Re-think everything: Stimulating IdeaLab recapped

By the time IdeaLab got rolling Friday afternoon, plenty of action had already taken place on two fronts.

This year's two-day conference, smartly called Detroit Shift, began in New Center the night before at the College for Creative Studies Taubman Center with, among other things, remarks by Focus: HOPE CEO William Jones Jr., Compuware CEO  Bob Paul and Quicken Loans founder and CEO Dan Gilbert, who delivered the Keynote Address.

On Friday morning, the conversation shifted to Ann Arbor, where a Keynote Kickoff featured New York developer/entrepreneur/urbanist Tony Goldman and adman/author Toby Barlow. That was followed by panels called Art + Soul of Detroit: Investing in the Creative Economy and Edible Detroit - How a Culture of Food is Shaping Detroit's Economy. Meaty stuff.

Once IdeaLab fired up, we were ready for a thrilling final act. And organizers behind the second Revitalization & Business conference -- some rad students from the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business --- did not disappoint.

Model D publisher Claire Nelson sat down with social entrepreneur Phil Cooley, who focused on Ponyride, a former industrial space turned incubator he's helped redevelop in Corktown. He told Nelson the name of the place "is whimsical, creative, almost childlike" and referred to his life as a "80-hour play week," which scored big points with the serious biz students in the rows above and below me, especially after he added that he "dropped out of business school and dropped out of the U-M Architecture School." More notable Cooley quotations: "Innovation happens through collaboration" and "Ponyride is about intentional collisions." The presentation was relaxed, as warm as it was cool and right on target. 

Another speaker who hit the mark was Bobby Smith of En Garde Detroit, who spoke of coming to Detroit from Newark (where he landed in the U.S. as an immigrant from Jamaica) on a fencing scholarship. Dressed in corporate attire, crisscrossing the stage sword in hand while slides behind him urged us to "re-think capitalism," Smith struck a swashbuckling tone that held the crowd rapt. He talked of boldly approaching the parent company of the St. John Health System to become a national partner for En Garde, which helps teach city kids virtues like hard work and discipline through competition, and how the efforts resulted in a national tourney that attracted 10,000 people to Detroit and dropped $2 million into the local economy. 

As he concluded, his words held the fierceness of healthy challenge about them: "In Detroit you can be a leader; or go elsewhere and wait your turn." Well said. En garde, indeed.

Equally impressive were Veronika Scott, a Ponyride tenant who demonstrated her Empowerment Plan product -- a versatile, weatherproof garment for homeless Detroiters -- with the help of former U-M basketball player David Merritt; and Josh McManus (D:hive, CreateHere), who talked about doing away with a traditional, vertical business hiring model that he likened to "an arranged marriage" in favor of a "courtship." He went so far as to call for a "boycott" of such traditional practices and endorsed outside the box "edutainment " alternatives -- like "merging two kegs of beer with an opera." McManus said he never had a problem raising cash when passion was there ahead of money. Write that one down, kids.  
Ken Agacinski talked about the MORE Program; Nick Gorga and Ted Balowski talked about Hatch Detroit, which in 2011 awarded $50,000 to Hugh in the first "Hatch-off," which they said will be repeated this year; and Delphia Simmons introduced Thrive Detroit, an endeavor financed through Kiva Detroit that trains and pays economically challenged Detroiters to become self-sufficient by working for a street newspaper. 

Unfortunately, Suzanne Vier of Simply Suzanne and Tashmoo Biergarten could not attend the event.

Rishi Jaitly of the Knight Foundation spoke about his personal journey that brought him to Michigan (from the coast and postings overseas), and anchored his talk around dreams, ambition and innovation. "In Detroit," he said, "all three come together." Jaitly talked about investing in opportunities, helping the average Detroiter to attain leadership skills and asked: "why is the economic scene so vertical, why not let everyone lean in?" Indeed, why not? He also talked about other projects in which Knight has become involved, including Detroit Soup and the Black Male Engagement (BME) challenge.

Jaitly's presentation dovetailed into closing remarks by Model D co-founder/CEO Brian Boyle, who recalled our 2011 event The Next Big Thing (is a million little things) and announced a three-year partnership with the Knight Foundation set to launch in the next 60 days. Boyle urged everyone at Blau Auditorium to "get into the game (in Detroit). There is so much to do, it's so cheap to do it, there is no reason not to." 

Model D managing editor Walter Wasacz feels privileged to attach his humble words to so many great ideas. In editing this story he found this inspired summary of Shift Detroit. It's too good not to share. Cheers, Dan Gilmartin.
Images: Tom Hendrickson
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Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.