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Driving Inclusive Innovation and Competitiveness Forward in Detroit

Pamela Lewis at the Detroit Forward Cities Convening

April Boyle at Forward Cities Detroit Convening

Southwest Detroit walking tour, Forward Cities Detroit Convening

Cities are making long-term decisions around housing, transit, connectivity, education, and jobs. In cities where many of these issues have not been addressed in decades, how can they keep up nationally? 

The urban landscape is changing as more people choose to call cities their home. Cities are making long-term decisions around housing, transit, connectivity, education, and jobs. In cities where many of these issues have not been addressed in decades, how can they keep up nationally?  In Detroit, community leaders are changing the game by using inclusive innovation to boost one of the most important aspects of a city’s growth – its economy.

A recent report by JPMorgan Chase identified some of the barriers to workforce development and economic growth as high unemployment, a mismatch between education and skills needed, lack of available jobs and increased employment challenges for low-income and minority employees. To counteract this, many Detroiters are creating their own path through entrepreneurship.

In 2007, The New Economy Initiative (NEI) set out to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture by reawakening and leveraging Detroit’s creative entrepreneurial drive. Funded by over 10 different foundations, NEI has introduced entrepreneurship as an alternative form of job training for communities and neighborhoods facing some of the biggest hardships in the region.

NEI has seen many successes from their efforts, such as 139,862 individuals exposed to entrepreneurial services. One of the biggest successes in the entrepreneurship community has been NEI's influence in changing the culture of entrepreneurship in Southeast Michigan – and in fact changing the very definition of being an entrepreneur.

That’s because NEI sees both high-tech entrepreneurs and neighborhood small businesses as equally important for economic growth.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to be a model for inclusion as we grow opportunities for people to define their own economic destiny,” said Pam Lewis, director of the New Economy Initiative.

One NEI grantee, Build Institute, sees its role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem as introducing entrepreneurship at the idea stage. Their programs include an 8-week business plan development class, professional development workshops, networking events, micro-loans and more. In three years Build Institute has graduated over 750 participants from Metro Detroit and is on track to graduate 1000 by the end of 2016. By creating an open and inclusive environment, Build Institute’s demographics include many that historically have not been exposed to the path of entrepreneurship.

“Small, local, independent businesses are important for ensuring there is equitable and minority ownership happening. We are making sure residents out in the community feel like they’re involved in their city’s recovery,” said April Boyle, executive director of Build Institute.

NEI is focused on inclusive funding and access to capital. For instance, they recently celebrated the second year of their program NEIdeas, which supports neighborhood businesses through grants and technical services with an emphasis on minority and female entrepreneurs.

“You’re working with a population of people that have been disinvested in, and traditionally haven’t had access to capital, so there are many barriers. How do you get them access to funding for their ideas? You do it through Kiva Zip micro loans, proof of concept pop-ups and other innovative ways of funding ideas,” said Boyle.

Providing access and support for neighborhood small businesses gets blighted buildings filled, provides job growth within a neighborhood, increases quality of life for residents in these communities, and attracts talent from around the world who are seeking a unique, diverse neighborhood to call home.

However, the economic advantages of inclusion do not apply solely to neighborhood small businesses.

Over the past 10 years, NEI has consistently given large-scale grants in the millions to TechTown, a business incubator and accelerator providing resources and support to traditionally high tech companies, and is continuing to provide financial support this year. NEI sees TechTown as a pioneer in inclusive high-tech incubation because of their ability to grow to meet the needs of Detroit’s community.

“TechTown was a traditional incubator at one point focusing on high tech. They have really retooled over the last several years to meet the needs of the community. To us they are a great microcosm for grassroots-to-high-tech growth,” said Lewis.
By providing support to both minority neighborhood entrepreneurs and high-tech companies, TechTown has created a space where the two can have a relationship and intersect. NEI sees this as a huge opportunity for Detroit.

“We’re working on reinforcing roots between small business and high-tech. When you have meaningful connection between those two worlds you then find a way to inform innovation with the community voice.

“We have to find ways to grow companies. But also find ways to use innovation and entrepreneurship to solve problems and give neighborhoods access to things they need to live,” said Lewis.

As cities continue to grow and think about how to remain competitive in the future, they need to adapt their long-term development decisions to better serving all their residents. Using inclusive innovation tactics is smart way to approach this goal. By connecting traditionally disinvested populations with entrepreneurial opportunities and resources, cities can help create economic ecosystems that are strong and balanced.  
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