As a young man growing up in Detroit, Willie Brake remembers feeling indecisive about his future.
“When I graduated from high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” says Brake, now 47. “I knew I was good at math and I was good at computers — they came naturally.”
Brake’s indecisiveness about choosing a career path extended into his time as an undergraduate student at Wayne State University. By the time he graduated in 1996, Brake had settled on a degree in interdisciplinary studies. The program offered a broad foundation in the liberal arts and allowed him to put his STEM skills to use.
Still, Brake wanted to do more than just find a job after college — he wanted to be an entrepreneur.
“I didn’t just want to be a tech guy,” Brake says. “I wanted to understand business. So, that’s why I decided to go on and apply for my MBA.”
Three years later, Brake graduated from the University of Phoenix with an MBA in technology management and set out to explore the array of options available to him as an expert in the fields of business and technology.
In 2001, after beginning a career as an educator at the University of Phoenix and spending over half a decade working in the automotive industry in information technology (IT) and as a systems analyst, Brake says he began to notice that a lot of people needed assistance with technology. Drawing on his extensive knowledge in the field, Brake launched All About Technology to share his sought-after skills with others in need of help.
“Business has always excited me,” Brake says. “I like the art of the deal. I like the transactions, and I like the relationships that I form with my customers. More importantly, I like the impact I can have on my community.”
Over the next 20 years, as All About Technology grew from a one-man startup to a brick-and-mortar storefront on Michigan Avenue, Brake would prove to be a tenacious leader with a firm dedication to connecting Detroiters with technology and helping bridge the city’s digital divide.
From the ground up
Making house calls as a consultant throughout the first few years of running his business, Brake says he was able to provide services to about four customers per day. His ability to work with people on tech problems with patience and understanding helped him build up a client base early on, and clients began retaining him to help with their tech problems.
After a few years of traveling to clients around the city, though, Brake realized he would be able to help more people if he could work from a central location.
“I [started] looking for a place that was centrally located and safe,” Brake says. “I wanted to be somewhere that was flexible and cheap.”
In 2005, Brake found the location he’d been looking for when he stumbled across a 328-square-foot office space at 2727 Second Ave. in the historic Metropolitan Center for High Technology. Today, the space functions as the company’s corporate office.
“[It was] kind of like a business incubator, before business incubators got hot,” Brake says. “I took care of all the people in the building.”
The office proved to be exactly what Brake needed to get All About Technology off the ground. Brake says the new location, with its entrepreneurial clientele and central location, gave him the “ammunition” he needed to break into the technology marketplace in the city — and stay there.
In 2008, Brake added retail to his company’s offerings, operating a space inside the Russell Industrial Center. After spending the next eight years establishing sales trends and building a solid clientele, Brake says he knew it was time to grow All About Technology further and began making plans to open a storefront in the city.
Overcoming economic challenges
Brake lives up to his belief that education is a life-long activity, with certificate programs from Dartmouth College, Northwestern University, Harvard University, and Stanford University, but despite his education and long-term success as an entrepreneur in Detroit, he still met barriers. Brake quickly discovered that opening a retail store devoted to technology in the wake of the dot-com bubble burst, and a national recession, would not be easy.
After applying for funding through various programs, Brake says his pitches were often denied or rejected. Potential funders didn’t think the idea of buying and selling computers seemed like a viable business idea, and many were skeptical about investing in tech companies after the dot-com bust of the early '00s.
“This was when everybody had the dot-com stuff and grand plans. And, you know, all of that stuff burned to the ground,” Brake says. “Nobody really listened to me.”
But Brake pressed on.
Determined to find the funding and support he needed to open a retail location for All About Technology, he applied to be part of the first cohort of an entrepreneurship program called Launch Detroit.
Organized in 2012 by volunteers of the Rotary Club of Detroit’s District 6400, Launch Detroit offers free business education and mentorship, networking opportunities with Rotary members, and microloans for local entrepreneurs.
“We looked at the recession and we wanted to find a way to lift up entrepreneurs who were attempting to open businesses …” says chair Margaret Williamson. “Our intent is to encourage and support entrepreneurship in under-resourced communities. That’s our purpose.”
Although the organization had initially considered focusing exclusively on supporting female entrepreneurs, Williamson says Brake’s pitch changed their minds.
“When we heard [Brake’s] pitch, we were so impressed with his ideas, his commitment, and his drive, that we said, ‘OK, we’ve got to include him in the class’,” Williamson recalls.
“[Launch Detroit] gave me networking, education, mentorship — and most importantly, they gave me a loan,” Brake says.
Through a microloan in the amount of $2,500, Brake had the financial support he needed to launch a community computer lounge and training facility in his space the Russell Industrial Center.
By the end of 2014, Brake had repaid the loan and opened his own storefront at 6450 Michigan Ave., which is now a Certified Minority Enterprise. The following year, he was able to take out a second loan through Launch Detroit. That loan helped him hire a local technician to help service more customers, and provided working capital and support for improvements to the new retail space.
Making an impact
For Brake, All About Technology wasn’t just about owning a business — it was also a way to help others in the community.
In addition to providing technology consulting, maintenance, service, retail sales, training, and upgrades, Brake has also made it a point to connect disadvantaged people and businesses with technology and create employment opportunities for local youth.
“We have a social mission to bridge the digital divide and make technology affordable and accessible to all,” Brake says.
Part of that mission includes the $200 refurbished computers available at the company’s Michigan Avenue retail store. Through a unique recycling program utilizing discarded computers from other businesses, All About Technology helps connect lower-income residents, businesses, and nonprofits with affordable computers while reducing waste from discarded electronics that might have otherwise ended up in a landfill.
“Computers still have great use, even after a corporation decides to get rid of them,” Brake says.
In order to help local youth learn about potential career paths and gain important work skills, Brake also partnered with local workforce development agencies to create a six-week summer program that employs local youth and provides internship and job shadowing for teens interested in learning more about the technology and retail industries.
Weathering a pandemic
Last year, as a series of shelter-in-place orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic left many of the state’s small businesses in difficult financial situations, Brake found himself in the midst of another recession. This time, though, things looked a little different.
As businesses around the city were forced to move online and people everywhere became increasingly dependent on technology, Brake says business increased at a rate he could barely keep up with. After applying for a small business grant through Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) Detroit last year, Brake was awarded $20,000 in September. The financial support from the grant allowed him to hire three additional employees to help keep up with the increased demand brought about by the pandemic.
“As you can imagine, our services have been happening. We’ve used the resources we’ve been provided [as a result of] the pandemic to grow even more,” Brake says, adding that the grant from LISC helped him further his company’s mission of “making technology accessible and affordable for all.”
“Providing support to entrepreneurs in Detroit is a key component of LISC Detroit’s equitable economic development strategy,” says Stephanie Inson, program officer at LISC Detroit. “Black-owned businesses are the lifeblood of our neighborhoods and we are proud to help business owners like Mr. Brake weather COVID-19, build resiliency and thrive through support of generous funders like Lowe’s.”
As All About Technology continues to thrive despite the challenges and obstacles it’s faced over the last 20 years, Brake credits his entrepreneurial success to his drive and old-fashioned work ethic.
“You’ve got to get in and work,” Brake says. “That’s what I did — and that’s what I’ll continue to do until it’s time to actually scale.”
This is part of a series supported by LISC Detroit that chronicles Detroit small businesses’ journey in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.