PowerMoves@Detroit Sees Fertile Ground to Seed Inclusive Innovation

Last week, the sprawling Techweek conference took over Detroit, and amidst the roster of activities, tech-celeb speakers, and after-parties, I was most impressed with the PowerMoves@Detroit event held downtown.

PowerMoves@Detroit, which was sponsored by Morgan Stanley and hosted by Invest Detroit and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), showcased local and nationally recruited minority entrepreneurs participating in boot camps and public pitch events. Entrepreneurs were competing for $100,000 in cash and prizes, along with the chance to connect with local investors.

However, it wasn’t the content of the programming that was the most notable part, though that was plenty good. What inspired me most was the idea, which played out over the course of the three-day PowerMoves event, that Detroit has a genuine opportunity to be the American city that attracts and nurtures minority tech entrepreneurs, offering a truly level playing field in terms of inclusion, availability of capital and other resources, and innovation. And, many participants agreed, if it can be done in Detroit, then it can be done in New Orleans, Oakland, Newark, and other post-industrial cities across the country that want to redefine themselves in the face of an unsteady economy, lingering unemployment, and sometimes brutal socio-economic forces.

“I could not be happier that my firm is taking a leadership role in exposing entrepreneurs to capital and exposing investors to entrepreneurs,” said Carla Harris, vice chair of global wealth management and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley. “One of the reasons we’re looking at cities like Detroit is that, when a city has gone through a crisis and now is in 2.0 mode, it’s an interesting opportunity to participate in that pivot. Chaos does create opportunity, and that opportunity can drive innovation and inclusion.”

PowerMoves@Detroit is part of an effort by New Orleans, LA-based PowerMoves.NOLA to address the significant national lack of venture-backed minority startups. Its inaugural event, held last July in New Orleans, highlighted 36 early-stage entrepreneurs of color from around the country, helping a number of them raise $3 million collectively in additional investments within 90 days following the event.

Earl Robinson, president of PowerMoves.NOLA, said his group brought the event here because “Detroit came to us.” Adrian Ohmer from Invest Detroit attended the kick-off event last year in New Orleans, and Robinson said he ended up being a “really great thought partner.”

When Ohmer suggested that PowerMoves.NOLA host a similar event in Detroit, Robinson reached out to his former employer, Morgan Stanley, which agreed to underwrite a Motor City version of the conference because, he explained, “Morgan Stanley thought Detroit was a special place at an interesting stage in its evolution.”

Robinson described Detroit’s startup ecosystem as a little more robust than what’s in New Orleans for a few reasons, with a major differentiator being the number of Fortune 500 companies that are either headquartered in Southeast Michigan or have significant operations here. “There’s more corporate wealth and investing in Detroit,” he said. “When you marry that impact with the Dan Gilberts of the world, it’s huge. In New Orleans, our startup community is seven to 10 years old and growing nicely, but it has nowhere near the level of corporate or family office support that Detroit has.”

But Robinson sees similarities between New Orleans and Detroit when it comes to a lack of diversity in the local innovation community. “In both cities, it could and should be more diverse,” he added. “In a perfect world, a city leverages 100 percent of its talent and passion in the marketplace, and then it provides them with the requisite resources. It’s not a hyperlocal issue.”

PowerMoves@Detroit included what Robinson said he’d been colloquially referring to as a neighborhood boot camp—in Detroit, the catch-all phrase for the parts of the city not encompassed by the burgeoning downtown area is “the neighborhoods”—for 10 mom-and-pop retail businesses. This was done in partnership with the New Economy Initiative, Invest Detroit, and the DEGC.

The event also had a second boot camp for 17 pre-revenue tech startups from metro Detroit and beyond; participants spent six weeks doing online and conference call training plus three days of pitch preparation on the ground in Detroit, culminating in a demo day. The winners of both bootcamps, Ida Byrd-Hill ($10,000) and Warranty Ninja ($20,000), will head to the national summit in July to be held in New Orleans.

“There’s an incredible amount of entrepreneurial talent in Detroit thanks to a wealth of resources and impressive innovation economy,” Robinson said. “I hope what we’ve done has demonstrated the power and promise of an ecosystem inclusive to all Detroiters.”

Robinson, a longtime financial professional, feels it’s “investing 101” to understand that a diverse portfolio is inherently less risky than a non-diverse portfolio—and that diversity should encompass sectors, cities, gender, and ethnicity.

He also praised Morgan Stanley for getting involved in PowerMoves@Detroit, and lauded the evolution of the local participants in the boot camp. “I’m guessing a lot of them didn’t know what a customer acquisition plan was, or a business model competition,” he said. “Fast forward to now, and they’re in front of an audience pitching their businesses and eloquently talking about those things.”

Robinson said PowerMoves.NOLA and Morgan Stanley plan to continue their engagement with Detroit’s entrepreneurs in the future. “We’ve been discussing it with Bamboo Detroit and Invest Detroit, and we’re going to build something here that endures and is inclusive.” He said to expect the announcement of a Morgan Stanley-sponsored entrepreneurial fellowship in Detroit sometime in the next month or so.

Robinson agrees that Detroit has a unique opportunity to be a model city for minority entrepreneurs. “Detroit really has the chance to get it right,” he added. “You can build a city on cutting-edge technology with Fortune 500 companies and an incredibly diverse group of people innovating. My hope is that we can all partner together.”

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