Business, City Transformation

Week in review: Detroit was a hotbed of events, conferences, celebrity appearances

M1 rail

Detroit naysayers, haters and otherwise unaware ostriches: If you think the city hasn’t crossed that all-importing tipping point where progress trumps ruin and decay, then you should think about selling all your stuff and moving.

Because if you  haven’t been to this new Detroit – this exciting, jubilant, argumentative and boastful in the best possible way city – then you’re just plain old missing out. And that’s a crying shame. Because the last week in Detroit was glorious. It was impressive. It was a dang hotbed of activity. And that’s just the way it’s going to be from now on. Get on the ride or get out.

Oh, and by the way, Warren Buffett was in town (thanks, Crain’s Detroit!) and the Detroit Institute for Music Education opened in its permanent location. Rock stars, all. Here. In Detroit. On purpose.

M1 rail 2Let’s review:

On Monday, many of the state’s greatest dignitaries in terms of political heft gathered at Grand Circus Park to have a “track-signing ceremony” for M-1 RAIL streetcar, honoring its role in generating economic development, connecting people and places along the corridor and the contribution the streetcar will have in the continued transformation of Detroit and the region. Government officials, the leadership of Detroit-based corporate and philanthropic entities, and citizens who live and work in the community signed two five-foot pieces of steel streetcar track that will be installed in the Penske Corporation Tech Center, to be located near the northern end of the line. Speakers included M-1 Chair Roger Penske, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, U.S. Congressmen John Dingell and Sander Levin, Kresge Foundation President & CEO Richard “Rip” Rapson and M-1 RAIL Vice Chairman and Quicken Loans Founder & Chairman Dan Gilbert. Yup.

On Tuesday, the place to be was Wayne State University. What happens when you mix some of tech’s brightest minds, best panel discussions and whole lot of people wearing blazers and T-shirts? You get a snarky, smart and super-productive conference called Techonomy Detroit. To review the day would be overwhelming, so I’ll touch on a few highlights. Moderator and chief conspirator David Kirkpatrick from Techonomy Media seemed to delight in every presentation, sharing with the audience what he gained from the discussion. He is a merry leader, giving the group both the pros of high tech and the cons (check out Andrew Keen from TechCrunch if you think the negatives of today’s technology-obsessed world weren’t mentioned. One Twitter commentator called him “depressing,” and the audience certainly agreed).

Techonomy signNews was shared and widely discussed. One of the most exciting announcements came during the panel on “The Economics of Sharing.” That is when Cass Tech grad and hometown woman Stacy Brown-Philpot announced that TaskRabbit – a job-sharing site that has made a splash around the nation – would soon be coming to Metro Detroit.

One of the most dynamic speakers of all was Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square. He has spoken at all three Techonomy Detroits (in part because he has family in the area; his mom and dad were in attendance at Tuesday’s event, for example). When his bearded face got on stage, the whole auditorium and the hallways outside became so silent you could feel the quiet. Everyone was focused on his message and his quiet command of the tech world.

Dorsey is said to be “obsessed” with cities, but I’d say he’s more obsessed with helping small business get going. His Square is a merchant’s best friend – he talked about how he wanted to create a device that would let people accept credit cards immediately instead of waiting a month for a bank to set them up. As a Square user, I agree. It is so easy and fast. He has given small business a true tool, and he continues to create new ideas to help them take payments and grow their systems.

He talked about meeting that day with Jill Drnek, owner of Detroit Human on Cass Avenue. They talked about all things business – how to stay liquid, how to build capital, how to find money to hire new employees. He talked there about Square Capital, a new part of his business that would allow business owners like Drnek have additional funds when they needed it. It’s an advance that could be a game changer for startups like this fashionable and fabulous clothing store in Detroit.

Jill and JackDrnek said the meeting with Dorsey was inspiring in more ways than one. She noted on a Facebook post: “We live in a time where technology has the potential to level the field and success can be determined by the individual rather than traditional constraints. It is a vision of ‘everyone wins’ that is possible and within reach, we can ALL succeed. This is such a critical message for Detroit right now.”

Thursday was perhaps my favorite. Have you ever had a day where you met so many of the people you’ve admired from a distance that your head starts to spin? That is what my day was like at the Detroit NewCo. event.

Now in its second year, NewCo bills itself as a festival that “gets you inside the city’s most important companies. A fresh twist on the traditional conference + media platform.” That it is, indeed. You get access to the business owners and leaders who are up and coming in the city that is sponsoring the event, and that is awesome.

Detroit’s event was easy to sign up for – it was just a few clicks on the computer and we had a huge array of business to select. I decided on three companies – Detroit Kitchen Connect, The Empowerment Plan and Good Cakes and Bakes. Here’s a little about each one and what we learned from the day.

Detroit Kitchen ConnectDetroit Kitchen Connect is the baby of Eastern Market Corp. and Food Lab. The goal was to give food entrepreneurs who had grown out of their home kitchen a space where they could create, meet one another and build relationships, according to Coordinator Anika Grose. DKC is found in two Detroit-area commercial kitchens, one in the basement of St. Peter and Paul Church and the other in Matrix Human Services. Foodies not only book time to cook, but they connect over where to find new sources of food, revenue and support. I met Alecha Benson-Lockhart, CEO of Nirvana Tea, Chloe Sabatier, owner of Chez Chloe (which makes the most devilishly delicious traditional French lava cakes) and Lester Gouvia, chef and owner of Norma G’s, the soon-to-open food truck serving fine Caribbean cuisine.

The Empowerment Plan was started by College for Creative Studies student Veronika Scott, who wanted to create a garment that would help keep homeless people warm and sheltered during Michigan’s long winters. The coat she created turned out to be a sensation, giving Scott a business at a college age. The result is a small factor inside Detroit’s Ponyride, where women who are trying to break out of the homeless cycle learn to become seamstresses and masters of their own fate. The Empowerment Plan looks to help parents in particular, and they love their employees for taking control of their lives and learning a trade. The goal is to take these coats into retail and beyond. But the focus will always remain on helping women with children who are in the homeless cycle break free, learn how to become part of a team and start their lives fresh.

Good Cakes and BakesGood Cakes and Bakes is the baby of April Anderson – a former Chrysler accountant who decided one day that she wanted to open a bakery. And, oh, boy did she ever. She took her amazing education from the University of Michigan in accounting and business and her experience in the working world to open up a successful neighborhood bakery and hang-out joint on the “Avenue of Fashion” on Livernois in Detroit. She said some people have asked her why she didn’t move to the suburbs or to downtown Detroit. Her answer is that she wanted to be in the neighborhoods and to see them grow with small business. Her skills are substantial, and she brings a fresh perspective to business in the city.

All in all, I loved NewCo and will participate for sure again next year. It’s great to meet the people you admire, and NewCo gave me a chance to do that. Many times, you see them working so hard that you don’t want to interrupt. Or you read about their adventures on Facebook or another social-media tool – you don’t get to hear the story behind the story. At NewCo, I got to ask questions. I got to try April’s gooey cake. I got to taste the amazing spices in Lester’s cuisine. I got to feel the heavy coats that Scott is making.

It was an amazing week. I took away many new friendships and an even stronger sense that what’s happening in the city in terms of a strong revival that is real and substantial. I admire so many of these business owners and I love their passion for what they do. I love that people are BRAGGING they are living, working or investing in Detroit. It’s time we all started to do the same.

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