Could Detroit Become the Silicon Valley of Social Entrepreneurship?

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the work he’ll do to address his mission. This guy’s pants are on fire, and to really be a good social entrepreneur, that’s what you need.”

Cavell and Pay It Forward provide job-training and employment services to unemployed Detroiters through internships at partnering non-profit organizations. In exchange for their hard work, interns receive a stipend of $900, two letters of recommendation, and assistance in building a resume. Pay It Forward also runs a program called Parent U, which provides parenting education to low-income residents of Detroit’s North End neighborhood or those who live on the Wayne State campus.

“I want to help people—that’s why I get out of bed,” Cavell says. “The problem I saw right here, right now in Detroit was unemployment.”

Cavell walked into Blackstone LaunchPad with his idea written down on a piece of paper and but no clear strategy of how to turn it into reality. Since then, with the incubator’s help, Pay It Forward has drafted a board of directors and become incorporated as a tax exempt non-profit group under section 501(c)(3) of the revenue code. The organization has placed 11 interns, three of whom went on to find full-time positions, and recently won a grant from Connect Detroit to fund 25 more. He says he recently acquired $50,000 of funding through an investor and is now looking forward to paying himself “a decent living wage” after he graduates from Wayne State’s social work program in May. Not bad for a startup that has only existed since September 2010.

“To me, Charlie is kind of like the Steve Jobs of the social entrepreneurship world,” Cross says.

“I see in Charlie everything I’d want in a social entrepreneur. He’s a young guy who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty—he actually seems to revel in it. He’s selfless—he just assumes he’ll survive, and he does. A lot of people talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. None of those things apply to Charlie.”

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9 responses to “Could Detroit Become the Silicon Valley of Social Entrepreneurship?”

  1. So sorry Ms. Schmid but in Detroit the first rule re being a successful social entrepreneur in Detroit is “Who do you know and how much have you drank the cool aide they offer.”
    Furthermore, the next test for Detroit’s social entrepreneur is whether you are willing to do what it takes to get the foundation money because merit (the need) is certainly not relevant.
    The last rule: if you don’t comply, an organization from outside Detroit will be funded and brought in to do the service the foundations’ seek.
    So the lesson is: stick to the Woodward Corridor area or downtown and if you are to venture into a neighborhood to do good be sure to partner with a gigantic non-profit or a foundation that will assist you to bring these “innovative” ideas into our neighborhoods.

  2. I am not sure that a litany of problems sets a city up to be a hotbed of business activity, but I do agree that those needs make Detroit an attractive testing ground.

    Entrepreneurs may not move there to found their next big thing, but people with impactful ideas may find it an easy place to start, especially if the programs you mention are successful. Well done Detroit!

  3. Nathan Phenicie says:

    The social entrepreneurship movement in Detroit is far larger than this article goes into detail about. Not only are there companies who’s entire mission is to “do good” but many of the other entrepreneurs around town support each other to build a strong business community. The Imagination Station comes to mind, which started as a purchase of two homes for under $1000 apiece and led to “inchvesting” which involved selling off square inches of the property online to raise funds for project, as well as local art, and alto to give the “inchvestors” control over their tiny parcels of property.

    Detroit will continue to innovate, there are more business incubators (Tech Town) and plenty of help from non-profit foundations as well as local business.

  4. I just stumbled across this article and I think it is a great story. Also, even though they seem to oppose each other, I agree with many of the comments. In my research I’m finding that there are many hurdles to smaller ventures in neighborhoods outside the “traditional investment hubs”. However, I have also found an untold number of individuals and groups who are using a very, very grassroots effort and are getting a lot done. My desire is to see them linked together so that the power can be seen in the numbers. Perhaps a “social network” map could be constructed to show where energies are being exerted and how they overlap.