August 1, 2016

Why we’re betting $133 million on Detroit’s entrepreneurs

The New Economy Initiative wants to support business owners who are out to change the world, starting with their own city

Pamela Lewis is the director of the New Economy Initiative, an economic development initiative working to build a network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses in southeast Michigan.

Detroit is a city of passion, resilience, and determination—a place rich in talent and home to aspiring entrepreneurs of all types spanning a spectrum of sectors and industries.

And it’s a city where a group of national and local foundations, through the New Economy Initiative (NEI), has invested more than $133 million to build an ecosystem of support for those brave enough to start businesses.

The mission of NEI is to create an inclusive and innovative regional culture by reawakening and leveraging Detroit’s entrepreneurial drive. Our overarching goal is to establish a more diverse economy where opportunity, wealth, and prosperity are available for all. That conscious commitment to inclusion and equity is necessary to make the “new economy” a new economy for all.

What makes Detroit unique is that there is no archetype, no standard characteristic or single profile, of a Detroit entrepreneur. Our entrepreneurs are scientists, product makers, small business owners, and social change agents. They are women and men; black, white, Hispanic, and Arab Americans; baby boomers and millennials. Some Detroit entrepreneurs come here from across the globe; others’ families have lived here for generations.

Unlike in Silicon Valley, where some have argued that innovators are focusing on solving the “problems” of a narrow set of privileged people, Detroit entrepreneurs are out to change the world, starting with their city.

And those entrepreneurs are extending that spirit of openness beyond their immediate networks. Today, there is a concerted effort to ensure that all residents of southeast Michigan benefit from the burgeoning innovations and entrepreneurial assets that exist in and around Detroit. Unlike in Silicon Valley, where some have argued that innovators are focusing on solving the “problems” of a narrow set of privileged people, Detroit entrepreneurs are out to change the world, starting with their city.

Take these three examples of who recently spoke at an NEI-sponsored Detroit event at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.

First there’s Jerry Paffendorf of Loveland Technologies. Starting with Detroit, Loveland is working to put every parcel of American land online, presenting information about property in clear, easy-to-access ways to help Detroiters battle a plague of tax foreclosures and fight blight. The company evolved out of Detroit’s unique circumstances, and its technology has been adopted by the Wayne County Treasurer’s office, resulting in a significant dip in foreclosures in the city.

Or consider Anya Babbit, an alumna of TechStars Mobility, a new accelerator that helps bring mobility solutions to market. Anya created SPLT, an award-winning mobile carpool platform that lets people share their commute to work with others. She credits her decision to locate in Detroit to the city’s potential for innovation, saying the “opportunity to collaborate with automakers was a major move for our business.”

Then there’s Carla-Walker Miller, founder of Walker-Miller Energy Services, one of three companies the city of Detroit contracted to help install a new streetlight system. In just three years, more than 65,000 streetlights were installed, completely transforming the way the city, where as many as 40 percent of streetlights were broken as of 2013, looks at night. Not only is the program improving safety and transportation in Detroit, but it’s also educating middle and high school students about LED technology, thus helping to train the future workforce, boost school attendance, and reduce carbon emissions. As Walker-Miller put it: “A rising tide lifts all boats … We must always bring the issues of access and inclusion to the table.”

And while Detroit still has a long way to go, things are vastly improving, thanks in large part to a dedicated and diverse group of entrepreneurs. As Detroit’s community continues to rebuild and its economy strengthens, our revitalization efforts must focus on inclusivity. We must recommit to building an ecosystem of support for entrepreneurs of all kinds—not only through providing capital, but through mentorship, training and other resources, as well.

This is the type of work that is paving the way to a better future in Detroit.

Follow Pamela Lewis on Twitter @paminthedlewis.

Top photo by Flickr user lundgrenphotography.

Pamela Lewis

Director of the New Economy Initiative