November 28, 2016
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Downtown Detroit is booming, now how do we reach the neighborhoods?

A brand strategist's bold plan for the city will lift up its lesser-known corridors

Entrepreneur Hajj Flemings wants to rebrand Detroit and its neighborhoods. Photo by Shawn Lee

In 2011, I was one of eight entrepreneurs selected for CNN’s “Black in America 4: The New Promised Land—Silicon Valley” documentary with Soledad O’Brien. It was during the filming that I was exposed to the term meritocracy and how the lack of access in the technology space was creating a permanent underclass in communities of color. It literally changed the course of my life.

Fast forward to today, all across America there is a revival of urban cities. There is a vibrancy that reverberates from the commercial corridors of the midtown and downtown areas in cities like Detroit. But once you get a mile or two away from the main corridor, the energy, the opportunities, business density, and access to capital dissipates.

Detroit’s future requires connecting the worlds of design, technology, and innovation to neighborhoods.

Detroit has the largest percentage (about 83 percent) of African Americans in any U.S. city, which makes it unique and provides a great opportunity for us to create the blueprint for an inclusive city. I am a novice when it comes to urban planning. I didn’t go to school for it and I don’t have a degree in it. I am a mechanical engineer turned entrepreneur who is crazy enough to think he can change a city.

Detroit's future requires connecting the worlds of design, technology, and innovation to neighborhoods.

In 2015 the Knight Foundation launched the Knight Cities Challenge, an initiative to help make cities more successful. I was selected as 1 of 32 winners out of a pool of more than 7,000 applicants. Rebrand Detroit, a civic design and brand project and multi-disciplinary collaboration with the residents, community stakeholders, and local government, was born.

The 100 Project

One of the outcomes of my Rebrand Detroit project so far has to do with the lack of digital strategy and online presence for businesses in Detroit neighborhoods. Our research shows 46 percent of the small businesses in America operate without a website, which confirms this is a national problem. We believe we can drive economic impact in urban cities. The idea of the 100 Project is to make brick and mortar small businesses in Detroit digitally visible by getting 100 Detroit neighborhood businesses on the grid. The project is about driving revenue to the small business owners in Detroit neighborhoods who are working 10-12 hour days as the primary employee, with a lack of foot traffic to their business, no marketing budget, and no website. Welcome to the world of Alicia George, who founded Motor City Java in the Old Redford District in Detroit in 2003.

I garnered some inspiration from the One Laptop Per Child project, founded by Nicholas Negroponte, with the aim to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. Our mission to provide 100 mobile-optimized websites for Detroit neighborhood businesses was crystallized. A website is a small piece of digital real estate that is the gateway to your business and necessary for credibility and validation of existence. The reason this work is so important to me is that neighborhood businesses that are trying to attract customers have a loss of credibility without a website. Without a website they don’t exist. There is an instant validation when you are able to provide a potential customer with a URL or when someone can search in Google Maps to find your restaurant.

On September 12, 2016, I had a conversation with John Maeda, Global Head of Design and Inclusion at Automattic, at Selden Standard, a Detroit restaurant in Midtown, during the Brand Camp Summit. During this conversation I mentioned my desire to test the theory of getting 100 Detroit neighborhood businesses online. A month later, on Oct. 10, John and I had a conversation about bootstrapping to kick the project off. In pure design thinking fashion, three days later John was on a plane and landed in Detroit to help prototype the first website and define our MVP (minimal viable product). The team consisted of three people: John Maeda, web developer Justin Dunn, and me. Within 24 hours of talking with Alicia of Motor City Java, she had her new site “Just Java House” online. Our goal was to establish a strong proof of concept that we could scale to the remaining 98 websites.

Now it’s time to get more neighborhood businesses in Detroit on the grid.

Hajj Flemings

Rebrand Detroit

Hajj Flemings is a brand strategist, speaker, and tech entrepreneur who travels nationally inspiring people and brands to build, launch, and grow their ideas. Hajj was featured on CNN’s “Black In America 4: The New Promised Land—Silicon Valley.” The documentary chronicled the journey of Hajj and seven other entrepreneurs from around the nation as they lived in Silicon Valley launching their startups. He also founded the Brand Camp Summit in Detroit in 2008 and expanded it to Boston and New York. In 2015 Hajj founded Rebrand Detroit, a project that focuses on making Detroit a place for all people.