The Detroit I Didn’t Know

By DTrek participant Courtney Tatum

Entrepreneurship: it was a word that I felt fairly confident describing  in a textbook definition sort-of-way. And sure, I had watched enough episodes of ABC’s Shark Tank to be broadly familiar with the creative variety of ideas and products emerging in the market. I had even met a handful of budding entrepreneurs among my peers as we waited to board the charter of blue University of Michigan buses for our day of adventure on the Center for Entrepreneurship’s Detroit Trek (DTrek). But as our richly cohort began the relatively short drive toward Detroit – as I had done almost weekly throughout the academic year to visit my family and friends – I realized how little I actually knew about the entrepreneurial environment of my hometown.

 

Despite my degree candidate credentials, I very much considered myself an amateur in the enterprising conversations being had on the bus: I could count on two fingers the number of Detroiters that I personally knew who had successfully begun a business venture. And to be honest, my mother still doesn’t quite understand why her daughter has chosen to pursue Business School, in part because I’m still defining my trajectory between healthcare and social impact innovation, but more fundamentally because the promise of business success through self-initiated risk-taking is a foreign feat in my particular community.

 

So I rode the blue bus to Detroit, perhaps a little less focused than my peers on the geography as a place to potentially plant my entrepreneurial seeds. I was intent on being enlivened by the exchange of thought, perspective and encouragement with leaders excelling in the very venture I had thought as unattainable. But DTrek cultivated even more than possibility for me. The immersion opportunity fermented my narrow understanding of entrepreneurship, flourished my vantage of the art’s societal impact, and further implanted my commitment to social impact innovation skills development in the remainder of my degree program.

 

DTrek students after meeting with Zak Pashak and Chris Kiesling of Detroit Bikes
DTrek students after meeting with Zak Pashak and Chris Kiesling of Detroit Bikes

Our first visit with Detroit Bikes really epitomized the grand scope of my takeaways for the day … and it was only 8:00 am. The even more fascinating aspect of the stop is that the shop is located exactly two miles from the home where I had spent all of my latter childhood, a mere seven minute drive from the neighborhood that had simultaneously made my dreams for positive change seem impossible and undeniably imaginable. I had the pleasure of touring the facility with the President/Founder, Zak Pashak. Mr. Pashak described his vision of reinvigorating the American bike manufacturing market right there on the west side of Detroit. I didn’t need a passion for production and design to genuinely appreciate that mission. I stood there reflecting on how a similar manufacturing movement had relocated my southern family to Detroit in the 1960’s, ultimately paving the path of opportunity that I’ve since been fortunate to follow. I also stood there in gratitude of the similar economic development advancements being offered to Detroit Bikes’ skilled labor employees. Mr. Pashak had specifically chosen to build upon a deep-seated fabric of industry knowledge, talent and drive within my city. The enterprise wasn’t an exclusionary, pioneering technological venture and it hadn’t forgotten the need for business development outside of downtown Detroit. To say the least, the status quo of Detroit entrepreneurship for me had been significantly challenged at only two hours into the day.

 

Masters of Public Heath student Parisa Soraya and I before engaging with Floyd and The Empowerment Plan at Ponyride
Masters of Public Heath student Parisa Soraya and I before engaging with Floyd and The Empowerment Plan at Ponyride

The DTrek stops that followed on the agenda provided just as valuable motivational reinforcements, uncovering the creative diversity of Detroit’s innovative efforts in industry, product, scale, risk and purpose. But for me, one notion was a constant: a relentless spirit of dream chasing and problem-solving with an equally as vigorous atmosphere of leaders interested in guiding growth in that very journey. The visit to Ponyride really confirmed this collaborative essence. Nestled in what was once a foreclosed warehouse in Corktown Detroit, I toured the building in awe of how investors had capitalized on a major market crisis to foster such a socially conscious and stylish space for entrepreneurial creativity. Yet even more than its inspiring origination is the ingrained fabric of community outreach and education at the heart of the incubator. I absolutely loved that fact! It highlighted that cutting-edge ideas don’t have to exist in cutthroat, purely profit-hungry environments – an impression I once held about entrepreneurship.

 

I would be remiss not to mention the invaluable opportunity to engage directly with the leaders who offered their time throughout the day. Those unstructured connections continued to demystify the innovation journey. Castle co-founders spilled the unfiltered “real” on start-up challenges and lessons learned in our chill lunch session over pizza. A host of other experienced commanders in the field gathered at the final, evening networking reception (lead by Detroit Venture Partners), charging DTrek participants to question “Why Detroit?” as a place to plant entrepreneurial roots. Ironically, staying and investing in my hometown was a question that I had been pondering unprompted since the beginning of my degree program. Though admittedly that discussion is still pending for me, DTrek made one thing very certain: Detroit is without a doubt unparalleled in its community of passionate conversations and thoughtful initiatives around accelerating a difference in the city. As a native, I share in that pride and own a lot of gratitude for those who supported that exposure through DTrek.

 

Courtney Tatum is a MBA/Masters of Public Health candidate, expected graduation 2018.