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Guest column: My journey to business owner and deeper connections

?Jay Rayford (left) with Motor City Match winner George N'namdi, Motor City Match consultant James Feagin, and Motor City Match Winner Godwin Ihentuge

Detroit-native Jay Rayford moved away from his hometown for many years, but missed the warmth and familiarity of home. He now lives in the Bagley neighborhood in the Live6 area and recently won a Motor City Match grant for his business, Social Sushi, which will be located in the Fitzgerald neighborhood.

Below is an essay about his journey.
 
In 2010 on a trip back home to Detroit, I heard about a parade happening on Livernois. I took my camera with me to capture the event and share it with others. It was an experience I'll never forget.

All of the feelings I felt when I thought about growing up in my community was front and center. THIS is what I wanted to be a part of
not waking up to a job in the same cubicle everyday. As I watched the parade, my spirit was moved and it was at that moment I knew it was time to move back to Detroit.
 
Since I've been back, a lot has changed. In 2010 it was still popular in the media to talk about the negative aspects of Detroit. So I took it upon myself to use social media to share uplifting stories. And I was on a mission to meet people of different backgrounds and skills, and make sure that if someone contacted me and asked for help that I could point them in the right direction.
 
This led me to thinking about what I could do to bring these amazing folks together. I would go to different events and see the same people. That concerned me, as we live in a city of over 700,000 people. How are they tapping in? Do they even know that these things exist? I wanted to make exposure to new experiences simple, not intimidating, and maybe even fun.
 
Enter Social Sushi, a socially conscious, simply delicious sushi venture.
 
My partner Grace Montero and I envisioned an event that would attract people from these various silos and get them in the same room. No agenda, just acknowledging who's in the room and and that the diversity of talent, cultures, passions, and more is what embodies the Spirit of Detroit.

Our very first event was in February 2012. We got incredible feedback and decided to keep it going. We did events in different places in the greater downtown area, like the Drive Table Tennis Social Club, M@dison building, TV lounge, Music Hall, Motor City Wine, ponyride, TechTown and more. My goal was to use downtown Detroit's new energy to attract folks from the neighborhoods.
 
During this time I made another discovery: there were plenty of folks moving and shaking downtown and wondering what was happening, if anything, in the neighborhoods. I wanted them to know that people have been doing important work in the community for a very long time. I also needed those with their heads down to raise them and let people know that they exist so that access to resources, people, and places could open to them as well.
 
From there Social Sushi grew into what I call a social catering experience. We'd do events and invite our following, which often increased attendance at events for which we were hired.

We'd also get first time sushi eaters, who were initially hesitant, to try sushi for the first time ever. For us, the magic isn't just in the fact that they've tried sushi for the first time, it's hopefully the realization that they may be holding themselves back from something else they're afraid to try.
 
But the number one question we'd get was, "Where are you located?" They wanted to return and bring friends. From there we had to articulate our vision in a business plan. Thanks to organizations like Techtown and BUILD Institute, I had the tools to get started.
 
So here we are in 2016 as Motor City Match grant winners, members of FoodLab Detroit, currently in TechTown's Retail Boot Camp, and the proud owners of a future sushi lounge on Livernois, the same street that inspired me to move back to my hometown.
 
It's been an incredible journey, and actually come full circle. We can now bring our brand ambassadors and loyal clientele to the Live6 area, outside of downtown, for them to see a thriving historic and growing district.
 
Just in the Livernois area from 8 Mile to McNichols Roads, there are neighborhoods like Bagley (where I live), University District, Fitzgerald, Palmer Park, Palmer Woods, Martin Park, Greenacres, Sherwood Forest and Detroit Golf. These areas are filled with incredible brick homes, a nice mixture of owners and renters, higher income levels and college attainment than the city's average statistics and a healthy amount of barbershops/salons, boutiques, grocery stores, pet stores, fast casual and full service dining, the historic Avenue of Fashion, Bakers Keyboard Lounge (arguably the oldest operating jazz club in the country) and recent investments bringing future developments.
 
I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the area's institutions of higher education: the University of Detroit Mercy, Marygrove College, and educational programming for residents at Northwest Activities Center.
 
As I embark on this journey, I reflect on what it means for me and the legacy I aim to build for my family. This is an opportunity to tell a story about being true to yourself and building authentic relationships. As a community, we understand that there is value in serving and being of value to others.

Together we can enhance our community by creating a grand vision and being a part of it, not just as residents and consumers, but also as the owners, creators, and entrepreneurs.


This story is part of Model D's "On the Ground" series, which gives voice to the community members, businesses, and developers who make the Live6 neighborhood come alive. Support for this series is provided by the Kresge Foundation
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