|Photo: Trip Advisor|
What you risk when you have your struggles publicized as widely as Detroit’s is attracting more ambulance chasers than medics.
That is, when the call for help is too big and too wide, you can attract people who come more for their own gains than the city’s. But of course there is a danger too of not asking for help, of stubbornly keeping the doors closed, so the disease festers as the edges fray even further. Because for all the hype, Detroit, with its bankruptcy and blight, still needs a lot of help.
“Detroit isn’t going to be saved by one big thing,” said April Boyle, the Detroit native, all-mom band lead vocalist and Build Institute executive director. “It’s going to be saved by a million little things.”
One of the big themes of any entrepreneurship story in Detroit (a city pestered by reporters) is one of access and motivation. This was the case at the Tomorrow Tour event held at TechTown Detroit, as part of the first multi-city event series Technical.ly produced with Comcast NBCUniversal.
“This has to be about more than just affordable real estate,” said Paul Riser, Jr., the managing director of technology-based entrepreneurship at TechTown, a business accelerator founded in 2000 by leaders at Wayne State University with General Motors and the Henry Ford Health System. “There are reasons to build here.”
The city’s legendary automobile manufacturing reputation looms — Boulder-bred TechStars brought a mobility-focused accelerator and the 135,000-square-foot, GM-founded TechTown is adjacent to transportation technology incubator NextEnergy. There, too, are budding strengths in food and urban agriculture (shoutout to Campbell’s $231 million acquisition of suburban Garden Fresh last year), said Amanda Lewan, the cofounder of the Bamboo Detroit coworking space and editor of Michpreneur, a founder-focused news site.
Detroit also has the bones and the soul of all big cities — diversity (including a fair bit of gender-balance in IT salaries), research universities, culture and history and infrastructure (some of which is getting turned back on).
But for all that good sense, it’s hard not to instead focus on the passion that’s behind a city portrayed as in crisis.
Even those who think the fears are overblown say so with conviction. Ask Ida Byrd-Hill, a Detroit-native edtech founder, who stood up during the Tomorrow Tour and announced to applause: “We are not rebuilding ourselves.”
No, say those most seriously pinning their entrepreneurship dreams to Detroit’s future, it isn’t that the city needs to be remade.
“It’s an opportunity and the feeling that there is real work to be done,” said Jason Lorimer over $5 glasses of Tempranillo one night last month.
The founder of Dandelion, a seven-person civic-tech consultancy that serves as something like a general contractor on large projects, has been in Detroit for four years. First he moved from Philadelphia to follow an investment in a previous company of his, and then he stayed anchored to the network he built here. Lorimer is representative of so much Detroit change — and got pilloried for just that.
Well-intentioned as he may have been from the start, a 2013 essay of his on coming to Detroit to join in “its future” led his likeness to be used to symbolize a certain-kind of much criticized city newcomer: the white male entrepreneur and self-styled savior. Dozens of meme photos of him were shared by Detroiters who were trying to understand what it meant to be a struggling city with so much national attention and a new crop of excited residents.
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