Model D and Open City Speaker Series in review

Detroit friends, insiders and new faces crowded Cliff Bell's last Tuesday for an Open City conversation with the Detroit Creative Corridor CenterModel D and WDET 101.9FM. Open City was conceived by Canine to Five's Liz Blondy and Bureau of Urban Living's Claire Nelson as a way to connect possible entrepreneurs to the burgeoning small business community in Detroit.

If this Open City proved anything, it's that, in the half-decade or so since these monthly meetings began, the city's proverbial doors have swung wide open. 

Hosted by Nichole Christian of WDET, the panel featured four speakers who chose Detroit, as they say, with eyes wide open. "The 'Why Detroit' part is easy," said Nick Gorga, co-founder of Hatch Detroit, which will give $50,000 to Detroit's best start-up opportunity this year.

Rishi Jaitly, project manager for the Knight Foundation, which just launched the KIVA Detroit micro-grant program and BME, moved to Detroit as the next phase of a career that has taken him across the country and as far as Southeast Asia.

Bethany Betzler, who is helping mentor the next wave of creative entrepreneurs at Detroit Creative Corridor Center's Creative Ventures program schooled in London before moving to the city. Budding fashion designer Emily Thornhill, whose Homeslice clothing line is a DC3 startup, was drawn to Detroit from the northern suburb of Milford. Even Nick Gorga was, just one year ago, "a bored attorney working 70 hours a week." 

How did they end up in Detroit?

"I came here because I wanted to matter," Jaitly says.

And they do. "The social networks of Detroit are integrating," Rishi continued. Betzler agreed. "Detroit could make a turn if it could begin to talk to entrepreneurs and creatives," she said. That conversation has never been more energized. Consider this:  Betzler's work building the DC3 program will help mentor young creatives like Thornhill, who return the favor by scheduling a runway show during DC3's Detroit Design Festival. Those nurtured young creatives are the ones who will apply to Jaitly for KIVA Detroit mini-grant, or to Gorga for a Hatch Detroit sponsorship. Connectivity, not competition, is Detroit's new entrepreneurial buzzword.

So when Christian asked the panelists which commercial qualities from other cities they'd like to see relocate to the D, Gorga answered, "I generally don't think those conversations are that helpful." Entrepreneurship is by and large a collaborative venture in the city -- thanks, in large part, to the "Welcome to Detroit" attitude nurtured by Open City (which has launched businesses like Supino Pizzeria and Good Girls Go To Paris Crepes). What Detroit's realizing is that we don't have to be Chicago or New York in order to come back. In fact, we have the chance to become something better --a city that, as we grow, never loses the spirit of teamwork that brought entrepreneurs like Nelson and Blondy together to found Open City.

"There's so much more unlocked connectivity," Jaitly noticed, remarking on Open City's legacy in the small business community. The next question, Betzler noted, is not of theory (Why Detroit? Why not?), but of management -- "How do we make it sustainable?" The panel's existence seemed to answer its own question. When Open City began, there was no KIVA, no Hatch Detroit, no Creative Corridor mentorship program. It seems we're well on our way. 

So, to the naysayers who think small business in Detroit exists with a feeble pulse, or by a public-supported pacemaker, maybe it's time to stop by an Open City meeting (the third Tuesday of every month at Cliff Bell's). Detroit's entrepreneurial heartbeat is steadily beating, sustained by a growing army of believers. Join the force.

The Model D Speaker Series is sponsored by MSHDA.

Ashley Woods is Model D Development News editor.