NEIdeas Seeks to Connect Detroit Businesses with Resources to Grow

When the New Economy Initiative (NEI) kicked off its NEIdeas initiative last year, almost 600 entrepreneurs from all corners of the city of Detroit applied for the chance to win seed money to grow their small businesses. The program is back for a second year, this time open to existing small businesses in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park.

“Last year, we had restaurants and retail businesses apply, but we also had everything from app developers to health IT to video production,” said Jim Boyle, senior program officer at NEI. Nearly 80 percent of the businesses that applied to the $10k challenge in 2014 were minority-owned and nearly 60 percent were woman-owned, he added. “It was really heartening to see the diversity of applicants.”

NEIdeas is a two-tiered competition awarding $500,000 to the winning businesses; 30 businesses will receive $10,000 and two will receive $100,000. Boyle said organizers will determine which category applicants fall into based on gross revenues. Applying businesses must be at least three years old and gross between $0 and $5 million to be eligible.

According to Boyle (and past participants in the video posted below), the application process is simple—entrepreneurs write a short essay of around 400 words explaining what they would do to grow their businesses. After the application period is up, NEIdeas will narrow the pool of applicants and send the semi-finalists to a jury comprised of entrepreneurs and corporate and non-profit partners. The jury then picks the winners, who will be notified in the fall.

NEIdeas purposely targets existing businesses, Boyle said, because his organization wants to engage the enterprises that have been “fighting it out” in the neighborhoods that fall outside of the rapidly revitalizing downtown area. “It’s about more than money. How do we connect with businesses and get them connected to resources? The work we do on the back end is much more important than the money.”

The back-end process Boyle describes involves a partnership with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC). The DEGC participates in the jury process to determine NEIdeas winners, and it helps coordinate an outreach program with more than two dozen ambassador organizations throughout all three cities that will help guide participants through the application process. Boyle pointed to a workshop that was recently held by local financial service providers that drew over 200 NEIdeas applicants as an example of the kind of engagement NEI is hoping to cultivate.

“We’ve been working to build a network of support for years, and this program is meant to further flesh people out and get them thinking about how to grow their businesses,” Boyle said. “This is a big cultural change, to bring as many people into the fold as we can.”

Boyle said it’s important to the NEI and other stakeholders that every entrepreneur in Detroit understands and is able to access the resources available to help them prosper. “One hurdle we experienced last year was that people thought it was for downtown businesses only,” Boyle added. “That’s one problem we’re trying to solve: People either didn’t know about the resources or, worse, didn’t feel welcome to it.”

Boyle said it’s been especially gratifying to see the kinds of ideas local entrepreneurs have when it comes to how to grow their businesses. “It’s amazing to see how innovative they are,” he said.

For-profit businesses providing products and services of all kinds can submit completed applications online, or via email or snail mail; the deadline for the $10K challenge is June 4 and the deadline for the $100K challenge is June 25. In addition, applications will be available at more than 20 community organizations, associations, and churches across Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park.

Boyle said the NEIdeas website has a full calendar of upcoming events associated with the program, including office hours where applicants can get one-on-one help. (Click here to get an idea of the many resources available to local entrepreneurs through Detroit BizGrid.)


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