Where Community Meets Entrepreneurship

As a 10-year-old, Ned Staebler remembers his desire to save Detroit, and recalls a string of big projects that were touted as city saviors − the Renaissance Center in the 1970s, the Detroit People Mover in the 1980s, and the Super Bowl in 2006.

Staebler would never claim to save Detroit, but the president and CEO of TechTown Detroit heads an entrepreneur ecosystem that is spurring the Motor City’s renaissance. He is confident the city’s revitalization will never again rely on one industry or big thing.

“The next big thing is a thousand little things,” and he’s optimistic nothing will stop Detroit’s ascension now.

“TechTown is a great example of the hard-working spirit; the ‘we hustle harder in Detroit’ going in new directions,” says Staebler, who assumed his position in March 2015. “It’s a chance for us to take what we do well − our entrepreneurial hustle − and participate in the re-birth of a great American city. We get to have a big part in that.”

The city’s most established business accelerator and incubator in a former GM building at 440 Borroughs Street in Midtown was founded more than a decade ago as an alliance among Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System and General Motors. Originally designed to stimulate commercialized technology, today it is headquarters for more than 70 businesses and nonprofits. This year alone, TechTown will help spawn and support 350 creative, tech-based and brick-and-mortar businesses across the city.

TechTown also is home to a number of programs such as the TechTown Business Incubation Center designed for companies needing personal, customized support for technology-based innovations in fields such as health care and education. It focuses on neighborhood revitalization and public safety, and the nonprofit collaborates and partners with other organizations supporting small businesses such as Hatch Detroit, Motor City Match, Bizdom, Invest Detroit, the Detroit Creative Corridor and many others.

In Junction440, the open co-working space, the dedicated desks and workspaces are in such high demand they’re sold out. And 58 entrepreneurs pay a monthly fee for shared space with amenities including 24-hour access, relaxing lounge areas, meetings rooms, high-speed internet service, a kitchen, printing and parking.

“People need work space, and it’s very important to get that,” says Jonathan Colo, the Junction440 Community Manager. “We cultivate the environment in that space for the people in it, and seek diversity in the people and companies that come through our doors.”

About 20 percent of the businesses are tech-based; other businesses include attorneys, accountants, developers, investors and nonprofits.

Justine Sheu is among the entrepreneurs. Since graduating from TechTown’s DTX Launch Detroit, a 10-week college Summer Accelerator program, she created Pro:Up, an app that connects high school students to jobs, and Enact Your Future, a college prep program in high schools.

“I couldn’t have launched either company and wouldn’t be able to operate if it wasn’t for this,” Sheu says of the work space and amenities. “I meet so many entrepreneurs, advocates and allies here; it’s a network.”

Eric Olivier of Belgium chose Junction440 after getting depressed while trying to work in a hotel room. He’s developing a platform to connect international real estate investors.

“The bright environment gives me a good sensation,” he says. “It’s clean, very professional and people are so nice and willing to help.”

Staebler says visitors are surprised to see the bright, open modern-industrial design accentuated with vibrant furnishings, glass-walled conference rooms and a coffee shop.

“I’m proud of TechTown,” says Staebler, who also serves as Wayne State University’s vice president of economic development. “Whenever people from New York, London, Chicago or wherever walk in, they go ‘Wow! I didn’t know a place like this existed in Detroit because all I hear about Detroit is crime and blight. I didn’t know there was a beautiful, innovative, creative space.’”

Staebler’s pride is obvious when he speaks about the vast number of neighborhoods, commercial districts and enterprises TechTown has helped strengthen and re-develop.

“We don’t just build a fancy building and sit inside,” he says. “We go out and work with people with partners in communities, so people know we’re accessible and available and that we’re here to be helpful.”

techtown-20161202-018Regina Gaines, managing partner of House of Pure Vin wine shop, is an example. She successfully completed the intense Retail Boot Camp, and says it helped launch the business in a prime downtown location.

Her chic, contemporary industrial shop that has 1,300 brands is located in the Lofts at Merchant’s Row on Woodward, a building owned and managed by Bedrock Real Estate.

She credits Regina Campbell, TechTown’s managing director, for place-based entrepreneurship; guiding her before she opened in December 2015, introducing her to influential people, and assisting with the funding process.

“It’s like a certificate stamp on your business,” Gaines says of the program. “It comes with a seal of approval that says ‘We vetted them, examined their insides and outsides to see if they are legit.’ It gives you a pass to interface with the right people.”

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Lana Rodriquez, owner of the recently opened Mama Coo’s, a upscale resale and vintage clothing boutique in Corktown, shares a similar experience after emerging from boot camp. The artist funded the business with a grant from boot camp, and applied to Motor City Match and received another $18,000 grant.

“As an artist, I know how to make products,” she says. “I didn’t know how to run a business. If you don’t have a grasp on everything that goes into it, down the line you can get into trouble and lose your business. It’s not that you’re trying to, it’s you don’t know. They help you get the answers.”

Campbell also oversees SWOT City, which partners with neighborhoods and examines stability, business climate, employment and other factors to develop a stabilization and growth strategy. SWOT City also assesses established businesses to identify strengths and weaknesses, and creates an improvement strategy. Sweet Potato Sensations, the 1917 American Bistro, Motor City Java House, Good Cakes and Bakes, Detroit Fiber Works and Rose’s Fine Foods are among businesses SWOT City has impacted.

“A business that has been around for 10 years is having cash flow issues, we’ll go in and do a SWOT assessment, for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats,” Campbell says. “We develop a customized, actionable milestone plan to help them execute in six to 12 months to solve whatever their pain point is. We get all into looking at financials, tax returns, utilities, costs, customers, everything important to understand the actual condition.”

Staebler says he wants all Detroiters who desire business ownership to connect with TechTown because it’s for everyone, not just tech businesses.

“Techtown is where the stereotype of the young, white male entrepreneur goes to die because 40 percent of our entrepreneurs are older than 50, 60 percent are not white and about 35 percent are women, and that’s across our technology and non-technology programs,” Staebler says. “If you look at national averages for groups like ours, we are best practice in terms of the diversity, the inclusion and reflecting the community we work in. That’s intentional.

“We are women. We are black. We are Muslim. We are 6-foot-9 and 4-foot-2.”