Seeds of Entrepreneurship Planted at Detroit's Bizdom U

Mortgage giant Quicken Loans announced in November it was officially committed to uprooting its staff from Livonia and hauling its operation to downtown Detroit. The general buzz among city boosters was overwhelming, because the move signaled a continuing of the redevelopment momentum in the central business district, and
the company represents an element greatly desired in Detroit’s economic development mix – a non-manufacturing company relocating to the motherland of engines and motor cars.

Since then, Quicken founder Dan Gilbert has been praised for his dedication to the revitalization of Detroit. Bringing Quicken, hailed as the leading online mortgage broker in the country, is not Gilbert’s only contribution. He is also trying to recruit and cultivate a new class of entrepreneurs to Detroit, putting $10 million last year into launching Bizdom U, a nonprofit organization aimed at nurturing aspiring business owners.

Organizers claim the program is unlike any other in the nation, thanks to exhaustive research and a cross-country trip they took visiting other urban entrepreneurship programs. Nuggets were taken from many of those visited, but the majority of the Bizdom curriculum and philosophy comes from Dan Gilbert’s experiences as an entrepreneur.

The program is extremely hands-on and focuses on providing its entrepreneurs, a term they prefer over students, with practical, real-world experiences they need to thrive in today’s business climate, says Ross Sanders, Bizdom’s executive director.

"The program's goal is to create a new wave of entrepreneurs who will go out and start businesses within the city of Detroit," Sanders says. "In doing so, Bizdom U entrepreneurs will be creating jobs, growth, and economic wealth for the city."

Business boot camp

Bizdom participants undergo a rigorous application process that includes multiple interviews, on-site assessments, background checks and a final presentation to a panel of judges. Since January 2007, when the program was publicly introduced, Bizdom received more than 1,000 inquires and hundreds of formal applications for the first 12 spots, Sanders says.

Once selected, Bizdom U participants complete one year of full-time instruction and participate in a residential program. All of the entrepreneurs' expenses are paid for, including tuition, room and board, meals, books and all technology tools.  

Program participants go through a boot camp on business basics and learn everything it takes to run a company, including how to create a solid business plan, marketing and business law. The dynamic curriculum includes team projects, extensive hands-on learning opportunities, as well as guest speakers and instructors from the business world. During the program, the students prepare a plan for a business that must be located within the city of Detroit.  

Those who survive the boot camp earn a grab bag that includes $25,000 to $500,000 in funding to launch their ventures, and they receive a percentage of ownership in the business. Bizdom controls the remaining share and uses its proceeds to fund future business launches.

The 'students'

Mason Levey is one of the first Bizdom entrepreneurs, and his concept, Bablur, is the type of business of which the region needs more. His firm specializes in interactive mobile marketing, through cell phones and notebook computers.

He hopes to launch Bablur this summer and locate somewhere downtown, hiring city residents where possible.

"I looked all over the country and I was prepared to move to find the right program," Levey says. Then he learned about Bizdom and applied.

Most schools have professors who haven’t worked in the field for a while, Levey says, but Bizdom brings in business leaders with current experience, and that makes a difference. "They bring in the marketing director from Quicken Loans to talk about marketing. It’s almost like a consulting relationship," Levey says.

Lessons come from business news headlines, Sanders says. "For instance, we have talked about tightening credit's impact on the availability of bank loans, or how to leverage the real estate market to find ideal office locations at tremendous prices. This is where our real-world business contacts really have an impact providing our entrepreneurs with real-time, real-world lessons."

Levey says the small class size and the "face time" he gets with instructors and business pros is a plus that many programs of its type cannot offer. For instance, his mentor is Josh Linkner, founder and CEO of leading interactive marketer and promoter ePrize – which is a match that’s hard to beat given the young upstart's own high-tech venture.

Loads of potential

Economic developers are excited about the possibility that the business incubator will add more non-manufacturing companies to the region’s mix. Their initial ventures could be just the start.

"What we have found, much to our pleasure, is that entrepreneurs like to think big. Many of the folks in Bizdom have their core business concept that they are working on throughout the program, but at the same time they have one or two other businesses that they are considering on the side as their next projects," Sanders says.

"These are the type of dynamic entrepreneurs that we want in the program, as well as the type of energetic business people the city needs to further its comeback."

Sanders says year one progress has been "tremendous" and has met organizers' expectations.

Levey’s pitch to Gilbert was the first of his class. Other students are working on concepts that range from organic produce markets to family entertainment and online jewelry.  

"It’s all being done in Detroit, which is the best part." Levey says.
"When my business is profitable and I start to make money, I’ll be investing it in the city to help other businesses and create additional jobs."

For more on Bizdom U, go to Rodd Monts is a local freelance writer and blogger. Read his blog at


Bizdom U on the campus of Wayne State University

Ross Sanders, Bizdom’s executive director

Mason Levy iPhone portrait

Bizdom U classmates present new business ideas

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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