Panel: How Teaching Critical Race Theory in Schools Prepares Youth to Create an Equitable Future

Key Takeaways:

  • Critical race theory (CRT) is the exploration of how history has shaped today’s American social institutions, but it has become a catchall for anything related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Everyone has a moral responsibility to learn about how race, gender, and religion have, and continues to, impact lives today, and policies to prevent that prevent equitable democracy. Educators encourage opposers of CRT to learn what it is before opposing it at school board meetings and with legislators.

On Tuesday, Nov. 16, New Detroit, Inc. partnered with Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance to hold a virtual townhall addressing the controversy around critical race theory. The town hall was moderated by award-winning journalist Stephen Henderson and included:

  • Rashawn Ray, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; Professor of Sociology and Executive Director, Lab for Applied Social Science Research, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Truman Hudson Jr., Social Economist; Outreach Coordinator, Instructor, and Multiculturalism Teacher, College of Education, Wayne State University
  • Mary Jane Evink, Executive Director, Instructional Services, Grand Haven Public Schools; Chairperson, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee
  • Hailey Beatty Barton, Special Education Teacher, Grand Haven High School; Liaison, Calling All Colors, Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance

View the webinar recording here.


What is and What is Not Critical Race Theory?

CRT has been a prominent topic in the American news cycle recently, with both supporters and opposers of teaching it in K-12 schools weighing in on it. In the New Detroit press release, critical race theory was defined as a body of legal scholarship and academic movement developed in the 1970s to demonstrate that racism is a systemic issue that continues to be ingrained in American systems, including health care, criminal justice, and education.

This definition is often not what’s being talked about in the discourse between opposers and supporters of teaching it in schools. According to Ray, the term “critical race theory” has simply become a catchall phrase for anything related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

“It’s important to put it in a proper context for what’s happening today. We know that over the summer that Fox News mentioned critical race theory nearly one thousand times for a series of months. We actually tracked this in a Brookings report, and what we found in our analysis is that critical race theory became quite removed from the actual definition and conceptualization of it,” Ray said. “What’s important to note is that critical race theory became a flashpoint, and what we called a boogeyman, for anything related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The reason Ray cites for this catchall occurring is that a lot of opponents of CRT believe that it’s “admonishing all white people for being oppressors, and all Black people as hopelessly oppressed victims,” which is inaccurate. Nevertheless, this false narrative has led many school boards and legislators across the U.S. to preemptively ban teachings of CRT, as well as teachings about sexism and homophobia.

“Our analysis of legislations across the country shows that critical race theory and the way that critical race theory has captured diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives has extended well beyond how we might think about race and racism in the classroom,” Ray said. “There’s one fundamental problem: these narratives about critical race theory are gross exaggerations of theoretical framework. The broad brush that is being applied to critical race theory is puzzling to academics like myself, including some of the scholars who actually coined and originally started the term. Critical race theory does not attribute racism to white people as individuals or even to entire races of people. Simply put, critical race theory states that U.S. social institutions – the criminal justice system, the education system, the labor market, housing, health care – that these social institutions are laced with racism that is embedded in our laws, our rules, our regulations, and procedures, and lead to differential outcomes by race.”

The bottom-line issue, according to Ray, is that many people are not taking the time to understand there is a difference between American people and American social institutions and that the definition and exploration of CRT are focusing on the latter.

“Sociologists and other scholars have long noted that racism can’t exist without racists. However, many Americans are not able to separate their individual identity as an American from the social institutions that govern us,” Ray said. “These people perceive themselves as the system; consequently, they interpret calling social institutions racist as calling them racist personally. It speaks to how normative racial ideology is to American identity, as some people can’t simply separate these two things: their individual identity and social institutions. They’re simply unwilling to remove the blind spots that oftentimes obscures the fact that America is not great for everyone.”

Outside of CRT being an inaccurate catchall for DEI, which ultimately creates many arguments against it, one argument against talking about race, in general, has been that it doesn’t explain everything in America. While that is true, Ray cautions that ignoring it – because racism isn’t the cause for everything – would be a misstep. He compared it to talking about sexism, using the example of women finally getting paid the same as men in 2050. Waiting 29 years until the issue rectifies itself doesn’t seem like the wisest thing to do when the problem can be rectified today.

“Part of the problem there is that anytime a form of difference – race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability – is used as a hindrance for someone, additional hurdles for people to step over, those are things we should operate to address,” Ray said. “A lot of people think that progress is linear. In other words, that if we made progress in the past, it should simply continue. And that’s not how equality works. Instead, we actually have to double down on it. We have to ensure our policies are equitable because, or else, the same way that things move forward, they can reverse back.”

Why Critical Race Theory is Not a Threat to Education

According to Hudson Jr., CRT is important to teach in school because it’s simply looking back at the framework of how we operate in the U.S.; specifically, how U.S. social institutions have evolved since Columbus and the Spaniards first came to the Americas 529 years ago, and eventually when the nation and Constitution were created. During these times, Black and other minority people were not the only groups exploited. Poor white men and women also were. This is the framework for which CRT is explored in education, Hudson Jr. said.

“Establishing this framework of critical race theory, it’s important to understand that if you were a poor white male, you didn’t have a voice, you did not have access to voting. If you were enslaved in this country, you did not have a voice. If you were a woman, you did not have a voice. This country was grown and developed based on this framework that comes out of the Constitution,” Hudson Jr. said. “The laws that frame how we operate in this country are all guided by the Constitution of the United States.”

Another reason Hudson Jr. cited as a reason why CRT should be taught in K-12 schools is that the books youth are reading do not reflect the diversity of the U.S. If students were to only learn about U.S. history based on those books, the perspectives of non-white men would never be explored and used to frame one’s understanding of history.

“It took us 232 years to get our first Black male president, something I never thought I would see in my lifetime. We have our first Black female vice president. In our nation’s history, we’ve only had three people of color to ascend to the judicial branch of the Supreme Court in our country. Those are key for young people to understand when we start to unpack legislation and how legislation informs who they are,” Hudson Jr. said.

This dissection of history, or CRT, would easy fit within the already established sixth to 12th grade history and social studies common core standards, or goals and expectations that are put in place to help young people learn and create their own understanding of history.

“They are empowered to gather evidence from primary documents and construct their own knowledge of the past based on their findings,” Hudson Jr. said. “We’re not in a space in America where we’re fully embracing that young people have a voice, and they’re in a position where they can articulate through research that’s guided by an instructor or an educator to help them better understand how these laws, how these people, places, and historical events have truly informed the type of education they’re receiving.”

Youth are already finding the information CRT discusses on their own, outside of the classroom. Hudson Jr. believes they’re being pigeonholed into the old method of learning, as if information is not readily available. Now, youth simply go onto YouTube or TikTok to find the information they want. They also attend protests, such as the ones in Summer 2020 following the death of George Floyd. Teaching CRT in school where their learning can be guided would serve to ensure the accuracy of the information they’re learning.

“They’re in a new space where they’re challenging the narrative because they have access to so much information. But what we’re doing is, we’re pigeonholing them to this old ideology, this deficit framework, that they don’t know what it takes to in order to advance this economic and educational agenda that’s supposed to lead us into this space where we can so-called equalize the system,” Hudson Jr. said.

An example of this pigeonholing occurred amid the pandemic, when the federal, state, and local government and schoolboards all had conversations about how students learn the best, but “nobody asked the young people ‘how do you learn best?’”

Critical Race Theory in Grand Haven Schools

In Grand Haven schools, Evink and Beatty Barton shared there is both support and opposition against teaching CRT in schools, although they do not currently teach it. Evink shared it is very complex and takes a lot of resources to implement correctly, which Grand Haven doesn’t have the capacity for right now. Nevertheless, the district still prioritizes DEI initiatives through education and an anti-racism task force.

As for those who oppose CRT being taught in schools, Beatty Barton shared that many opposers do not try to learn what it is and how it’s being taught in the classrooms. Instead, they go straight to opposing it in the curriculum.

“Many people are not willing to have the conversation directly with the person that probably can have the most influence with their children. They’re going to school board meetings and speaking. They’re not reaching out directly to teachers and asking them,” Beatty Barton said. “I am primarily seeing people going to our school board and mentioning much of what Mary Jane said, where they are accusing us of dividing our students and ashaming our students, and they’re just simply not accurate. I really wish that they could take the time to learn a little bit more about what we are truly doing without just listening to this fearmongering that is happening on the internet or in other forms of media where they’re talking about just CRT is that big label of anything related to race rather than digging in and finding out what we truly are doing in the classroom.”

Parents are not the only ones who are split about CRT in schools. Beatty Barton said there are three types of teachers as well:

  1. Teachers who make a lot of effort to become more educated about the subject and teach it.
  2. Teachers who are interested but are hesitant and scared to teach it, either because they do not have enough knowledge, or they do not want to jeopardize their career.
  3. eachers who are resistant because they see CRT to be racist and something that causes issues.

“History is hard. When we teach history, when we teach the truth, it’s just the teaching. It’s not meant to cause division, it’s not meant to make us dislike each other, or make a child feel like they are less because of whatever their background is,” Beatty Barton said. “We need to work together to come up with ways that we can become more united and learn our true purpose in how we can make this better for all students. We have to talk about race…gender, we have to talk about these things in order to make that change and make things more fair, more equitable for everyone, and help our kids get that better education.”

Resources

In order to get the conversation about CRT back to a point where only the truth and facts are being discussed, Ray suggested four things:

  1. Have conversations with people who have different views than you do. Ray recommends starting with those you are close to because people are more apt to listen to people they care about.
  2. Rebuild trust in science by elevating academic research and writing. This does not mean force articles on them, but simply ask them their thoughts on it. According to Ray, over time, they will begin saying things that align with what they read.
  3. Help people identify truth in the media. One way to do this is refer to the media bias chart, which will show the polarizing ways media outlets operate. The most neutral, objective sources will be in green.
  4. Be a racial equity learner, advocate, and broker. According to Ray, a learner does things like research and attend webinars, an advocate engages with others, and a broker contacts state legislators about what they think.

Evink also recommended watching documentaries such as 13th to have a good background before you start conversations about CRT.

“Here’s the big pitch to people who have heard a narrative that is different from what we know about critical race theory: if you truly want America to be racially equitable, then actually looking deeply into the history of our country to ensure that we don’t repeat the past is what we all should agree to commit to. And we only do that by educating our children about what happened in the past, so they can be better prepared to create an equitable future,” Ray said.

Detroit Teacher and Youth Restoring Idlewild, the Historical Vacation Spot for Black People

Black Enterprise
Nov. 17, 2021
Jeroslyn Johnson

Thanks to a former teacher in Detroit, many will be reminded that Idlewild is more than just a movie starring the rap group Outkast.

When inspiration struck for her latest outdoor project, Maria Lawton Adams had just finished transforming the Tindal Rec Center on Detroit’s West Side into a safe space for kids and seniors. Lawton Adams was inspired to restore Idlewild, the historical vacation spot for Black Americans, after taking a tour of the remains in the summer of 2020.

“I started looking at the devastation,” Lawton Adams told WXYZ-TV Detroit. “As I was riding, I was just silent cause I was like, ‘Oh my God! I said all the good things that you heard about and the rich history, and it looks nothing like it.”

Lawton Adams used to visit Idlewild with her family as a child. The small 2,700-acre community, built by four white couples in 1912, was made to be a vacation destination for Black people. During the ’20s and ’30s, many Black performers went to Idlewild to hit the stage safely due to racism and segregation that ran rampant at the time.

Acts like Della Reese, Dizzy Gillespie, the Four Tops, and even Aretha Franklin all performed there. By the ’50s and ’60s, Idlewild was a thriving hub for Black entertainers and families from across the country, MSN reports.

But decades later, the forgotten town was left abandoned and in need of some major renovation work.

“I thought of it like being Beirut; a lot of the houses were about to fall down,” Lawton Adams said.

She became inspired to get the youth in Detroit involved in transforming Idlewild back into the lively town it once was. Plus, kids suffering through the lockdown could build skills while also giving back to the community.

“We clean up the brush and we paint the houses put boards on them, so people coming in to the town and just want to see what Idlewild is it doesn’t look so bad from the street,” Lawton Adams said.

First on their list is fixing up the house of Rambo, a man who lives in Idlewild without any heat or electricity. After Rambo’s house is done, Lawton Adams and the 25 kids involved in helping will move on to the next house until Idlewild is fully restored.

“They put up new dry wall, a kitchen, bathroom, even landscaping outside, and when they’re finished, he will get everything down to silverware brand new in his new apartment,” Lawton Adams said.

View the original article.

Let’s Detroit Virtual Career Expo to Connect Job Seekers with Opportunities in Detroit

DETROIT (Nov. 18, 2021) – Let’s Detroit and the Detroit Regional Chamber are supporting a virtual career expo for those looking for jobs in Detroit on Monday, Nov. 22 from 4-6 p.m. Employers have a considerable need for talent amid critical labor shortages, and this virtual event will serve to connect eager job-seeking Michiganders with promising career opportunities in Detroit.

The virtual career expo will be hosted on the Brazen platform. The event is free, but registration is required.

“As Michigan’s economy rebounds, employers have a significant need for talent to solidify continued growth,” said Greg Handel, vice president of Education and Talent at the Detroit Regional Chamber, who oversees the Let’s Detroit initiative. “This virtual event makes connecting our state’s robust talent with top employers and career opportunities more accessible.”

The expo follows successful events in Nov. 2020, May 2021, and Oct. 2021 during which Let’s Detroit partnered with state and regional partners to highlight career opportunities in the region. Virtual attendees can look forward to connecting with a growing list of top employers in industries including finance, accounting, IT, supply chain, health care, communications, marketing, and STEM. Those interested in participating and viewing the complete list of employers can register for free here.

Companies that are participating include:

  • Adient
  • Aludyne
  • Bollinger Motors
  • Bosch
  • Meritor
  • Brose
  • Cooper Standard
  • Ford
  • Michigan Civil Service Commission
  • Rocket Companies

About Let’s Detroit
Let’s Detroit was created by the Detroit Regional Chamber to encourage young talent to find and advance their careers in the state. Using a website, texting communication, and social media engagement, the program aims to achieve three main objectives: improve the narrative around Detroit and Southeast Michigan, increase graduates in Southeast Michigan, and cultivate an innovative, engaged, and culture-focused business community to drive economic prosperity. Let’s Detroit was launched to help achieve the Chamber’s goal of increasing postsecondary education attainment in the region to 60% by 2030. Learn more at letsdetroit.com.

Panel of Detroit Women Talk Importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Small Businesses, the Detroit Hustle, and Affordable Capital 

Key Takeaways:

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is not a favor. It is a good financial business decision.  
  • DEI requires focusing on the largest and smallest businesses to ensure the business landscape is fully resourced and inclusive. 
  • Government has a responsibility to make sure the economy is equitable and inclusive.  

The Detroit Regional Chamber hosted its second webinar, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Small Businesses, in its 2021-2022 Black- and Diverse-Owned Business Series on Tuesday, Nov. 16, in promotional partnership with Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Pure Michigan Business Connect.  

The webinar featured a panel of leaders in the Detroit region who discussed the importance of DEI for businesses, particularly small, minority-owned ones. The panel consisted of Chanell Scott Contreras, executive director at ProsperUS Detroit; Portia Roberson, president and chief executive officer at Focus: HOPE; and Kim Rustem, director of the City of Detroit’s Department of Civil Rights, Inclusion, and Opportunity (CRIO).  

The Importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Small Businesses

The conversation about DEI for businesses has increased rapidly since summer 2020, following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Businesses around the U.S. began discussing the importance of DEI, their companies’ initiatives, steps they would take to become more diverse, and more. Largely left out of that conversation were small businesses, many of which were minority-owned. 

“It’s equally as important for small businesses because we want to avoid some of the mistakes that you see when people don’t use people from diverse backgrounds in their inward companies,” Roberson said. “We really try to encourage that you’re looking at the entire community when you are talking about who are going to be your employers and, or how you are going to promote your product to some of the larger entities that might use you.” 

 According to Roberson, businesses are looking at one another to see how diverse they are and how intentional they are with having a diverse workforce. This includes nonprofits, which many people see as inherently diverse. Roberson disagrees with that belief and shared that at Focus: HOPE, they are frequently and intentionally considering who they use for procurement and within their workforce and making sure they are targeting small businesses who are reflective of the community they serve. 

In addition to DEI being essential for maintaining customer support, it is also important for creating equity in the business landscape. If not prioritized, small businesses are more likely to receive fewer opportunities because they do not have the same resources to compete. 

Rustem said the government plays a significant role in the marketplace to ensure it is equitable and small and minority-owned businesses can compete with larger companies. 

“It’s so important for government to be making sure we’re pushing policies that are supportive of Black and Indigenous and people of color-owned businesses. And to do that, there needs to be affordable capital,” Rustem said. “The really big businesses oftentimes have access to a lot more financial tools. Our system is a little bit just kind of set up to better support the bigger businesses. And, unfortunately, due to our past history of discrimination and racism in the country, our smaller businesses tend to be our Black and Indigenous, and people of color businesses because the wealth generation, and the individual wealth, just isn’t there the same way that it was able to be created in some of the white communities.” 

Within the City of Detroit’s CRIO Department, Rustem said they provide opportunities to create that affordable capital for small and minority-owned businesses. 

The first is its Detroit Business Opportunity Program (DBOP), which certifies businesses as a Detroit-Based Business, Detroit-Headquartered Business, Detroit Resident Business, Detroit Small Business, Detroit-Based Micro Business, Detroit Startup, Minority-Owned Business Enterprise, or Woman-Owned Business Enterprise. This program allows smaller companies to compete against larger companies for procurement opportunities in the city by providing them with equalization credits, reducing the advantage larger companies in and out of state have with placing smaller bids. 

In addition to DBOP, CRIO also supports the Detroit Means Business policy team, frequently looks at how they can better support micro-businesses in the city, given most of them in Detroit and around the country are Black-owned, and supports Black-owned banks and other financial institutions that have relationships with Black and diverse-owned businesses.  

ProsperUS Detroit is one of the financial institutions that CRIO supports. It is a community development financial institution (CDFI) that allows businesses in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park to access affordable resources, including capital.  

 “At ProsperUS, we make loans of just a few hundred dollars, up to $50,000, and other lenders go well beyond that. It’s more of a small business lending because the volume is low in size. We focus on serving entrepreneurs of color in Detroit’s neighborhoods because, just like Kim has shared, having the opportunity to support, launch, and grow a business creates life opportunities, wealth-building opportunities – not just for the entrepreneur but their family, but also the surrounding community,” Scott Contreras said.  

Accessing Capital as a Minority-Owned Small Business

The benefit of using CDFIs like ProsperUS, according to Scott Contreras, is how open and inclusive their processes are. Most have online and paper applications and different avenues of initially engaging with the organization to begin the process of accessing resources. It’s also fairly consistent, with most processes starting with accessing basic information about the business owner and business, then an interview or more detailed conversation to learn more about the business’s needs. 

“What’s interesting about CDFIs is that especially in Detroit because we collaborate and work together, sometimes if that particular organization isn’t the right fit based on whether it be your business type or the size of loan that you’re looking for, we can make a direct referral to another organization so they can continue that conversation, and you’re not just out there with no next step,” Scott Contreras said. “That’s something that we all care a lot about in continuing to make the process really clear for everybody.” 

Beyond starting the conversation about accessing affordable capital, Scott Contreras shared that organizations should also be “creative about providing capital in the form of grants and other mechanisms that can allow people to just get started” with opening or growing their business.  

“When you think about equity and inclusion, we know that not enough Black, Latinx, indigenous, and people of color businesses have access to generational wealth or the level of income required to even get started,” Scott Contreras said. “I think about the people who have that natural entrepreneurial drive and talent who are doing this from their basement, from the back of the car, but haven’t been able to get started because of that initial seed funding that we need.” 

While during the beginning of the pandemic, the government and other organizations offered many grant opportunities, many have now gone away. In place of those opportunities, Roberson encourages small businesses to apply for assistance. Often, a lot of those dollars are left on the table.  

“You’d be surprised how much gets left on the table because people either don’t know about it or just, for whatever reasons, are unsure about whether it applies to them. Or, even I would say some fear about going after those dollars, whether it’s because they’re government dollars and people have maybe a distrust about what it’s ultimately going to mean for their business,” Roberson said. “But I really would say that during this time when so many dollars are being filtered through to states and cities and onto organizations like all of ours, really look for those opportunities where you can get some of the assistance, some of the relief that’s out there. And don’t be afraid to ask the questions about whether this relief applies to you. Even if it doesn’t, there’s a lot of times when you can also offer other opportunities that would be available for them.” 

Scott Contreras cautioned that seed funding like this is only a steppingstone. The business owners and lenders need to develop a long-term relationship to continue to find the right resources for the different moments as the business grows.   

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policies

With government backing, the capacity of CDFIs, Black banks, and other financial institutions that have relationships with minority-owned businesses to provide affordable capital will only grow. A few policies Rustem suggested to ensure this capacity growth occurs include guaranteeing loans for businesses, 0% interest loans, and supporting the different types of services small businesses need, such as legal services, business plan development, and accounting. 

One thing we recently did at CRIO was we paid for all small businesses, or businesses that are interested in getting part of the marijuana industry, we actually gave everybody their own personal business coach to actually develop out a business plan, understanding that people need support with developing out a business plan. There’s a lot that goes into it in terms of accounting and legal services,” Rustem said. “So how can government do more of that? By paying for those types of services for small businesses.”  

In addition to the policies to benefit all small and minority-owned businesses, Rustem made a specific call out for women-owned companies about how the government should subsidize child care to help more women get into the marketplace.   

But no matter what policies are in place to help diverse-owned or women-owned small businesses start and grow, Scott Contreras said Detroiters would make it happen anyway. 

 “The business owners are out there, whether formally or informally, making it happen every day. We all know about the Detroit hustle, the grit that we have. People have been doing this forever,” Scott Contreras said. “It’s the job of organizations like mine and other business support organizations and lenders to figure out where we are creating unnecessary barriers.”   

One way she suggests doing that is by evaluating the makeup of each organization. Does the staff represent the community? 

“If we want to serve Black, Indigenous, and people of color-owned businesses, then we need to have cultural competency. We need to value the things that the community values. We need to understand the characteristics of entrepreneurship from the same lens that the community does. And we can’t do that if we don’t understand the culture and understand entrepreneurship as the community does,” Scott Contreras said. 

Thank you to the event sponsor, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. 

President Biden Celebrates Michigan’s Global Automotive Leadership at GM’s Factory Zero

President Joe Biden came to Michigan on Wednesday, Nov. 17, to help open GM’s retooled Factory Zero Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center. The President was joined by GM CEO Mary Barra, United Auto Workers President Ray Curry, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, members of Michigan’s Congressional delegation, MICHauto executive director Glenn Stevens Jr., and more at the event. It is GM’s second EV plant so far within its North American footprint and is central to the company’s plan to pivot from gas and diesel-powered vehicles to EVs.

Production is now set to begin at the former Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, less than two years after GM announced the massive $2.2 billion investment to fully renovate the facility to build a variety of all-electric trucks and SUVs.

“GM’s U.S. manufacturing expertise is key to achieving our all-electric future,” said GM Chair and CEO Mary Barra. “This is a monumental day for the entire GM team. We retooled Factory ZERO with the best, most advanced technology in the world to build the highest quality electric vehicles for our customers.”

The name Factory ZERO reflects the significant role the facility plays in advancing GM’s vision of a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion. Factory ZERO will be home to the 2022 GMC HUMMER EV Pickup, 2024 GMC HUMMER EV SUV, Chevrolet Silverado EV, and the Cruise Origin, an all-electric, self-driving, shared vehicle. When fully operational, Factory ZERO will employ more than 2,200.

What it Means for Michigan

“Today’s announcement is good for Michigan, good for Michigan businesses, and another sign that Michigan’s signature automotive industry is the global leader in innovation,” said MICHauto’s Glenn Stevens Jr. “President Biden and GM’s Mary Barra highlighted the importance of the American worker and ingenuity, and MICHauto is proud to work with industry leaders to ensure our state is at the epicenter of 21st-century talent.”

While celebrating the opening of Factory Zero, President Biden promoted the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The President celebrate industrial innovation in green technology and argued it could all be done without increasing inflation or veering into significant debt.

“We’re going to make sure that the jobs of the future end up here in Michigan, not halfway around the world,” he said. “Here in Detroit, we’re going to set a new pace for electric vehicles. This is not hyperbole. It’s a fact.”

GM has committed to a future of electrification, dedicating $35 billion to electric and autonomous vehicle development and planning to launch 30 EVs globally through 2025. The automaker aims to have an all-electric light-vehicle portfolio by 2035.

IHS Markit expects battery-electric vehicle sales to make up 15 percent of U.S. light-vehicle sales by 2025 and 34 percent by 2030.

Factory ZERO – a commitment to sustainability

As an EV assembly plant, Factory ZERO plays a direct role in GM’s commitment to eliminate tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035 and become carbon neutral in its global products and operations by 2040. The company has already committed to invest $35 billion in electric and autonomous vehicles and plans to introduce more than 30 EV models by 2025. Factory ZERO serves as a real-world proof point for GM’s commitment to running its business in a sustainable manner.

Factory ZERO highlights include:

  • GM reused or recycled almost every material that came out of the facility during conversion, including crushed concrete from the old plant floor, which was repurposed for temporary roads around the facility.
  • Storm water will be recycled to reduce discharge costs and offset the cost of potable water.
  • Treated storm water will be used in cooling towers and the plant’s fire suppression system.
  • The site features a 30-kilowatt solar carport and 516-kW ground-mounted photovoltaic solar array from DTE Energy.
  • Factory ZERO’s site has a 16.5-acre wildlife habitat that is home to monarchs, foxes and turkeys.

Through Factory ZERO, GM is showcasing its manufacturing leadership capability and readiness for what will be a fundamental shift in mobility as the company transitions to an all-electric future.

 

Survey Results: Supporting Detroit Minority Businesses Through Access to Capital

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago has been conducting a survey of small and micro minority businesses in Detroit to highlight their experiences with access to capital and financing both before and during the pandemic. The ultimate goal of the survey is to identify and better understand the needs and gaps in financial resources for Detroit businesses at different stages of development. In a webinar, a panel of experts gathered to share preliminary findings and examine how these small and micro businesses fared during the pandemic and their near-term outlook.

View a recording of the conversation and read highlights below.

Survey Results

Maude Toussaint, senior economist and economic advisor for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago provided an overview of the survey results so far and what they mean. Per Toussaint, there is abundant entrepreneurial dynamism and interest in efforts to own a business among Black entrepreneurs in Detroit. It’s also important to note that these Black-owned and minority businesses are a key source of employment and wealth accumulation, that when funded and supported properly, can contribute to closing the city’s wealth gap.

The survey yielded five key insights:

  1. Demographics and characteristics of businesses: Detroit has a dynamic and diverse Black business landscape inclusive of educated male and female business owners. This business community represents a variety of industries and urban entrepreneurial services in education and nonprofit enterprises. Businesses in this area are also primarily micro, including home-based and low revenue businesses.
  2. Business financial conditions: Close to half of respondents consider their business’s financial health to be struggling, reporting operating at break-even or loss.
  3. Funding during the pandemic: More than 65% of businesses applied for COVID-19-related emergency funding, mainly through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans. Many survey respondents also applied to some extent for grants from state and local governments. Applications were made mostly to local banks, followed by national banks where the business owners had a previous relationship prior to PPP applications. Some also reported sending applications to FINTECH, credit unions, and CDFIs. Those who didn’t apply for funding reported not doing so because they were discouraged and did not expect to qualify or that the process what too confusing.
  4. Overall funding access and utilization: Very few businesses reported having used past external financing from banks in the past three years prior to COVID-19-related funding. Further, respondents reported relying on retained earnings, business and personal credit cards, merchant cash advances, and trade credit to meet various business needs.
  5. Capital and resource needs and challenges for businesses: Grants from the government were identified by respondents as a strong need that hasn’t been met. They also shared that financial criteria related to terms of loans, collateral, and interest rates are not advantageous. Lack of institutional and government relationships and other institutional barriers and discriminatory practices were also noted as extreme challenges. Lastly, lack of knowledge of sources of capital is challenging.

Moving forward, the goal of this survey and results is to provide analysis that accounts for the homogeneity of the business landscape and apply the methodology to identify gaps and priority needs and resources. Ideally, this will help generate targeted responses to address different business needs.

Experts Weigh In

Following the presentation of survey results, a group of financial and business experts discussed the findings and what action can be taken to improve the situation for Detroit’s Black and minority businesses. Panelist Ken Harris, president and chief executive officer of the National Business League, emphatically stated that now is the time to hold financial institutions accountable for the promises they’ve made to Black, brown, and indigenous businesses. He noted stark disparities and mismatches in resources based on the city’s demographics. “We have to meet Black businesses where they are,” Harris said during a Q&A following the session. Detroit is a predominantly Black city, and unfortunately, Black business owners are being left out of funding opportunities and growth support that could help build wealth and uplift communities. Harris called for a scorecard or summit of businesses and financial organizations to gather in 2022 to tackle these issues with “will and intent.”

Paul Jones, business support network director for Invest Detroit, outlined how the pandemic exacerbated existing disparities. Jones shared that capital isn’t the only need for these businesses. “Money is a facilitator of growth, of sustainability,” he said. Businesses need programs to help prepare them to seize opportunities – whether for applying for capital or the opportunities for growth that arise once capital is secured. Jones also noted a disconnect between businesses and financial institutions where businesses needed capital and the institutions having it to give, they’re having difficulty connecting with the right businesses or offering the right type of capital for their needs.

During the audience Q&A, Jones outlined some specific resources for businesses like federally funded Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) and SCORE. He also noted that there are national and local groups with more targeted audiences that can take into account an organization’s specific cultural sensitivities and nuances.

From the banking perspective, Maggie Ference, senior vice president of business banking credit, SBA, and ops director at Huntington National Bank, acknowledged that banks have a “massive” Black business opportunity. The way processes exist today, it is hard to get past conversations on credit scores, liquidity, trust, etc. with businesses. Ference noted that businesses need support in developing business plans with institutions willing to put in time and expenses to ensure these businesses are set up for success. She also shared that bank financing is often the most affordable option, but most businesses don’t tend to start there for their financing needs. Moving forward, according to Ference, it is lending institutions’ responsibility to provide financial education and invest in community partners to bridge the gap to businesses. It is also key to create networks of professionals to provide legal, accounting, and HR counsel and thoughtful guidance.

When asked about how equipped traditional banks are to create products businesses are looking for, Ference said they are quickly investing in improvements to offerings that are more targeted to support small businesses. She cautioned against FINTECH as it is unregulated and sometimes predatory, and advised taking time to interview any financial institution before getting involved with them to make sure they have the business’s best interests in mind.

Learn more at chicagofed.org.


Related:

How to Access Small Business Funding

Detroit Regional Chamber Named Among 2021 Detroit Free Press Top Workplaces Awardees

DETROIT (Nov. 17, 2021) – For the third consecutive year, the Detroit Regional Chamber has been awarded a Top Workplaces honor by The Detroit Free Press. The recognition is based solely on employee feedback gathered through a third-party survey administered by Energage.

“This achievement belongs to our team members and Board leadership who strive every day to make the Detroit Regional Chamber an employer of choice,” said Sandy K. Baruah, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber. “It is an honor to again be selected among a prestigious group of organizations.”

“Throughout 2021, the Chamber has been a leader in safely balancing in-person and remote work. This award is an acknowledgment of the strong leadership and individual effort it takes from everyone at the Chamber to create a positive and effective work culture,” said Wright L. Lassiter III, president and chief executive officer of Henry Ford Health System and the chair of the Chamber Board of Directors. “It’s always a great honor for an organization to earn an award like this – but in these challenging times, it’s especially significant.”

“In times of great change, it is more important than ever to maintain a connection among employees,” said Eric Rubino, Energage chief executive officer. “When you give your employees a voice, you come together to navigate challenges and shape your path forward based on real-time insights into what works best for your organization. The Top Workplaces program can be that positive outcome your company can rally around in the coming months to celebrate leadership and the importance of maintaining an employee-focused culture, even during challenging times.”

As one of the top companies to work for in Southeast Michigan, the Chamber’s diverse staff enjoys an inclusive work environment, competitive wages, benefits, and a wide array of professional development opportunities. This recognition is a testament to the team’s flexibility and resilience through a uniquely challenging business landscape and its unwavering commitment to serving the region’s businesses.

View the full list of Top Workplaces recognized by the Detroit Free Press.

About the Detroit Regional Chamber

Serving the business community for more than 100 years, the Detroit Regional Chamber is one of the oldest, largest, and most respected chambers of commerce in the country. As the voice for business in the 11-county Southeast Michigan region, the Chamber’s mission is carried out by creating a business-friendly climate and providing value for members. The Chamber also executes the statewide automotive and mobility cluster association, MICHauto, and hosts the nationally recognized Mackinac Policy Conference. Additionally, the Chamber leads the most comprehensive education and talent strategy in the state.

About Energage

Energage offers a fully unified SaaS platform, plus support and professional services, to help organizations recruit and retain the right talent. As a B-Corporation founding member, Energage has committed itself to the purpose of making the world a better place to work together. Based on 14 years of culture research, the engine behind 51 Top Workplaces programs across the country, and data gathered from over 20 million employees at 60,000 organizations, Energage has isolated the 15 drivers of engaged cultures that are critical to the success of any business, and developed the tools and expertise to help organizations measure, shape and showcase their unique culture to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage. For more information, please visit energage.com. Follow us on Twitter @teamenergage and Facebook and LinkedIn @energage.

Butzel attorneys named to DBusiness magazine’s Top Lawyers in metro Detroit 2022

DETROIT, Mich. – Seventy-five Butzel attorneys have been named Top Lawyers in metro Detroit 2022 by DBusiness magazine. The list appears in the November/December 2021 edition. The attorneys and their practice areas are listed below:

Ann Arbor office

– Regan K. Dahle
Labor and Employment Law

– Jennifer A. Dukarski
Copyright Law
Information Technology Law
Intellectual Property and Patent Law

– Ashley Glime
Copyright Law
Intellectual Property and Patent Law

– Mark W. Jane
Employee Benefits Law

– Nancy Keppelman
Employee Benefits Law

– William J. Kraus
Litigation – Commercial

– Lynn McGuire
Employee Benefits Law

– Terrance J. Miglio
Labor & Employment Law

– Mark T. Nelson
Litigation – Labor and Employment Benefits

– Claudia Rast
Information Management & Discovery Law
Information Technology Law

– Diane M. Soubly
Litigation – Labor Employment Benefits

– Andrew Stumpff
Employee Benefits Law

Detroit office

– Geaneen M. Arends
Corporate Law
Real Estate Law

– Linda J. Armstrong
Immigration Law

– Frederick A. Berg, Jr.
Litigation – Commercial
Litigation — Insurance

– James C. Bruno
Arbitration
Commercial Law
Corporate Law

– Joshua J. Chinsky
White-Collar Criminal Defense

– Maura Corrigan
Appellate Law

– Rebecca S. Davies
Labor and Employment Law
Litigation – Labor Employment Benefits

– David J. DeVine
Construction Law

– Arthur Dudley, II
Corporate Law
Securities Law

– David F. DuMouchel
White-Collar Criminal Defense

– Eric J. Flessland
Construction Law
Litigation – Construction

– Bernard J. Fuhs
Franchise Law
Trade Secrets

– Cynthia J. Haffey
Litigation – Commercial

– John P. Hancock, Jr.
Litigation – Labor Employment Benefits

– Catherine M. Karol
Commercial Law

– Amany Kasham
Immigration Law

– Justin G. Klimko
Corporate Law
Mergers & Acquisitions Law
Securities Law

– Phillip C. Korovesis
Litigation – Commercial
Trade Secrets

– Mark R. Lezotte
Health Care Law
Nonprofit/Charities Law

– Clara DeMatteis Mager
Immigration Law

– Paul M. Mersino
Construction Law
Trade Secrets

– Brett J. Miller
Franchise Law
Labor and Employment Law

– Donald B. Miller
Product Liability

– Donald V. Orlandoni
Franchise Law

– Reginald A. Pacis
Immigration Law

– James S. Rosenfeld
Labor and Employment Law
Litigation – Labor Employment Benefits

– Bruce L. Sendek
Litigation – Antitrust

– Angela Emmerling Shapiro
Information Management & Discovery Law
Information Technology Law

– Ivonne M. Soler
Family Law

– Nicholas J. Stasevich
Commercial Law
International Trade Law

– John C. Valenti
Product Liability

– Kurtis T. Wilder
Appellate Law
Arbitration

– James E. Wynne
Product Liability

– Mitchell Zajac
Intellectual Property and Patent Law

Troy office

– Jennifer E. Consiglio
Corporate Law
Mergers & Acquisitions Law

– Carey A. DeWitt
Labor and Employment Law
Litigation – Labor Employment Benefits

– George B. Donnini
Antitrust Law
White-Collar Criminal Defense

– W. Patrick Dreisig
Banking & Financial Service Law
Corporate Law

– Damien DuMouchel
White-Collar Criminal Defense

– Theodore R. Eppel
White-Collar Criminal Defense

– Geoffrey L. Gallinger
Land Use & Zoning
Real Estate Law

– Debra A. Geroux
Health Care Law

– Amy L. Glenn
Trusts and Estates

– Beth S. Gotthelf
Energy Law
Environmental Law

– David W. Hipp
Banking & Financial Service Law

– Robert A. Hudson
International Trade Law

– Laura E. Johnson
Corporate Law
Mergers & Acquisitions Law

– Susan L. Johnson
Energy Law
Environmental Law

– Thomas A. Kabel
Land Use & Zoning
Real Estate Law

– Sheldon H. Klein
Antitrust Law
Litigation – Antitrust

– William J. Kliffel
Product Liability

– Bushra A. Malik
Immigration Law

– Suzanne M. Miller
Tax Law

– Max J. Newman
Bankruptcy and Creditor /Debtor Rights Law

– Robert P. Perry
Trusts and Estates

– R. Peter Prokop
Tax Law

– Thomas B. Radom
Bankruptcy and Creditor/Debtor Rights Law
Litigation – Banking & Finance

– Joseph E. Richotte
Appellate Law
White-Collar Criminal Defense

– Robert H. Schwartz
Health Care Law

– Thomas L. Shaevsky
Employee Benefits Law

– Thomas C. Simpson
Litigation – Real Estate

– Daniel B. Tukel
Labor and Employment Law
Litigation – Labor Employment Benefits

– Roxana Zaha
Real Estate Law

The research for the Top Lawyers list was created by PRS (Professional Research Services) and is based on an online peer-review survey sent out to the certified lawyers within the metro Detroit area. Many votes were cast honoring excellence in the legal field. Inclusion in DBusiness magazine’s Top Lawyers list is based solely upon one’s standing within their peer group.

About Butzel

Butzel is one of the leading law firms in Michigan and the United States. It was founded in Detroit in 1854 and has provided trusted client service for more than 160 years. Butzel’s full-service law offices are located in Detroit, Troy, Lansing and Ann Arbor, Mich.; New York, NY; and, Washington, D.C., as well as an alliance office in Beijing. It is an active member of Lex Mundi, a global association of 160 independent law firms. Learn more by visiting www.butzel.com or follow Butzel on Twitter: https://twitter.com/butzel_long

Top Women Leaders in Michigan’s Cannabis Industry Talk Challenges, Resources, and Social Equity During Nov. 9 Panel

In 2008, Michigan became the 13th state in the United States to legalize medical cannabis. Ten years later, a 56% vote legalized recreational cannabis with licensed sales starting in 2019. With this newfound acceptance of cannabis in the state, many individuals began to open businesses in the industry, ranging from cultivation to laboratory testing and processing to distribution. The Detroit Regional Chamber welcomed four of those individuals – now top leaders in the cannabis industry – to share their experiences entering and navigating the industry, specifically from a woman’s perspective in the male-dominated field. 

Jamie Cooper, founder of Sensi Connect, formerly known as Cannabiz Connection, and director of Industry and Community Development at Sensi Media Group, LLC, moderated the panel of women leaders, including: 

  • Amy Brown, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, ABKO Labs, LLC 
  • Vetra Stephens, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, 1stQuality Medz 
  • Luann Sun, Owner, Sun Provisions 

Brown entered the cannabis industry in 2009, shortly after it was legalized in Michigan and right when the recession was starting. She had just graduated from law school and found getting a job to be difficult, so with her legal background and already 30 years of experience in the financial services industry, Brown collaborated with her dad, a chemist, and her boyfriend, a caregiver, to create the first startup testing lab in the state under the Medical Marijuana Facility Licensing Act.  

Before joining the cannabis industry, Stephens and her partner contracted through Wayne County to help create, find, and generate revenue for the county while also generating revenue for the Detroit People Mover. Health issues struck, and she and her partner decided to learn more about cannabis and eventually opened the first adult-use cannabis dispensary in Wayne County. 

Sun has been in the industry since 2008. With a mechanical engineering degree and background in automotive, beauty, and design engineering, she decided to open her own general distribution company. In February 2008, Sun transitioned her distribution company into the first cannabis microbusiness in the state, which is an all-in-one cannabis business. It includes growing, processing, and selling cannabis, all in-house. 

Industry Challenges

When asked about their challenges working in the cannabis industry compared to their previous careers, the panelists unanimously cited the industry’s newness. There was no established foundation to learn from compared to their previous careers – financial services, marketing and advertising, and engineering. 

“Working in financial services, that was a very old industry that had a lot of very clearly defined dos and don’ts, rules and regulations, and a lot of it was federal, so it made a little more sense and was a little bit easier. I think that just the fact that it’s brand new, the fact that it can change in a heartbeat is, I think, one of the biggest challenges,” Brown said. 

Stephens concurred but said they are already past some of the challenges Brown shared, such as zoning laws, and are dealing with new ones on the dispensary side. 

“It’s because it’s a new industry to the state of Michigan. They are tweaking and trying to figure out what’s going to work best,” Stephens said. “The only thing they had to look at was Colorado and California, and what they did was try to decide what they didn’t want to do. That didn’t mean you knew what to do; it just meant you knew what not to do. So, going through those changes with them – quite difficult, but we’re getting through it.”  

Because these challenges will continue, Sun said one of the best ways to figure things out is by educating yourself through books, YouTube, and reading Marijuana Regulatory Agency rules. 

“There’s no ABCD to follow. It’s a lot of things you have to learn and find out yourself,” Sun said. 

Challenges of Being a Woman in the Industry

According to the 2020 Fortune 500 list, there are 37 female chief executive officers in the U.S. Compared to the 463 chief executive officer positions held by men on the list, that’s not a significant amount. This gap can also be found in the cannabis industry, with only 37% of women holding senior-level positions. Although this gap is not as large as the national average, it is still big enough for potential challenges to arise for women who choose to enter the male-dominated industry.  

Stephens cited being the only woman in the room as one of the challenges, as this leads to having to speak louder and making sure you have all your I’s dotted and T’s crossed. 

“Someone will kind of push you to the side if they don’t feel like you belong,” Stephens said. “You have to kind of make yourself seen and make yourself heard so that we can have something that we can look back and say, ‘I’m glad we designed it this way, or I’m glad I had a word to be able to say that changed the game from where it was before.’ Challenging, very challenging, because it’s several men in this space.”  

Sun shared that she hasn’t experienced many challenges, however, as a woman in the industry. She thinks this is because she has been in the distribution industry for a long time already. 

Brown also does not experience many gender-related challenges. In fact, she was surprised that the cannabis industry is so male dominated. She did not enter it with preconceptions or expectations of what the industry would be like.  

“I found that people are very open, and they engage a lot when they find out you’re a female entrepreneur in a new industry. I found the culture to be very welcoming, very accepting,” Brown said. 

Brown thinks this has been her experience because she is on the lab side and not in cultivation where there may be more pre-judgment. 

Finding Funding as a Woman in the Cannabis Industry

Another challenge the panel of top women leaders discussed is finding investors and resources for their businesses. According to Cooper, if women-owned businesses find funding, they receive less of it and fewer resources, such as mentorship and strategic guidance, than their male counterparts.  

To overcome this, Brown, Stephens, and Sun all recommend using your network to help. 

“The challenge is going back to the underlying theme of this being a brand-new industry. A lot of the places that do lending want to see two years of financial history. Well, it’s a brand-new industry; I don’t have two years of financial history,” Brown said. “For myself, personally, I had what I had built myself in my savings and some friends and family that helped out, but it is really difficult. And I’d like to see more women getting into it.” 

Which side of the cannabis industry you are involved in can also play a big part in receiving funding. Brown shared that she reached out to her “former world with a lot of high-net-worth investors” and did not get a lot of traction. She later found they were putting a lot of money into the growth side of the industry with provisionary centers, but the lab side just wasn’t “sexy” to them.  

Sun recommends being creative when finding funding sources. For example, she reached out to classmates from her childhood and found a couple of partners to buy a building, which she leased from them. 

“Sometimes, just open your mouth to ask people what you want,” Sun said.  

But you should be careful to not over ask by immediately aiming for a commercial license. Stephens stressed the importance of understanding what you want and have the capacity for before jumping in. 

“You have to do your research and know if this is something for you before you even tap into this. Thinking you’re going to get into it at the commercial level, you’re going to probably need to pool resources to be able to do that because it’s still not federally regulated so you can’t say, ‘I have a piece of property, and I’d like to get a loan,’ because the bank will not do that as soon as you say the word ‘cannabis,'” Stephens said. “Speak to your other counterparts to see who else wants to be a part of the industry and pool those funds together to be able to do those things. Or maybe start off with a smaller license until you can bring in the right funding to be able to grow into a larger commercial license.” 

If you do elect to partner with someone, whether to buy a building or to help run your business, Stephens recommends choosing them carefully and to not have too many. If you want multiple partners, she suggests bringing on silent partners, or people who are only going to provide funding. 

Improving Social Equity in Michigan’s Cannabis Industry

While the panel primarily focused on the experiences of and provided advice about entering the cannabis industry as a woman, it also touched on the intersection of cannabis and being Black and brown. Historically, Black people have been disproportionately affected by marijuana laws. According to the ACLU’s 2020 report, in every state in the U.S., Black people are arrested at higher rates than white people for marijuana possession, despite using it at similar rates. This history makes Stephens’ desire to see Michigan create programs targeted to minorities to give them easier access to the industry even greater.  

“Have they [Michigan] done enough? The answer to that is no. However, just like this industry started, it morphed into where we are today, and I’m expecting that to be the same thing for the social equity program. You have to know what the problem is first before you can embrace that,” Stephens said. “I’m seeing that they are working towards that. I’m seeing that they are creating programs and putting people together so that that can happen. So, it’s not enough just yet because there’s still some problems here and there, but they’re recognizing some of those issues, and they are coming together to rectify those issues. I’m seeing that it is headed in the right direction, and I’m hoping that I can see where it can be very helpful for Black and brown people to be able to come into the space easily.” 

Advice to Women Interested in the Cannabis Industry

Ultimately, no matter who is entering the industry, Brown advises them to be patient and learn as much about the industry as possible to be successful.  

“Attend a lot of different events, talk to a lot of different people, even the virtual events – virtual networking is great — and learn a lot about the industry,” Brown said. “You can be a CPA, you can be a real estate agent, insurance agent, banking – there’s a lot of other areas of this business you can get into, and the people that I’ve seen really thrive are the ones that had patience. I think that is key.” 

In addition to patience, Stephens recommends having a passion for the industry. 

“Don’t follow the dollars. Don’t feel like, ‘this is a lucrative industry, so I want to be a part of it,’ because you will change and turn around and walk right out that door,” Stephens said. “If you don’t have the passion to be a part of this industry, then nothing will ever work. Have some type of passion and love for the cannabis industry, and the patience will come with that.” 

Networking is another piece of advice the panel shared, with Sun stating it is one of the most important things you can do to be successful in the industry. She also shared that being mindful that owning a business in the cannabis industry is not easy to do is essential.  

Although it is hard work to enter the cannabis industry, it can also be gratifying and enlightening. 

“I had a preconceived notion about cannabis prior to getting involved with this. Opening up a provisioning center and meeting the people and seeing that they were not like I expected them to look was just enlightening,” Stephens said. “I expected to see the rapper, the young guy with his pants hanging down, and people with crazy hair. I expected something I did not see. I saw people from churches, teachers, people that indulged in cannabis for various reasons: for pain management, mental disorders, accidents they had been into, for different reasons. Just seeing regular people – just like us – that indulged in cannabis was quite enlightening, and I appreciated that. It made me want to have something opening up for all to come.” 

Thank you to the event sponsor, Plunkett Cooney. 

Panel of Top Women Leaders in Michigan’s Cannabis Industry Talk Challenges, Resources, and Social Equity During Nov. 9 Panel

In 2008, Michigan became the 13th state in the United States to legalize medical cannabis. Ten years later, a 56% vote legalized recreational cannabis with licensed sales starting in 2019. With this newfound acceptance of cannabis in the state, many individuals began to open businesses in the industry, ranging from cultivation to laboratory testing and processing to distribution. The Detroit Regional Chamber welcomed four of those individuals – now top leaders in the cannabis industry – to share their experiences entering and navigating the industry, specifically from a woman’s perspective in the male-dominated field. 

Jamie Cooper, founder of Sensi Connect, formerly known as Cannabiz Connection, and director of Industry and Community Development at Sensi Media Group, LLC, moderated the panel of women leaders, including: 

  • Amy Brown, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, ABKO Labs, LLC 
  • Vetra Stephens, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, 1stQuality Medz 
  • Luann Sun, Owner, Sun Provisions 

Brown entered the cannabis industry in 2009, shortly after it was legalized in Michigan and right when the recession was starting. She had just graduated from law school and found getting a job to be difficult, so with her legal background and already 30 years of experience in the financial services industry, Brown collaborated with her dad, a chemist, and her boyfriend, a caregiver, to create the first startup testing lab in the state under the Medical Marijuana Facility Licensing Act.  

Before joining the cannabis industry, Stephens and her partner contracted through Wayne County to help create, find, and generate revenue for the county while also generating revenue for the Detroit People Mover. Health issues struck, and she and her partner decided to learn more about cannabis and eventually opened the first adult-use cannabis dispensary in Wayne County. 

Sun has been in the industry since 2008. With a mechanical engineering degree and background in automotive, beauty, and design engineering, she decided to open her own general distribution company. In February 2008, Sun transitioned her distribution company into the first cannabis microbusiness in the state, which is an all-in-one cannabis business. It includes growing, processing, and selling cannabis, all in-house. 

Industry Challenges

When asked about their challenges working in the cannabis industry compared to their previous careers, the panelists unanimously cited the industry’s newness. There was no established foundation to learn from compared to their previous careers – financial services, marketing and advertising, and engineering. 

“Working in financial services, that was a very old industry that had a lot of very clearly defined dos and don’ts, rules and regulations, and a lot of it was federal, so it made a little more sense and was a little bit easier. I think that just the fact that it’s brand new, the fact that it can change in a heartbeat is, I think, one of the biggest challenges,” Brown said. 

Stephens concurred but said they are already past some of the challenges Brown shared, such as zoning laws, and are dealing with new ones on the dispensary side. 

“It’s because it’s a new industry to the state of Michigan. They are tweaking and trying to figure out what’s going to work best,” Stephens said. “The only thing they had to look at was Colorado and California, and what they did was try to decide what they didn’t want to do. That didn’t mean you knew what to do; it just meant you knew what not to do. So, going through those changes with them – quite difficult, but we’re getting through it.”  

Because these challenges will continue, Sun said one of the best ways to figure things out is by educating yourself through books, YouTube, and reading Marijuana Regulatory Agency rules. 

“There’s no ABCD to follow. It’s a lot of things you have to learn and find out yourself,” Sun said. 

Challenges of Being a Woman in the Industry

According to the 2020 Fortune 500 list, there are 37 female chief executive officers in the U.S. Compared to the 463 chief executive officer positions held by men on the list, that’s not a significant amount. This gap can also be found in the cannabis industry, with only 37% of women holding senior-level positions. Although this gap is not as large as the national average, it is still big enough for potential challenges to arise for women who choose to enter the male-dominated industry.  

Stephens cited being the only woman in the room as one of the challenges, as this leads to having to speak louder and making sure you have all your I’s dotted and T’s crossed. 

“Someone will kind of push you to the side if they don’t feel like you belong,” Stephens said. “You have to kind of make yourself seen and make yourself heard so that we can have something that we can look back and say, ‘I’m glad we designed it this way, or I’m glad I had a word to be able to say that changed the game from where it was before.’ Challenging, very challenging, because it’s several men in this space.”  

Sun shared that she hasn’t experienced many challenges, however, as a woman in the industry. She thinks this is because she has been in the distribution industry for a long time already. 

Brown also does not experience many gender-related challenges. In fact, she was surprised that the cannabis industry is so male dominated. She did not enter it with preconceptions or expectations of what the industry would be like.  

“I found that people are very open, and they engage a lot when they find out you’re a female entrepreneur in a new industry. I found the culture to be very welcoming, very accepting,” Brown said. 

Brown thinks this has been her experience because she is on the lab side and not in cultivation where there may be more pre-judgment. 

Finding Funding as a Woman in the Cannabis Industry

Another challenge the panel of top women leaders discussed is finding investors and resources for their businesses. According to Cooper, if women-owned businesses find funding, they receive less of it and fewer resources, such as mentorship and strategic guidance, than their male counterparts.  

To overcome this, Brown, Stephens, and Sun all recommend using your network to help. 

“The challenge is going back to the underlying theme of this being a brand-new industry. A lot of the places that do lending want to see two years of financial history. Well, it’s a brand-new industry; I don’t have two years of financial history,” Brown said. “For myself, personally, I had what I had built myself in my savings and some friends and family that helped out, but it is really difficult. And I’d like to see more women getting into it.” 

Which side of the cannabis industry you are involved in can also play a big part in receiving funding. Brown shared that she reached out to her “former world with a lot of high-net-worth investors” and did not get a lot of traction. She later found they were putting a lot of money into the growth side of the industry with provisionary centers, but the lab side just wasn’t “sexy” to them.  

Sun recommends being creative when finding funding sources. For example, she reached out to classmates from her childhood and found a couple of partners to buy a building, which she leased from them. 

“Sometimes, just open your mouth to ask people what you want,” Sun said.  

But you should be careful to not over ask by immediately aiming for a commercial license. Stephens stressed the importance of understanding what you want and have the capacity for before jumping in. 

“You have to do your research and know if this is something for you before you even tap into this. Thinking you’re going to get into it at the commercial level, you’re going to probably need to pool resources to be able to do that because it’s still not federally regulated so you can’t say, ‘I have a piece of property, and I’d like to get a loan,’ because the bank will not do that as soon as you say the word ‘cannabis,'” Stephens said. “Speak to your other counterparts to see who else wants to be a part of the industry and pool those funds together to be able to do those things. Or maybe start off with a smaller license until you can bring in the right funding to be able to grow into a larger commercial license.” 

If you do elect to partner with someone, whether to buy a building or to help run your business, Stephens recommends choosing them carefully and to not have too many. If you want multiple partners, she suggests bringing on silent partners, or people who are only going to provide funding. 

Improving Social Equity in Michigan’s Cannabis Industry

While the panel primarily focused on the experiences of and provided advice about entering the cannabis industry as a woman, it also touched on the intersection of cannabis and being Black and brown. Historically, Black people have been disproportionately affected by marijuana laws. According to the ACLU’s 2020 report, in every state in the U.S., Black people are arrested at higher rates than white people for marijuana possession, despite using it at similar rates. This history makes Stephens’ desire to see Michigan create programs targeted to minorities to give them easier access to the industry even greater.  

“Have they [Michigan] done enough? The answer to that is no. However, just like this industry started, it morphed into where we are today, and I’m expecting that to be the same thing for the social equity program. You have to know what the problem is first before you can embrace that,” Stephens said. “I’m seeing that they are working towards that. I’m seeing that they are creating programs and putting people together so that that can happen. So, it’s not enough just yet because there’s still some problems here and there, but they’re recognizing some of those issues, and they are coming together to rectify those issues. I’m seeing that it is headed in the right direction, and I’m hoping that I can see where it can be very helpful for Black and brown people to be able to come into the space easily.” 

Advice to Women Interested in the Cannabis Industry

Ultimately, no matter who is entering the industry, Brown advises them to be patient and learn as much about the industry as possible to be successful.  

“Attend a lot of different events, talk to a lot of different people, even the virtual events – virtual networking is great — and learn a lot about the industry,” Brown said. “You can be a CPA, you can be a real estate agent, insurance agent, banking – there’s a lot of other areas of this business you can get into, and the people that I’ve seen really thrive are the ones that had patience. I think that is key.” 

In addition to patience, Stephens recommends having a passion for the industry. 

“Don’t follow the dollars. Don’t feel like, ‘this is a lucrative industry, so I want to be a part of it,’ because you will change and turn around and walk right out that door,” Stephens said. “If you don’t have the passion to be a part of this industry, then nothing will ever work. Have some type of passion and love for the cannabis industry, and the patience will come with that.” 

Networking is another piece of advice the panel shared, with Sun stating it is one of the most important things you can do to be successful in the industry. She also shared that being mindful that owning a business in the cannabis industry is not easy to do is essential.  

Although it is hard work to enter the cannabis industry, it can also be gratifying and enlightening. 

“I had a preconceived notion about cannabis prior to getting involved with this. Opening up a provisioning center and meeting the people and seeing that they were not like I expected them to look was just enlightening,” Stephens said. “I expected to see the rapper, the young guy with his pants hanging down, and people with crazy hair. I expected something I did not see. I saw people from churches, teachers, people that indulged in cannabis for various reasons: for pain management, mental disorders, accidents they had been into, for different reasons. Just seeing regular people – just like us – that indulged in cannabis was quite enlightening, and I appreciated that. It made me want to have something opening up for all to come.” 

Thank you to the event sponsor, Plunkett Cooney.