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Promising Times

Mayor talks Detroit entrepreneurs, education and business role in revitalization

Page 26

(Note: portions of the interview have been shortened or edited for clarity in the print issue)

Your team has worked hard to support entrepreneurs and small businesses, via programs like Motor City Match. How far along are we in creating that ideal ecosystem where all entrepreneurs feel welcome and have the resources to thrive?

Every day that I pass by construction, attend another grand opening, or see businesses celebrating another decade in Detroit, I see Detroit driving its own evolution. We are seeing a ripple effect, where people who once worked at franchises are now the owners of those franchises and hiring others.  Entrepreneurs that have applied for help with writing business plans through Motor City Match are now coming back to apply for funding to open their businesses. Detroit is evolving and expanding its role in a global ecosystem.  Our entrepreneurs are broadening their reach across industries, customers, and partners and reshaping the world’s view of our city.

The momentum in this town is already contagious.  Entrepreneurs from all over the world are compelled by it and find their way to Detroit. Ecosystems thrive on diversity of space, talent, buyers, suppliers, and investors. We have all of the ingredients for entrepreneurs.

You’ve mentioned in the past that every entrepreneur has a little rebel spirit, and those real rebels tend to be here or find their way to our community. How do we foster that spirit and unleash the innovation it can lead to?

Rebels don’t ask ‘what if I can’t,’ they ask ‘what if I can,’ and they have to try. Curiosity is a seed of innovation, and it is important for us to encourage it early. Detroit has always been known as a city of innovation, from automobiles to Motown. There is no shortage of innovators here, they just need opportunity. The Detroit Promise is helping to ensure that young Detroiters feel encouraged to aspire to college and the opportunities that it brings.  The Grow Detroit’s Young Talent program brings work opportunities into young lives.  The Motor City Match program helps people who might have thought ‘I could never start my own business’ to not only dream it, but do it.  It’s an example of how we’re enriching the foundation that we provide entrepreneurs to build their business on. This is a city where business dreams not only can come true, but we’re going to help you do it.

Detroit is more than a place, it is a culture.  Our community invites people to be their most ambitious selves and share the results of that with the world.

You recently announced the Detroit Promise, building off the Detroit Scholarship Fund, to offer all Detroit students a tuition-free path to a two-year college degree. What impact do you see that having on the city?

Well, not to sound like a broken record, but all people need to succeed is opportunity. I have always believed that talent is distributed evenly, but what is not is opportunity. Detroit kids can go to college and do well. Many of them only need financial help in order to succeed. The Detroit Promise gets them there and sets them on a course for a far brighter future. And better access to education and training helps them, it helps the economy, and it helps employers, because now they get a better work force. It also helps attract employers to our city.

The theme of the 2016 Detroit Policy Conference was infusing the city’s neighborhoods with opportunity. How are we doing in moving toward that goal?

Far better, but we still have work to do. I know I keep going back to Motor City Match, but it’s such an important program to our comeback. It’s spurring development and reactivating storefronts in our neighborhoods that have sat empty for far too long. We’re reactivating our crucial commercial corridors, and with that, the neighborhoods that surround them. We’re requiring that residential developments that receive our financial assistance set aside units for affordable housing. We’re requiring that Detroiters get jobs in big projects like the hockey arena. Grow Detroit’s Young Talent is going to give 8,000 kids this summer a job where they can learn what it means to get a paycheck. We’re going to be fixing up 40 long-neglected parks, not downtown or in Midtown, but in our neighborhoods, so that kids have a great, safe place to play.

How is Grow Detroit’s Young Talent program doing in achieving its goal of 8,000 summer jobs for youth?

Last year, we set out to help 5,600 local youths land a summer job. We hit that, so I set the goal at 8,000. And you know what? There is no shortage of kids in this town that want that opportunity. We have more than 200 employers who have agreed to hire youth for the summer, and we’re placing them at everything from a hospital to the Detroit Zoo. But we still need more employers to sign up. The more employers we have, the more kids we can put on the path to bright futures. If a business can’t afford $1,700, we’ll pay half. We just need to get as many businesses involved as possible to help build Detroit’s work force of the 21st Century. You can sign up to and make a real difference in a kid’s life.

What do you need from the business community to keep Detroit’s momentum going?

Economies are driven by jobs, investment and innovation.  Detroit’s momentum will rise as our businesses rise.  Detroit’s global reputation will be a reflection of what we produce and share with the world.  Our industry leadership will rely on the creativity of our best minds.

We’ve got a number of businesses and foundations that invest in Detroit, and I think those results are really starting to pay off. Jobs are returning to our city. Families are returning to our neighborhoods. I believe that the money they are investing is paying tremendous dividends.

What would you say to national or international investors in high-growth industries like automotive, aerospace and IT about coming to Detroit and setting up shop?

We’re not just about plants that make stuff. We’re now about changing the industry as a whole. Detroit is back in the game, with IACMI, NNMI, American Axle and Lear all announcing recently that they are locating R&D centers in the city. Manufacturing played a key role in the city’s past, and though we must diversify our economy, manufacturing will still play a key role in our future. Detroit is rebuilding its position as a global leader of advanced manufacturing in general and automotive R&D. All of these recent investments we’re seeing is a reflection of the unparalleled level of R&D and manufacturing capability going on in Detroit right now.

It’s been an exceptional few years. So much activity and work. So much to celebrate. So much left to do. Does it seem like it’s still only been 2.5 years or so since you took office?

I don’t think of this position in terms of years. My administration and I have a job to do and we’re doing it to the best of our ability every single day. We’ve accomplished a lot: We’ve torn down more than 8,700 abandoned houses that were a blight on neighborhoods. We’ve installed 62,000 new streetlights, got our buses running at full schedule, helped nearly 28,000 Detroiters avoid foreclosure. But we still have to get Lansing to help us address our car insurance rates being too high. We still have to get the chaos in our schools resolved. We still have a lot of work to do, so no, we’re not going to celebrate. We’re going to keep on working.