Q&A: Ned Staebler of TechTown, WSU on how a model for inclusive economic development works

Founded in 2000, TechTown is an entrepreneurial hub in the city of Detroit, with the vision of creating a meaningful, equitable revitalization of the city. Through launching and supporting startups and small businesses, they hope to create new jobs, generate revenue and strengthen neighborhoods. 

Model D spoke with the President and CEO of TechTown, and Vice President for Economic Development at Wayne State University (WSU), Ned Staebler about WSU’s 2022-2027 Economic Impact Strategy, how the university acts as a purposeful catalyst for inclusive economic development, and aims to unlock Detroit’s full potential.

Model D: What is the philosophy behind doing economic development work in a university setting?

Ned Staebler: We [The Office of Economic Development] were created to help the university be a better corporate citizen. We realize that we’re a large institution with a bunch of assets, everything from our intellectual property, to our purchasing power, our real estate, and the human capital – the talent we have on campus. We thought that if we bring those assets to bear with the goal of inclusive economic development, we could have a significant impact on our community. That has all sorts of benefits, not only to the broader community, but it helps us to attract better faculty, students, and staff. It helps make our neighborhood a nicer place to live and work. That’s really the goal of what economic development is vi-ȧ-vis the university, is to extrovert the university, and how we get an institution to think about how its community and surrounding environment can mutually benefit its research and academic missions as well.

Model D: What steers that work at WSU?

Ned Staebler: We recently helped the university create a five-year economic impact strategy, which requires us to work across the university with various stakeholders to find ways to implement and expand upon what they’re doing to make it better, but also to have impact in the community. We drafted that strategy after dozens of conversations both internally in the university and externally, asking folks what we could be doing, what we should be doing, what obligation we have given our public mission to utilize our assets more effectively. 

Model D: What inspired or informed the goals of that strategy?

Ned Staebler: Among other things, it was the response to the Detroit Future City Report about how we create broader economic opportunity in the city. It’s why we have focused not just on any jobs, but household-supporting jobs. I think often, economic developers get focused on creating jobs, and they forget that not every job is equal. We want to make sure that there’s an equitable distribution of those jobs so that people have access to them. Being intentional about how we can ensure equitable outcomes is super important. 

Model D: What does the scorecard for this kind of work look like? What sorts of things are you tracking?

Ned Staebler: There are about 30 different metrics, covering everything from our graduation rate and the equity gap that’s in it. There are metrics around our employees: how many we have, what the demographics of them are, what they’re paid, paying them above ALICE wage. I’m happy to say that 99.9% of our full-time employees earn above ALICE wage in Wayne County for a single adult. We look at our spending, where we’re purchasing things from: is it from Michigan, is it in Detroit, companies that are owned by people of color or women? We look at how much research we’re doing, are we commercializing our technology, are we helping our students to help launch businesses, are we investing in our real estate? These are the kinds of things we’re looking at to think about are we meeting our goals of being an equitable economic development driver.

Ned Staebler (right) poses with WSU President M. Roy Wilson at TechTown Detroit’s Toast of the Town fundraiser.

Model D: Diversity, equity, and inclusion are prominent themes throughout the plan you talk about a diverse student body, a diverse workforce, building wealth for people of color, doing equitable economic development work. Is that focus typical in economic development? Why is it such a strong focus for WSU?

Ned Staebler: I don’t think it is typical. I think that in the last couple of years, it’s become a buzzword that people have thrown out into their work saying ‘we need to do A, B, and C, and oh we need to be diverse as well.’ But I think what’s different about our plan is that we have it right at the heart of the plan, it’s across everything. Equitable economic development is about unlocking the full potential of a local economy, and when you’re in a city like Detroit where it’s about 80% black and 92% people of color overall, you have to be intentional about it. Working in communities of color requires a different set of practices and intentionality that you don’t have in other communities, which is why you find it throughout our strategy. Not only is it a moral imperative, but it’s a practical one. If you want to meet your economic goals in a city like Detroit, you have to be thoughtful about the factors that go into the disinvestment that we’ve had over the last several generations.

The Warrior Way Back program is a great example of that. We just announced that we’ve expanded that program. There are a lot of folks that start to go to college, drop out for whatever reason, and have outstanding debt. Historically, if you want to register for classes, you have to pay off your debt first. The Warrior Way Back program allows you to forgive some of that debt; we call it ‘learning away the past due balances’  It used to be up to $1,500, but now, it’s up to $4,000. It reduces your balance every semester until your debt is eliminated by 25%, so it takes about four semesters to do it. So far, about 400 students have enrolled in the program and more than 125 have gone on to get their degree. This is really an important step. We all know that college is expensive, and the last thing we want is for students leaving with debt and no degree. Anything we can do to help them get that degree is super important because the practice of not allowing people to rejoin a college because they owe money really disproportionately affects low-income students, and exacerbates racial inequalities as well.

We all know that a college degree is more important in these times. More than a third of open jobs right now require college degrees, and people who have a college degree, in their lifetime, tend to make $1 million more than people who don’t. A small investment of a few thousand dollars can really have a massive payback. The problem is a lot of people don’t have a few thousand dollars. If you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, coming up with a couple thousand dollars to pay off your student debt is really a lot.

Model D: How has the pandemic influenced what is important in WSU economic development work?

Ned Staebler: The pandemic has changed a lot of things, it’s accelerated a lot of the changes that were happening in our society already. You’ve seen a lot of people leave for gig work, a trend that had begun six or seven years ago, but really it accelerated in 2020. It’s caused stresses on things like local businesses depending on local foot traffic. You see in Detroit where restaurants and retail are really struggling because a lot of people are doing work from home, grabbing a sandwich out or walking by someplace to shop. This has really hurt the businesses, so it’s required us to rethink what customers we’re serving. 

At TechTown, we’ve expanded a lot of our programs to help home-based businesses because so many people have moved into that space so rapidly. It has required us to think about how we deliver our programming, virtual or hybrid methods. 

It’s helped us think about how we get people places. For example, at WSU, we created the Warriors Ride Free program where anyone with a WSU Access ID (Faculty, staff or student) gets to ride the DDOT, SMART buses, QLine streetcar, and MoGo bikes all for free. We want to make it easier for people to get places. We recognize how important that is, plus it’s us making an investment in public transit. Historically, we had our own shuttles like a lot of other organizations do. We said, ‘why are we doing that? Let’s invest, instead, in the public transit system instead.’ It’s worked out really well.

Model D: How does Wayne State's physical location influence the work?

Ned Staebler: It’s everything. Wayne State has been in Detroit for more than 150 years, and we’re going to be here for another 150 years. I hear a lot of places talking about being an anchor, but for-profit companies can pick up and move tomorrow. They could get bought and sold, but the university is going to be here. We have a vested interest in making long-term investments in our community to make it better. From our perspective, that means making it better for everyone who’s there. Public safety, walkability, restaurants, amenities, parks, cultural institutions – all those are good for us and for the community. When I first got hired, former President Allan Gilmour told me he wanted this office to help make WSU a good neighbor in a good neighborhood. We’ve done a lot of that, looking back to the Live Midtown program from 10 years ago, to reducing crime in Midtown by 50%, to helping hundreds of businesses open up, and creating more jobs and amenities in the region. 

Universities are typically very introverted. They sit in the ‘ivory tower’ and think about the world, which is going on right outside their doors. We’ve taken the approach that thinking about the world would be better-informed if we actually spend our time in the world. We are an R1, which is the highest level of research intensity. We’re one of three universities in the state of Michigan, like U of M and Michigan State, so we definitely do world-class research, but we like to do it in a way that has a direct impact on our local community because we think that’s the most beneficial way to do that kind of work.

One of the reasons why people don’t go to colleges and universities is because it’s expensive and they think it’s not for them. At WSU, we’re really proud of who our student body is. Economic mobility is one of our primary goals and we are the number one university in the state of Michigan for economic mobility. That is defined as the household incomes that our students are coming from, and the trajectories they leave on – that is, how much have we changed the outcomes. Our goal is to be number one in the country. You look at our student body, and the household income of our student body is the lowest of every other public university in the state of Michigan and every other community college in the state, except for Wayne County Community College. Our students are coming from lower levels of income, and with that, comes all of the hurdles and barriers, including expectations. 

Our job in many ways is to show them the possibilities they can have in their lives if they come to an elite university that understands the differences, and understands that they have challenges that someone else coming from a wealthier family would never understand. It takes an intentionality and resources, but it’s an absolute necessity if we want to make Detroit and Southeast Michigan a prosperous place again.

Ned Staebler serves on a panel for university leaders and senior staff from across North America during a joint meeting of the Commission on Economic and Community Engagement and Council on Governmental Affairs organized by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

Model D: As we kick off a new year, what are you most excited about in your work?

Ned Staebler: I’m excited about all of these things, but one of the things during COVID that kind of got put on the back burner was our student entrepreneurship programs. We need to reboot those as we come back to campus. We found it much harder to do those things remotely. As we’ve been coming back to a more in-person experience on campus, we’re going to reboot those opportunities and try to get students and ideas and funding all in the same place where they can have more of those serendipitous collisions that lead to growth. I’m very excited about that.

I think we have another great opportunity at better connecting the university’s research enterprise and faculty with companies. I think we need to streamline and improve our corporate engagement role. The challenges people are dealing with in Detroit – whether they be environmental, health, mobility, or transportation challenges, are the kinds of things we have a lot of expertise in researching and improving, but we need to better partner with the business and public sector to get some of those ideas out the door and out of the ‘ivory tower’ and into the real world.

Wayne State has a really large economic impact on our community, at $2.5 billion a year. We’re consistently recognized by a variety of people like the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, giving us their Innovation and Entrepreneurship designation. We’re going to continue to be a driver in this community for inclusive economic growth, and I’m really excited to get to be a part of that.”
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Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected].