New NEI Director Wants Detroit to Lead Inclusive Economic Development

The New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan (NEI), one of the nation’s largest philanthropic partnerships focused on innovation and entrepreneurship, announced new executive director Pamela Lewis this week.

Lewis replaces longtime director David Egner, who stepped down from NEI in December to take over as the president and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. Lewis, who has an engineering degree from Michigan State University, served as the NEI’s deputy team leader working on high-tech, high-growth projects under Egner.

Lewis joined the NEI in 2011 as senior program officer after serving as a member of the Kauffman Foundation’s Detroit team, overseeing national entrepreneurial programs. Before that, she spent 15 years working for DTE Energy and cleantech accelerator NextEnergy. Earlier this year, she was also named one of Michigan’s top 25 women in technology by Crain’s Detroit.

The NEI was initially conceived as a temporary effort when when 10 foundations came together in 2008 for a $135 million philanthropic initiative lasting up to six years. In 2014, most of the original funding organizations again anted up to enable the NEI to continue its work. Today there are 12 organizations that have committed about $33 million to keep NEI funded through 2017.

Lewis’s vision for the organization includes continuing to do inclusive economic development work. “NEI has been about diversifying the economy and driving economic prosperity,” Lewis said. “It’s not just about job creation, it’s also about changing the culture. We want to get support resources to existing small businesses in the neighborhoods [outside of downtown Detroit] and drive collaboration between service providers.”

Since its inception in 2008, the NEI has awarded $96 million in grants to about 230 businesses and organizations in Southeast Michigan, Lewis said. That funding helped create more than 17,000 jobs and 1,600 new companies throughout the region. Roughly 40 percent of those 1,600 companies are owned by minorities—about three times the national average, Lewis said—and 30 percent are owned by women.

The NEI under Lewis is not content to rest on its laurels. “Even though we’ve got good momentum, I feel like the network is still pretty fragile,” she said, describing Detroit’s startup ecosystem. “How do we work with grantees and the community to engage and support minority- and women-owned businesses? Even though we’re working to support new high-tech startups, we want to nurture existing neighborhood businesses, too.”

Lewis sees a few challenges ahead, such as helping fledgling startups scale and stay in the region, rewarding companies that hire Detroit residents, and increasing access to capital for women and people of color. She’d also like to see more public-private backing of training programs for neighborhood entrepreneurs like ProsperUS and TechTown’s SWOT City program, which help people working outside of Detroit’s downtown business district to connect to NEI’s resources.

“We need to fill in the gaps of the capital pool,” Lewis added.

Ultimately, Lewis would like to see the entrepreneurial ecosystem that has taken root in Detroit better leverage the research, technology, and assets that Wayne State University, Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan have to offer. There are pockets of collaboration happening already, she noted—and she mentioned Xconomy’s event last month at TechTown Detroit as an example—but she thinks NEI can help those efforts become more widespread and focused.

“How can we better connect university assets with community-based visionaries?” she said. “We want to establish a feedback loop between people with questions and people who may have solutions, and then we can start to address some of the obvious problems in an urban community like Detroit.”

Lewis is grateful for Egner’s “visionary leadership,” which she called critical to the NEI’s success.

Egner “kept the NEI team, funders, and partners really engaged,” she said. “The notion that the sum is greater than the parts is key to doing this work. It’s not the NEI alone, it’s hundreds of organizations working together to support entrepreneurs and innovators. We’re able to use our grant money to encourage people to come together and think about economic development in a creative, almost disruptive way.”

In fact, the NEI’s work is already helping to shape the national discussion on the role of inclusiveness in economic development. Lewis said NEI grantees are participating in the two-year Forward Cities project, which seeks to support and develop entrepreneurs in New Orleans; Cleveland; Durham, NC; and Detroit.

“We’re learning that people across the country are seeing the need for a more inclusive process when it comes to starting a business or accessing capital,” she said. “We’re ahead of the game because we started this work back in 2008, so we’re sharing our best practices with the Forward Cities group.”

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