Detroit Revitalization Fellow: Brian Connors

Brian Connors exhibits every sign of a being dedicated, fervent, inexhaustible entrepreneur.  

He thinks in expansive terms, constantly rolling out new ideas as he talks. Connors has already launched two ventures in the rough-and-tumble business climate of Beijing--a private language school, and an American-style 24-hour diner in the city’s University District that he still co-owns. In China, he also helped a local real estate firm develop a major hotel and shopping district, founded a neighborhood improvement association and managed three retail spaces.  

So why did he move from the capital of the world’s most booming economy to a city struggling to reverse years of decline? For Connors, who grew up in Grand Rapids, the answer is simple. "If you are the kind of person who wants to do new things, there’s probably no better place to be."

Indeed, Detroit today reminds him of Beijing when he arrived in 2003. "Both are gritty places where a lot of change is possible. Detroit is ripe for entrepreneurship," he says. Rents are low, people’s desire for change is high and everyone is willing try something new to see what happens. 

His business partners and friends back in China were not surprised to see him go. "I’d been talking for years about years for going back. I was just sitting there watching China rise as Michigan lost jobs. Michigan is close to my heart."

Like many of the most determined entrepreneurs, making money is less important for Connors than making a difference.  Actually, in college he studied Chinese (B.A. at Williams College) and Public Policy (M.A. at Harvard), not economics or business. "As an entrepreneur you do more than serve your customers, you’re also serving your neighborhood and the wider community."

He launched his language academy, Speakeasy English, to connect young Chinese with the flood of North Americans moving to Beijing. "We created a lot of cultural exchange," he says, "so were a subject of scrutiny by the authorities. They want you to avoid the three Ts: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen." The Bridge Café grew out of the language school and features classrooms where classes and clubs can meet. 

Connors moved to Detroit in 2010, a city he had never lived in before, with no certain plans. He found work as a freelance translator as he got used to the culture shock of being back in the U.S. "In Beijing, about 80 percent of the conversation in a café is about starting businesses. They are obsessed about finance and getting ahead personally. Here, most of the conversation is about baseball and football."

A new path suddenly appeared to him one day when three different people forwarded Connors an email announcing the Detroit Revitalization Fellowship program, each with a message to the effect, "This is you!"

The Fellows program is a Wayne State University project (funded by the Kresge FoundationFord FoundationHudson-Webber FoundationSkillman Foundation and Wayne State University that matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts. Connors applied and last year went to work for Southwest Housing Solutions, a nonprofit developer that manages 600 affordable apartments and 120,000 square foot of commercial spaces in the city’s Southwest neighborhoods. 

"I am very, very pleased," says his supervisor Dan Pederson, director of business development. "Brian’s out there a lot talking to people. He brings a calm, analytical approach, which is important in a job where you may face critical situations loaded with emotional feelings."

Pederson praises the Fellows program. "We’re a few months into it, and already it’s proven a huge help. When you have a multi-dimensional challenge like we have in Detroit, you need this young talent with their creativity and energy. These Fellows network all over the city, bringing about a level of cooperation we hadn’t seen before. This is a fantastic thing that’s happening."

Connors has recently taken a new position at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation that directly applies his Chinese experience to his mission of helping boost the economic prospects of his home state. "I'm working to develop a China strategy for Michigan and attract Chinese investment to create jobs in Michigan," he says, adding that he’ll still be a Detroit Revitalization Fellow.  

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces.
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