrepreneurs. Amazing people, amazing stories and insights about their work, and incredibly generous in sharing what they've learned. With all that they've shared with me, the book should practically write itself.  More likely, I'll probably plod forward as I try to pick just the right word adjective adverb, as I often do.

2.  Have been working with some students and faculty colleagues on advising three social enterprises. One, Circles USAholds great promise for alleviating poverty in the US; another Global Fairnessis working to improve the livelihood and the environment for tens of thousands of poor Indian women. The third, Impact Enterprisesis working to bring jobs to Zambia for the dual purposes of tackling stifling unemployment and helping fund a ground breaking educational initiative.

More on all of this later.

But, where I left off -- when I took my few-days-become-a-few-months break ... 

I'm convinced that videos are one component of placing people's attention on societal issues (think: Academy Award-winner, Argo) and hopefully promoting social action (think: Chasing Ice and A Place at the Table). For the second year, my undergraduate Base of the Pyramid / Social Enterprise students created videos with impact for their final projects. They supported real organizations and their needs: fundraising, recruiting volunteers, raising awareness, etc. Several videos have been seen more than a thousand times. Others helped raise several hundred thousand dollars. Others (still embargoed) will be shown by internationally-known organizations and aired on television and in other media campaigns.

So, my 4-month late Christmas / Hannukkah / Kwanza present to you ... 



Racquet Up Detroit: Squash to promote education in Detroit





Motor City Blight Busters: Reclaiming Detroit


 

Detroit Girls on the Run: Empowering girls




Eco Fuel Africa: Creating jobs and clean energy in Uganda




We Support Detroit Schools: Pretty self-descriptive






University of Michigan Entrepreneurship Commission: Student entrepreneurship






Detroit Parent Network:  Supporting Detroit parents




Dance Marathon: Fundraising campaign for pediatric rehabilitation












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Presidential Debate: Focus on Inclusivity

If I were hosting the upcoming presidential debate on domestic policy, what questions would I ask?

They would center on inclusivity:

  • How can we challenge the economic beliefs that are holding back our economy?
  • How can we include the poor as a source of resourcefulness, innovation, and business opportunity?
  • How can we better identify and support local (social) entrepreneurs?
  • What urban centers are taking the lead in creating sustainable, inclusive communities?
  • What innovative approaches to education are working and can prepare students for meaningful careers?
  • How does social wellness use existing resources to create more inclusive health for us all?
  • What does inclusive leadership look like?
These broad questions deserve our unwavering attention. No matter how you keep score--99 to 1, 53 to 47, or something else--too many are struggling to have decent life. 

What if I were asked these questions--how would I answer them?

Glad you asked: In my new book Inclusivity: Will America Find Its Soul Again (written with Christian Sarkar, who also created paintings for the book), we tell fifty stories about those who are taking giant strides in tackling these issues. These vignettes tell of entrepreneurs leading a resurgence in Detroit, Tony Hsieh (founder of Zappos) reinventing Las Vegas and David Orr (a leader in the environmental movement) creating the most sustainable community anywhere in the US, the midwest community of Oberlin, Ohio. We tell how poor kids--in our inner cities or equally poor rural areas--are being given new educaitonal opportunities and are rising to the occasion. We tell how doctors are writing prescriptions for food, how struggling high school students become devoted and successful tutors, and how a national entrepreneur identification and training program in South Africa could become a model for the United States.

More inclusive education and health care would go a long way towards fully using the talents of our populace and creating expanded opportunity for everyone--wealthy and poor alike. More inclusive places to live coupled with more inclusive economics would create not just a fairer, but a stronger, country. Those blazing the trail of inclusivity exhibit a kind of leadership that is uncommon--creating value for others first. But it is within the reach of us all.

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Awethu: Imported to Detroit?


As anyone reading this space knows (anyone? anyone? I can read your comments if you click the "(No) Comments" link above, you know), I've been thinking a lot about Detroit. And I think it's fair to say that, once foreign cars began to arrive in the United States, and then gain wide acceptance for being affordable, high quality vehicles, Detroit was in trouble. Imports have not been kind to Detroit.

But here's one that could be.

I met Yusuf Randera-Rees several weeks ago at the Skoll World Forum and talked to him on the phone a few days ago.  His organization, the Awethu Project, is creating vibrant businesses where they rarely exist: South Africa's townships, or what we would call slums.

The Awethu Project conducts brief trainings for those in the townships on how to create a business and then tells them to think up a business idea and put it into practice in their community. A month later, those who have created the most profit (with records to back up their claims) begin a more extended period of training. They receive support both for personal development and formalizing their business ideas, being taught "hard" topics like time budgeting and record keeping as well as "softer" topics including personal discipline. Those who excel become part of Awethu's business accelerator, where Awethu helps move them from being small, isolated business towards becoming what Awethu really expects of them: to become business that are as good as the top businesses in the world and to link up, as appropriate, with that business ecosystem. Awethu also invests in these businesses, so their success benefits Awethu, further reinforcing the relationship and Awethu's desire to see them excel.

The idea behind Awethu is simple: identify gifted entrepreneurs in under-resourced communities, and provide them with the training and resources needed to compete with the world's best. The underlying premises, of course, is that there is a latent pool of such individuals everywhere who lack the opportunity, but not the inherent skills, to launch world-class businesses.

And if those potential world-beaters are everywhere, then they are certainly in the poorer parts of Detroit.

Yusuf is well educated, optimistic, and idealistic. And his efforts produce: he has developed a model of business talent identification in the township of Alexandra that has been noticed by the South African national government, which is now funding the project. In the coming year, Awethu will identify and put through its business accelerator program 1,000 entrepreneurs with world-class talent. As Awethu expands, Yusuf expects to take this idea across the country and then across the African continent.  

You've heard Chrysler's new slogan: Imported from Detroit. This is an idea Detroit (and the US) need to import themselves. Now.

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Phillip Cooley opened a restaurant in Detroit, Slows Bar BQSlows anchors a block in Detroit's Corktown, a row of shops which  is changing from seedy to hip. Cooley opened Slows with some backing from his parents,  his own carpentry skills, and the sweat equity of his partners--who were also his chef and sous-chef. With sales of   $1.8 million the first year (2005), Slows and Cooley have also spread the wealth. Their very presence created a  bright spot across from Detroit's massive, but abandoned Rail Depot. Astro coffee is now next door, bustling with activity, and Cooley, himself, is marching with tools in hand from building to building making improvements. He dispenses  advice and stakes others  who want to build businesses to help the community.


A half-mile or so down the street from Slows is another Cooley idea -- Ponyride. The name, of course, evokes a sense of childlike wonder, and that is surely what the facility will create. Now, it is a 30,000 square foot industrial space being converted into a launching pad for Detroit-changing businesses and activities. Tenants wield crowbars and hammers, exchanging their labor for incredibly low rents: $.10-$.20 per square foot, utilities included.

Among current tenants are artists, furniture makers, and studios for tango, fencing, and dance. And Veronika Scott. 

Veronika Scotts space at PR.JPG



Inside Ponyride7.JPG


Scott's organization, The Empowerment Plan, is a social enterprise that makes a self-heated, waterproof coat that expands to become a sleeping bag. Made by homeless women, the coat is designed precisely for those not lucky enough to know if they'll have a place to sleep for the night, or where.

Eventually, Ponyride will hold monthly open houses where community members can take classes in things like letterpress, woodworking, fencing, maybe even accounting--people in these professions are all tenants, too--to learn something they didn't know and that they may be able to apply in their own lives. "Ponyride is a tool to challenge the imagination," said Nick Piotrowski, Ponyride's office manager and Executive Board member.

Cooley hopes that current tenants like Veronika Scott burst the seams of the space they occupy at Ponyride, finding bigger digs where they can do more good, hire more people, and maybe even take the idea of Ponyride and start something similar. Ponyride itself is creating an open-source description of its own operations, successes and mistakes, for others to learn from. 

Just as Henry Ford borrowed his ideas for his assembly line from meat packing plants and then saw his own innovations widely adopted in manufacturing, Cooley is not the first to undertake urban revitalization, but he is laying down a model that others will surely follow. His energy, commitment, success, and willingness to share guarantee it.

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Slows lets us know that there are ways that entrepreneurial activity can bring inclusive gains. Good ideas create ripples, immediately and in ways never intended or imagined. The pebble that gets the ripples going seems to be money, but it is really the unleashing of productive energies. Money, moolah, hard cash can do that. But there are other ways., which we'll cover another time.



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Detroit, Ghana, and Fashion

Unusual post today: short thoughts and some shout outs. 


Jake Cohen  generously gave me an hour of his time yesterday answering questions about Detroit Venture Partners (DVP),  the Gilbert family of companies, and rebuilding Detroit through entrepreneurship. At the end of our conversation, he mentioned some other people to talk to. One was Jerry Paffendorf, a name that was completely new to me.  After a bit of Google stalking, I've learned that he's doing some truly interesting things including crowd sourcing the ownership of land in Detroit for a buck an inch.  My is-this-synchronicity side noted that he tweets under the name WELLO,  the same name as Cynthia Koenig's company to deliver water to the poor of India. I've been interacting with and supporting Cynthia for several years.
  
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DVP  invests in software and digital companies poised for rapid growth. A "sister" company in the Gilbert / Quicken Loans family, Bizdom,  is a nonprofit that helps smaller entrepreneurs get off the ground with funding, support, and space. Oh, and connections to other companies in the extended family.

Bizdom and DVP share space in the beautifully restored M@dison Building along with other companies connected to the family in some way. One, WedIt.com,  has a small business doing crowd sourced home videos for weddings. I spoke with its founder, Brett Demeray,  about the kind of  connections he'd benefited from. 

Among others were: 
  • support from Quicken Loans' director of marketing in launching an AdWords campaign
  • introduction to Crowne Plaza Hotels so that WedIt  could be in on all the weddings that took place 11/11/11
  • HR training from the head of Quicken's HR department
  • a mockup of the packaging WedIt could use for the cameras they'd send in the mail, courtesy of Fathead, a company in the family.
 The fee for any of these?   "Nothing. You wouldn't ask your cousin to pay you back, would you?"
    
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I had a check-in meeting with David Merritt this week. David continues towards the launch of his amazing fashion brand -- one that will give 20% of its revenues (yes, revenues) to support poor kids attending college. David's company, Merit,  shows how a for-profit company can have, at its heart, an unmistakable ambition  to make a big difference. MERIT is currently exploring its best options for manufacturing its line of clothing and is raising capital for its product launch.
  
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I also had a check-in with Teresa Fisher who, along with co-founder Gilliam Henker, is leading the efforts of DIIME to develop health technologies for infants and mothers in Ghana. DIIME has developed a life-saving, affordable blood transfusion device which has recently been proven effective by independent lab tests and is awaiting animals trials.  DIIME is hoping to do clinical trials with its partner, the Komfo Anoyke Teaching Hospital in Ghana, by the end of the year. 

DIIME is hard at work preparing for future tests and raising the necessary money to support them.

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Metaphors for Reviving Detroit


I was in Detroit yesterday learning more about incubators. I came away thinking about metaphors.

My morning began in TechTown, where Faris Alami gave my research associate, Neesha Modi, and me a heady introduction to all that is taking place. TechTown is at once a research and technology park, a business incubator, and a collection of enterprises part of revitalizing Detroit.

We met in TechOne, a five-story facility where GM once designed the Corvette that looks out over the 12 city blocks that TechTown hopes will become home to all types of vibrant businesses. TechOne is home to IT and medical/biotech companies, as its name suggests, but it is more than that. For instance we met with Marion Jackson and Barbara Cervenka, co-directors of Con/Vida, a nonprofit organization that promotes the work of Brazilian and Peruvian artists by organizing exhibitions and selling their work. We also met with TechTown's former executive director, Randal Charlton, whose new venture, Boom! The New Economy, is helping adults 50 years and older create new businesses. But Jackson, Cerveka, and Charlton--themselves in the 60+ age bracket--might bump into middle school and high school aged tenants of TechOne who are there learning how to apply science to solve global problems.

TechTown also offers support services to entrepreneurs hoping to launch Detroit-based businesses. This program, "Thrive," supports entrepreneurs of all stipes, from one individual who needed support to purchase a truck and start a small transportation company to another who is developing a radiation-free breast cancer screening device.

Our next stop, the Green Garage, is another mixture of place, tenants, and business creation. The Green Garage (the place) was a show room for Model T's, but since the Detroit riots in the 1960s its windows had been bricked in, it had lost its charm, and it had generally fallen into disrepair. You'd certainly never know that today, as it has been spectacularly restored using reclaimed building materials and is worthy of a cover of Architectural Digest.

GreenGarage-front.jpg

And that only begins to scratch the surface of what the Green Garage is. The Green Garage is designed to be a net zero energy building: consuming no more energy than it can produce. This is no idle boast, as the facility is constantly deploying new technologies like solar tubes for lighting and chest refrigeration systems and metering and monitoring everything that comes in and goes out of the facility. It represents the very possibility of creating and operating buildings without imposing a cost on the planet.

The tenants at the Green Garage are carefully selected for their "green" approach to business and for their fit with Green Garage's sense of community. I had a conversation with Chad Dickinson, a transplant from Nashville and new tenant, who has designed state-of-the-art recording studios in a holistic way without using blueprints. Dickinson by Design is his Detroit based business. Using vintage power tools in his workshop in a corner of the Green Garage, Dickinson creates beautiful, "green" furniture from 99% reclaimed and recycled materials. He is using his craft to create affordable, long-lasting furniture and woodworking that create inviting homes, just as these homes can help reclaim the city.

But what might be most remarkable at Green Garage is the work being done by its co-founder, Tom Brennan. A former business consultant, he now rejects the idea of creating businesses in the typical way: idea, business plan, financial backing, make money. Instead, he teaches a type of business creation that places any organization squarely in the midst of the other organizations to which it is connected. Brennan believes that any enterprise must create positive economic, community, and environmental benefits for all organizations in its ecosystem, not simply itself.

This idea is reminiscent of Paul Hawken's description of a series of mutually beneficial business relationships in Kalundorg Denmark. The waste (in the forms of heat, steam, gas, sludge, etc.) from various industrial processes became the inputs for other producers. For instance, gypsum, which was the byproduct of a power plant, was used to make sheet rock. Fly ash, the waste from producing coal, was used in constructing roads. These input/output relationships all arose by happy accident, not design.

Brennan suggests that we need not hope for such fortuitous accidents; these sorts of relationships should be baked in to our efforts to develop businesses. And, again, these relationships should benefit all parties in the ecosystem, not just immediate partners, by improving each element of their triple bottom line.

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Which brings us back to metaphors.

The Green Garage explicitly embraces the idea that businesses are like living systems, not machines. For living systems to thrive, they must take care of themselves and the environment of which they are part.

TechTown, in contrast, conjures up the image of Edison's Menlo Park laboratory. A number of business experiments are taking place in parallel--even rubbing shoulders. There is a sense of energy and pragmatism but, by and large, these efforts form a greater whole mainly in the sense that each success creates jobs in a city that badly needs them.

On the drive from TechTown to the Green Garage, Neesha and I stopped for lunch at the Avalon Bakery. Avalon's funky appearance belies what it is: something of a powerhouse that serves 1000 customers daily and delivers baked goods to 40 additional locations in southeast Michigan.

Avalon embraces the Buddhist principle of "right livelihood," its motto being "Eat Well. Do Good." Avalon has the ultimate respect for the earth, never using anything but 100% organic flour. It is also an anchor tenant of the Detroit "Agri-Urban" movement, bringing social and economic benefits to its immediate neighborhood and beyond for the last decade and a half.

All of which raises the question, "Do these metaphors matter in creating businesses?" That is the question that I'm thinking about right now as I reflect on how a city in need can be returned to greatness.

How do you restore Detroit economically while honoring its culture and community and improving the environment? And how do you balance the impulse to let things grow organically at their own pace with the knowledge that there are many people living on the economic edge?

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Detroit 2.0 or 2 Detroits?

Are we creating Detroit 2.0, or are we creating 2 Detroits?  

There is a renewed sense of energy and optimism in Detroit.  I am seeing this as I explore Detroit's business incubators (writ large), and there is much to applaud.  Detroit Venture Partners is creating attractive workspaces for businesses to rub elbows, learn from, and and support each other.  It is providing early-stage funding for a handful of promising web and IT start-ups.
  
Detroit Venture Partners is not the only organization that is investing time, money, training, or other resources in Detroit. The Green Garage hopes to create a greener, more entrepreneurial city. The Detroit Creative Corridor Center supports businesses catering to those in the arts and other creative endeavors. 

I love these efforts. I just I don't think that they're enough. 

Detroit is on the verge on joining Flint, Benton Harbor, Pontiac, and Ecorse as a "failed" Michigan city that will be run by a state-appointed emergency financial manager. This politically fraught move would strip power from the city and sell or privatize city assets while further curtailing already eroded city services. The difficult straits that Detroit finds itself in suggests that, for all the high-tech, high-arts, green activity that is animating the city, we need something, well, grittier. That does not mean 1950s-era manufacturing; that day is gone. Even the successful investment by the government in General Motors and Chrysler is helping the state more than the city.
  
A broader, more inclusive form of capitalism is necessary--something I think of as BOP USA. The idea of BOP (bottom of the pyramid) business is gaining acceptance among companies that recognize that poor, developing world countries have considerable, and growing, aggregate wealth. And, more importantly, they represent the frontier of business where new markets are being created, new products are being developed, and innovation is everywhere. If in India or Latin America, why not Detroit?
 
Data on wage inequality indicates that the most unequal wage distributions are in cities with the highest levels of knowledge workers, including New York, LA, and Silicon Valley. Lower-paid workers earn more if they live where knowledge (creative class) workers' wages are higher. But the overall average wage in these locations is almost perfectly correlated with the average of the knowledge (creative) class. With a little math and a few assumptions about the relative numbers of knowledge- and lower-skill workers, we can conclude that the contribution of lower-paid workers' wages to total wages is fairly small (but didn't we know that?).  More simply: wealthier wage earners pull up lower wage earners, but not by much.
  
So, what can we do to "save" Detroit. We can hope to create a complementary class of entrepreneurs who create less by using web services or nano tech and more by employing people who can be well-trained and work hard (even though they can't write iPhone apps). We need incubators to support these new kinds of business, and fortunately we are beginning to see them in BizdomEnterprsing Health, and TechTown.  And we need more social venture capital and business support services for those who launch businesses in Detroit, create products and services in Detroit, and provide benefit for all of Detroit.
  
Otherwise, Detroit 2.0 is a dream for the fortunate few, creating too little opportunity for the city as a whole.
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Please join me in this discussion. I'd love to know your thoughts. We can make a difference.
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Thanks, Detroit

I have much to be thankful for -- certainly my family, friends, and the opportunity to do what I love -- but let me single out a city that I'm thankful to see on the rise.  

Forbes recently listed the places where young people are happiest.  By grading cities on economic factors like compensation and benefits as well as non-economic factors like work-life balance, they gave each city a kind of overall "grade point average."  The cities grading out the highest were Redmond, WA (been there), Ft. Lauderdale (done that, a long time ago), and Orlando (been and done more recently -- but with my wife and kids).

But another top-ten city made me smile:  Detroit, at #6.  It's a happier place to live than Chicago, San Francisco, and LA.

Why am I gratified to see Detroit included among the winners?

Teaching at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, forty miles away from Detroit, I've seen a parade of talented students come to town, get their education, and take their skills and training elsewhere.  Students are inspired by the "change the world through business" courses I teach, but when it comes to applying what they've learned in the real world, they've preferred jobs in India, Africa, or Latin America.

That appears to be changing.

Entrepreneurial efforts are  harnessing the city's energy.  An organization that I've worked with, Ascension Health, the largest nonprofit healthcare system in the country, has launched Enterprising Health, a business-development organization aimed at identifying, supporting, and launching "bottom-up" enterprises that improve the health and lives of urban dwellers. 

Among the social enterprises being supported: businesses that use games or sports to encourage and educate about health; a fresh food "dollar store"; and an activity that delivers health services to the poor where they naturally congregate, thus encouraging health care among a group that is often excluded from, and suspicious of, traditional health care delivery.

Visionary thinkers like Josh Linkner, Dan Gilbert, Brian Hermelin, and Earvin (Magic) Johnson have a larger scale vision to reclaim, re-define, and re-brand the city. Though not everything they touch turns to gold (Gilbert owns the Cleveland Cavaliers), the new-age venture capital firm they've formed, Detroit Venture Partners, plans to hit a homerun in Detroit (yes, a metaphorical non sequitur -- maybe because I've got half an ear on a soccer game on TV in the other room).

DVP's culture includes its Big 11, with "passion" topping the list:

1. PASSION FIRST
  • Build something larger than yourself
  • Stay close to your purpose and "why"
  • Rebuild Detroit
  • Drive social change


The energy of change and the opportunity to re-create a city (and create a great life)  have not been lost on students.

In a class I'm teaching to undergrad business students, Base of the Pyramid: Business Innovation for Solving Society's Problems, students work on addressing real, vexing societal problems.  In previous years, the kinds of problems students have clamored to work on have mainly been in the developing world, and this year, too, students are working on problems in settings including Haiti, Liberia, and Honduras.  

But fully half of the students this year chose instead to work on problems affecting Detroit:  health care, education, business and economic development, and food deserts.  (Watch this space as the Impact / Call to Action videos they're creating are completed.)

At the graduate school level, the Revitalization and Business Club at the University of Michigan is planning its second annual conference on using business as a force for positive societal change.  The club recognizes the overlapping desires of graduate students of all stripes -- business, policy, urban planning, and other disciplines -- to explore how innovation and entrepreneurship can create a vibrant, inclusive city.

The jury on Detroit's growth and revitalization is still out.  Richard Florida, the urban scholar and commentator, contends growth will come from increased productivity of the population rather than strategic contraction.  

Economic development today is about literally hundreds and thousands of little things that you do slowly and cumulatively at the neighborhood and community level. Building partnerships involving universities, building clusters, many, many small things that accumulate, that create some economic viability. ... That's what Detroit has to do and [it] all the assets ... It has spectacular universities like Wayne State, it has the Cranbrook Academy, the center of modern design, industrial design, and furniture design. It has two of the greatest research universities on the planet, very close by at Ann Arbor and Lansing, the University of Michigan and Michigan State. And it has a fabulous design/architecture community, creative energy in its low income communities, a tremendous, really resilient African-American community, a phenomenal Arabic community that will do anything to save and pitch in... [and] it has this legacy of musical talent that is just incredible and it continues to propulsively create new musical styles. 

All of those things add up to a kind of creativity and innovation being in Detroit's DNA. But [sustainable growth is] not going to come from a federal bail-out from the auto industry, it's not going to come from a big casino and convention and stadium project, it's going to come from really the small-scale efforts when people are empowered, where neighborhoods are empowered.

And that, it seems to me, is what we are seeing beginning to take hold.

Thanks, Detroit.


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