It’s not every weekend that I have the opportunity to be surrounded by entrepreneurs working on transformational ideas in the city of Detroit. Last Saturday, I was invited to judge Detroit Harmonie‘s Get Funded Challenge, a social entrepreneur pitch event with entrepreneurs competing for $50,000 in funding. I have judged a number of university-, corporate-, and state-sponsored business plan competitions and pitches over the years, but this pitch event was distinctly different. This was certainly one of those “you had to be there to feel it” events. Here are my thoughts on the parallels between what I thought DH did right and its application to entrepreneurial community building in Michigan.
As a background, I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about the lack of a robust statewide, entrepreneurial community in Michigan– primarily the need and how to go about developing one. I noticed many aspects of the Get Funded Challenge that illustrated key, but often overlooked, points to consider in developing a stronger entrepreneurial community.
1. The DH Board did a phenomenal job in engaging a great breadth of stakeholders in Detroit. A representative from the White House’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities was present. The Mayor’s chief of staff kicked-off the event. Detroit-based corporations were engaged as sponsors or as participants. Small- and medium-sized businesses were in attendance. (Ann Arbor-based Zingermans had a great cheese-tasting table there– If you were trying to get to the table, I apologize. I was the one holding up the traffic there, and asking the Zingermans’ rep questions about the cheeses and tasting each one.) There were many students from colleges and universities present. And a diverse group of entrepreneurs were also there- engaged, networking, exchanging ideas about startups and community projects, and just having a good time.
Detroit Harmonie engaged with all stakeholders in Detroit. I bet not everyone understood the organization’s vision from the website, press releases, or executive summary and just showed up for the celebration (more on this below), but I am willing to bet that by the end of the night, after experiencing the pitch event, great food, diverse people, and live music, everyone understood clearly what DH was about, what makes its activities critical to Detroit’s revitalization, and five reasons (five pitches) to support DH.
So, engagement with all stakeholders is critical. If some don’t get it, there’s nothing like some food and entertainment in a great venue to put on some “show and tell”. There are many storied, Michigan-based corporations and family foundations— has the startup community (and I put myself in this boat) engaged with them sufficiently to help them understand what Michigan’s startup universe looks like, its community and economic impact, its challenges, and the types of resources needed to support these job creators? If you are passionate about this, send me a note and I will put you in touch with a kickass group of entrepreneurs heading this project.
2. Another great aspect of the event was its premise. It was very simple, at least in the way that I interpreted it: let’s come together to celebrate entrepreneurs who are making things happen in the city. Who doesn’t want to be a part of something like that? Think about the city-, county-, or state-wide impact Michigan startups are creating everyday. Did a company close a large financing round, expand its facility, and start hiring people? Did a company exit and its alum are now out there investing in or starting up new ventures? We have many such examples in Michigan. All these activities translate into quantifiable community and economic impact worthy of a celebration. So, pick a reason and celebrate. Repeat.
3. If you are not an entrepreneur (universities, EDCs, incubators, accelerators, VCs, law firms, corporations), listen up. Put entrepreneurs in the driver’s seat. DH’s founders and over half its board are entrepreneurs who are committed to Michigan, community-minded, visionary, and working everyday to build a robust community. There is no substitute for this sort of leadership. If you are a public or private organization that is serious about nurturing a statewide entrepreneurial community and making Michigan a go-to place for entrepreneurship, then go find the visionary, community-minded entrepreneurial leaders (and there are quite a few around the state) and ask them how you can help. And then help them. Have them lead and get out of the way.
This post is way longer that I expected. But hopefully the point is abundantly clear: to nurture a statewide entrepreneurial community, all strata and stakeholders of the city/county/state must be engaged –very few people will turn down food, entertainment, and a great cause; make the intersection of the strata/stakeholders an opportunity to celebrate something– in other words, make it a fun event that appeals to the human element in all of us and not just another boring meeting; and develop/support entrepreneur-led community-building efforts- there is no substitute for it.