TechTown Takes Business Acceleration Services to Brightmoor Neighborhood

The TechTown business incubator, which is affiliated with Wayne State University in Detroit, announced last month that it has received a $150,000 grant from the Marjorie S. Fisher Endowment Fund to support its efforts in the Brightmoor neighborhood in far Northwest Detroit. One reason this is notable is that it represents the first time a tech-centered business incubator has deliberately and significantly engaged with entrepreneurs in a neighborhood outside of the downtown-Midtown “technology corridor.”

Leslie Smith, president and CEO of TechTown, says that healthy small businesses in the neighborhoods of Detroit are critical to urban revitalization efforts in the city as a whole. Smith told Xconomy earlier this year that her goal was to eventually make TechTown’s business coaching services available to entrepreneurs across the city.

Specifically, the one-year grant from the Fisher Endowment Fund will fully fund what TechTown has already been doing in Brightmoor for a few months. This summer, TechTown began offering “Tune Up” business coaching sessions and “SWOT”—which stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats—business analyses to entrepreneurs there. TechTown will continue to partner with the Brightmoor Alliance community group to recruit businesses in need of the accelerator’s services.

“TechTown came in with a really eager spirit and a great attitude,” says Kirk Mayes, executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance, a coalition of nearly 50 organizations already working to revitalize the community by addressing issues such as education, jobs, safety, housing, human services, shopping, and green spaces. (Brightmoor, for those unfamiliar, was once considered one of Detroit’s bleakest neighborhoods but has, in the past few years, mounted a fierce comeback.) “This is an area full of possibility, and people feel that.  TechTown’s presence inspires hope, and that’s as important as anything else.”

Mayes and Smith hatched the idea of working together when they met at last spring’s Mackinac Policy Conference, an annual confab that draws hundreds of politicians, lobbyists, government officials, business people, nonprofits, and other interested parties to Mackinac Island for a long weekend of eating, drinking, and public policy discussions. In what Smith describes as “one of those intentional and marvelous collisions in the universe,” Smith and Mayes both found themselves cooling their heels outside a conference room after becoming disgusted by the remarks of a speaker who shall remain nameless.

Smith said something like, “Can you believe the nerve of that guy?” Mayes heartily agreed, and an intense, three-hour conversation between the two kicked off. “We connected from that very instant,” Mayes explains. “Not only about the work each of us was doing, but about how TechTown had an interest in getting into the neighborhoods but not knowing how to do that. We came up with the idea right there of how it would look.”

Mayes was impressed when TechTown staffers came out to tour Brightmoor a few weeks later, true to Smith’s word, to see some of the redevelopment work that was already underway.  TechTown installed Derrin Leppek to run the SWOT City programs in Brightmoor and they jumped right into the work. Mayes says that by the end of the calendar year, 40 to 50 small businesses will have benefitted from the SWOT programs, which, in addition to the business analysis piece, also include help with ideation, marketing, back office support, and connecting entrepreneurs to the right suppliers.

“The idea was to start with low-hanging fruit,” Mayes adds. “”We’re not starting on Fenkell; we’re not starting on 6 Mile. We wanted to work with the businesses already here to showcase Brightmoor as a spot for new business development. “Before we get back to bustling economic corridors, we need to revitalize the entrepreneurial spirit of the neighborhoods, so we’re starting with what we know has taken root already.” ”

Operating out of the Old Redford Community Resource Center on Lahser, TechTown’s business coaches are now fully embedded in the community, attending community events and meeting with entrepreneurs by appointment. Mayes says the next goal is to reach out to entrepreneurs who are less established, or to those who are still in the idea phase of starting a business.

Smith says she’s so pleased with how quickly the Brightmoor operation came together, and the immediate positive outcomes that she saw, that she’s eager to replicate the model in other Detroit neighborhoods. “If a community group is interested in our support, that’s where we can partner,” she says. “We can really apply our resources. Between our interns, volunteer mentors, and access to partners like Americorps, we’re telling other neighborhoods we’re ready to come when you’re ready. We can stand up a team in a day.”

That legitimacy that TechTown lends to the entrepreneurial ecosystem makes them the perfect entity not only to start doing this kind of business outreach work in Detroit’s outlying neighborhoods, but also to set the pace for other organizations who might be interested in similar efforts. “TechTown has a strong track record—those who have seen that growth in downtown and Midtown have seen the success.”

Though Mayes appreciates the renewed business interest in Midtown and downtown Detroit, he says the whole city will need to be part of the revitalization efforts to truly fix what ails Detroit. “It’s great that people are finally realizing the gem of the central city, but it’s my job to make people remember that the neighborhoods of Detroit, in their heyday, were some of the best in the world,” he adds. “We can bring that back, but we need to reevaluate the post-industrial culture, and that takes time.”

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