Resilient Neighborhoods: East Detroit nonprofit gets creative to help local businesses grow

Wherever you find her, blending up fresh ingredients in her home kitchen or selling smoothies from her weekly stall at the East Warren farmers market, Teleah Mitchum is the picture of health.

The lively Detroit-based nutrition consultant and owner of Simone’s Original Smoothies brims with vitality as she talks about how making smoothies helped her recover after heart surgery.

“I started the business in 2019, but I actually started making the smoothies in 2018 for myself, for my own health,” she says.

The East Side resident began selling the chilled concoctions to friends and family Teleah Mitchumthen moved to selling door-to-door through the neighborhood. Eventually, she founded her own company, which she named after her daughter, Simone. In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to traditional in-person sales, leaving the future of the fledgling beverage business uncertain.

“Everything went virtual, and I’m a home-based business so it was like⁠ — virtual? I didn’t have a website. I didn’t have a Facebook page, I didn’t know anything about business. I’m a chemist by trade. I know how to make smoothies, and make them work for your body,” says Mitchum.

She credits the resources, training, and community connections provided through East Warren Development Corporation with helping Simone’s Original Smoothies not only survive the pandemic but also go digital with its own website.
“East Warren Development Corp has been amazing as far as explaining all the different layers that there are to running a business," she says. "Then it was like, 'Now that you know the layers, we’ve got to make your business successful.'”

Restoring East Warren

On Detroit's East Side, EWDC works to revitalize neighborhoods along East Warren between Mack Avenue to Alter Road, by providing aid and resources to community members and business owners like Mitchum. It's dedicated to transferring ownership of the empty buildings on the avenue to neighborhood residents with the ultimate goal of 100% business occupancy on East Warren. 

Joe Rashid, the group’s executive director, realized after the organization's inception that many of the city's neighborhood businesses are based out of people's homes.

"Detroiters are hustlers, we always are trying to do two or three things just to get by, and there were so many businesses in our neighborhoods that were untapped that could be going into the spaces along East Warren,” he says.

Rashid also contends that commercial corridors in neighborhoods throughout the city aren’t bankable, meaning there's a huge gap between what a bank will lend and what you actually need to open a business there. This financial burden can create barriers for fledgling businesses and their owners, forcing them to skimp on design or other aspects of the business.

“Working with Invest Detroit and working with other [community development financial institutions] through the city, we’ve been able to really get projects going off the ground to hopefully close some of that financial gap,” says Rashid.

So far, EWDC has helped get about 60,000 square feet of building space into residents' hands to develop their own businesses. That includes businesses like Be Her, a new retail shop that just opened at East Warren Avenue and Balfour Road, as well as others like Chelsea Jane Apothecary, Leaf Me Plant Boutique, and the Detroit Pepper Company.

Tool rentals and market stalls

EWDC doesn’t own much of its own property, instead it works to get local properties back into the hands of neighborhood residents who have a vision and understand community needs. 

Joe RashidThe nonprofit's willingness to listen to the concerns of local residents and partner with other organizations has led to the development of some popular programs. Rashid worked with Motor City Grounds Crew to help found a tool library, which offers over 2,000 different kinds of lawn care and home improvement items. Motor City Grounds Crew operates the library, which has everything from lawnmowers to screwdrivers that can be rented out by neighborhood residents. 

Another key part of EWDC's community development work is the East Warren Farmers Market. The market has grown steadily in popularity and size since its inception in May of 2020. It provides a safe outdoor meeting place for community members every Thursday from May through October and gives local vendors an opportunity to get their foot in the door with potential new customers.

“That farmers market grew during that first pilot year to the point where we needed to find a permanent space,” says Rashid.

So EWDC worked with Invest Detroit to purchase a 2,300-square-foot location at a former Pizza Hut in the corridor. It's since transformed the space into an expanded market location with a mural and temporary market shed.

Teleah Mitchum was thrilled when she first saw the farmers market in action during its first year.

“I drove by and I saw all of these tents. I said, ‘What’s going on over there?’ So I turned around and went back and parked and just started walking around," she says. 

Now a member of the farmers market advisory committee, she works as a liaison between EWDC and other market vendors to communicate vendor needs and ideas to the organization. 

Going Digital

Through her connection to the market, Mitchum signed up to participate as a vendor in their virtual Black Friday event, which was great exposure for her new business. And participating in the market helped her realize she needed an online presence, which she developed through another EWDC initiative called Let's Get Digital East Warren. The nonprofit created the program, a nine-month digital literacy and marketing workshop involving 25 local businesses, in partnership with Michigan Women Forward and Kanopi Social

“We had found through a Wayne State study just in the first year of COVID that almost none of our businesses in East Warren were online,” says Rashid “So we wanted to really change that and help even those businesses that were online to really utilize their online presence in the best way possible”.

To close the digital divide in Michigan, Alexis Dishman, chief lending officer at Michigan Women Forward believes there needs to be access to both technology and the training to use it, especially for women of color.  

“[EWDC] came to us to see what kind of resources and support we could provide,” to help close that gap," says Dishman. “The goal of the program was for participants to be able to manage their own websites, understand Google analytics, and really look at everything in between to be able to develop that digital piece of their business,” she says. 

In pursuit of this aim, each student who participated in Let's Get Digital East Warren was given a laptop equipped with Microsoft Office products. The nine-month program covered a wide variety of topics including social media strategies, Google analytics, QuickBooks financial management software, and other business-related programs like Canva, Copy AI, and Mailchimp. 

“We were asking a lot of the participants”, says Dishman. “But EWDC’s partnership with the business owners was critical for us both in helping to find the right people to work with and in keeping them engaged in the program.” 

The East Warren pilot program was such a success that Michigan Women Forward has expanded it and is now offering Let's Get Digital workshops in the 48221 area code and Flint, Michigan.

In the grand scheme of things EWDC might be relatively new to the neighborhood, but they don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. The nonprofit is in it for the long haul, and looking forward to kicking off its farmers market season with a food truck rally and resource fair taking place from noon to 3 p.m. on May 7 at their new expanded location on East Warren.

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
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