It was only a little over a year ago when we were talking about Ponyride 1.5. The maker space and small business incubator was settling into its new headquarters in Core City following the sale of its original Corktown building.
How much difference a year makes.
Ponyride is no longer affiliated with the Core City location. That wasn’t part of the plan for Ponyride 2.0 but it’s the outcome of COVID-19 and a changing financial picture for the nonprofit organization, first founded in 2011.
However, this is not the end for Ponyride. A partnership that was already being forged in 2019 has now blossomed into a new model of operation for the organization, even perhaps saving it from becoming a footnote of Detroit entrepreneurship circa the 2010s.
Ponyride no longer has a centralized location but a network of campuses, with most of them at Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan locations throughout the region. There are now Ponyride maker spaces in four BGCSM locations throughout Detroit and a fifth is coming to the club in Auburn Hills. Shawn Wilson, president and CEO of BGCSM and a self-described lifelong social entrepreneur, hopes to bring a Ponyride to the new BGCSM location in Pontiac, too.
It may seem like the unlikeliest of team-ups, a maker space and entrepreneur incubator and a nonprofit that serves youth, but Ponyride, which was struggling financially, was possibly facing the end. For Boys and Girls Club, the partnership was an opportunity to expand its reach. And for both, to create something new.
“As COVID started happening, we were struggling to make financial sense of the situation. We were losing money and didn’t see a way to make it sustainable,” says Phil Cooley, co-founder of Ponyride. Cooley points to mounting debts and the financial hardships of COVID-19 as key motivators for vacating the Core City headquarters.
“After COVID we had to re-evaluate. It was Shawn [Wilson] who decided that he wanted to double-down on our relationship.”
Upon taking the president and CEO role in November 2018, Wilson set out to reinvigorate BGCSM’s mission through his Reimagine Initiative, forging partnerships with a number of local organizations to create an ecosystem of economic mobility for families in the neighborhoods that surround each BGCSM clubhouse.
Ponyride is one of those partnerships. Already in the works in 2019, Ponyride has since opened a maker space in the Dick & Sandy Dauch BGCSM Campus on Tireman Avenue in Detroit. And when Cooley speaks of Wilson “doubling down,” he means even more than that.
“We were the first Boys and Girls Club to offer coworking space and affordable rent options for small businesses. My goal is that each kid is career-, startup-, and homeowner-ready by the time that they’re 18,” Wilson says.
“For kids to see entrepreneurs that look like them, it demystifies it. It’s important for them to learn about these things at a young age.”
BGCSM has also launched the Industry Club, which partners the organization and Ponyride with local fashion brands Detroit is the New Black and Deviate. The program will provide hands-on fashion industry experience and jobs to up to 200 Detroit youth each year.
Deviate is not only a partner of BGCSM but also a tenant. Deviate moved its operations into the Ponyride maker space at Highland Park’s Fauver-Martin Club in September.
“The layout is similar to other shared communal spaces with separate spaces that tenants can rent. So, it is similar but you also have a closer connection with the community because you have Boys & Girls Club members right at the site,” says Cassidy Tucker, who co-founded Deviate with her sister, Kelsey.
“There are a lot of opportunities to work with club members. As social entrepreneurs, it’s a great opportunity.”
‘Gritty, no-holds-barred entrepreneurship’
Upon his arrival in Detroit to become executive of Ford Motor Company Fund in 2014 after leaving Atlanta, Wilson set out to learn more about his new home and the entrepreneurship landscape. He found answers quickly through Ponyride.
“Ponyride was one of the first organizations I went to when I came to Detroit, within the first month or two. I asked about the most innovative places and how do I get a sense of entrepreneurship in Detroit. I went on a tour and met everyone,” Wilson says of the maker space, a living ecosystem of entrepreneurs, working side by side.
“It was powerful to see gritty, no-holds-barred entrepreneurship happening. I loved it. It was really inspiring.”
While with the Ford Fund, Wilson would often work from the Ponyride space. He would soon join the organization’s Board of Directors, of which he’s been a member for the past five years.
A shared vision between Wilson and Cooley has resulted in an impactful relationship. There were already plans for a Ponyride location at the Dauch campus by the time the organization moved to Core City. And a personal donation of $100,000 from Cooley helped build the maker space there.
But when COVID-19 struck, the economic realities facing nonprofit organizations across the country led Cooley to believe that this might be the end of Ponyride. And while it’s the end for the Core City headquarters and a centralized campus, a new model has emerged.
Cooley credits Wilson and other Ponyride board members like Marc Schwartz and board president Karla Henderson with accepting the fate of the Core City campus and shifting focus to the multiple BGCSM locations.
“I went from being very sad and prepared to let Ponyride go and now I’m rejuvenated and more excited than even when I started it,” Cooley says.
‘Collaboration is the most important thing’
One of the main drivers of Cooley’s excitement is the fact that his vision for Ponyride has always been one of multiple locations. And while he’s no doubt disappointed with the organization vacating Core City, the partnership with BGCSM allows for the realization of that very multi-campus vision.
“This is a step toward our new reality. We could all sit here and feel bad for ourselves but this is the new financial reality of COVID-19,” Cooley says.
“Organizations like ours that do survive will now be needed more than ever before. This will show that collaboration is the most important thing.”
The new Ponyride model is one where BGCSM runs the administrative side and Cooley and the board offer their small business expertise as a resource unto itself. It’s more of an educational model, one that Cooley would like to continue offering to other entrepreneurial organizations like Build Institute and Detroit SOUP, longstanding Ponyride collaborators.
Meanwhile at the new BGCSM-Ponyride locations, it’s a win-win, Wilson says.
Local entrepreneurs have somewhere affordable to work while also having somewhere to bring their children. The kids can fulfill internships and apply for jobs at those very businesses, supplying a pipeline of talent and providing invaluable access to knowledge and opportunity.
“It’s definitely an energizing space,” Cassidy Tucker says of the Fauver-Martin Ponyride.
“You’re not just surrounded by other makers but entrepreneurs with similar values. But you’re also surrounded by youth that want to be entrepreneurs, as well.”
Wilson also plans to launch Ponyride University, teaching children under the age of 18 what it takes to start a business.
“It’s about building an ecosystem. There’s a synergy to what we’re doing,” Wilson says.