In March 2017, Build was invited by Michigan House to speak on the panel about equity and inclusion in communities. Exploring the strategies employed by Michigan’s communities to build an inclusive future that encourages opportunity for all.
April Boyle of Build Institute
Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss James Chapman of Rock Ventures LLC Pamela Lewis of New Economy Initiative
South By Southwest (SXSW) dedicates itself to helping creative people achieve their goals. Founded in 1987 in Austin, Texas, SXSW is best known for its conference and festivals that celebrate the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries. The event, an essential destination for global professionals, features sessions, showcases, screenings, exhibitions, and a variety of networking opportunities. SXSW proves that the most unexpected discoveries happen when diverse topics and people come together.
Photo Credit: Shutter Sam
Build alum Beaubien Fine Foods (jams, Molly O’Meara & Noelle Lothamer) featured in the “Back to Our Roots” brunch with special guests including the mayor of Grand Rapids, Rosalynn Bliss and New Economy Initiative, Director, Pam Lewis among others. Build alum Firebrand Candles (Quinn Hamilton) featured during South by Southwest.
These were the type of phrases bantered about on Wednesday, May 5, at Social Entrepreneur Day, part of Detroit Entrepreneur Week, May 2-7, 2016. The day was presented in partnership with Build Institute, which is a strong advocate for social enterprise and small business support.
For the 120 Social Entrepreneur Day attendees, who filled a spacious room at TechTown Detroit, the day started off with an overview of social entrepreneurship (the pursuit of a social mission using commercial means). Marcus Harris, Build’s facilitator of Build Social, small business taskmaster, and one of social entrepreneurship’s most vocal champions quickly captivated the audience with his wisdom.
Shaka Senghor, a New York Times best-selling author, presented next. With the story of his personal turnaround, triggered by an epiphany inside a prison solitary confinement cell, he spoke of his journey into crime and drugs, through his 19-year incarceration, and out into the world to become an author, social entrepreneur, and change maker. The Detroit native’s current work focuses on mentoring youth, eradicating gun violence, and getting more books into prisons.
Senghor’s entrepreneurial challenges were greater than most: out of prison for second-degree murder with little chance of finding a job, he sold his books from the trunk of an old Honda Civic and drove from school to school talking to kids and telling them his story.
“I realized I had no work history,” recalls Senghor, having been in prison since he was 19. “But had a dynamic skill set.” Senghor had been selling drugs since he was 14 and ran black market stores in prison. “I took that skill set and said ‘I’m going to start a publishing company.’”
As Senghor spoke of achieving one of his long-time pursuits, to meet Opra, he advised the crowd, “As you’re working on your business, be intentional about what you want to manifest.” He cautioned against becoming “socially invested and financially broke.”
Following Senghor’s motivating words, was a social entrepreneurship ideation session that lead participants through a visual map, a CO.STARTERS CanvasTM (an entrepreneur training curriculum Build brought to Detroit) that helps entrepreneurs better understand, define, organize, and test their business ideas.
Led by Harris, the session further defined items on the placemat-sized canvas, such as identifying customers, defining a solution, and outlining benefits and start-up costs. As participants scribbled their ideas onto their own maps, Harris cautioned: “This ain’t your business plan. It’s more of a pre-plan. You can use this model as a foundation.”
Social Entrepreneur Day participants had a chance to learn from the doers as part of the last session of the morning, “Meet the Social Entrepreneurs,” a panel discussion with successful social entrepreneurs, social impact investors, and representatives from organizations that offer training and support. The panel was populated by:
The group answered questions about their early inspirations, handling competition, balancing money issues with social purpose, and dealing with doubt.
When asked about challenges specific to Detroit’s social enterprise movement, many panelists voiced concern over the absence of resources in Detroit – good schools, lack of money, subpar city services – but also recognized that Detroiters have the drive and grit to keep going.
Fr. Phillip Cooke, who moved to Detroit after doing social enterprise work in Santa Clara, Calif., recently conducted his first program at UDM CSE on writing business plans with a triple bottom line (social, environmental and financial). “The energy in the room was fantastic,” says Cooke. “It was energy that I had not seen in my life. All that Detroit is missing is resources.”
For Detroit entrepreneurs knowledge is just one piece of getting a business going. Capital is still a huge challenge, which is why programs such as Kiva are vital. Therefore, it made sense to culminate Social Entrepreneurship Day with an activity focused on pitching ideas and giving away money for startups.
I’m a relative newcomer to Detroit, having moved here in 2012 to teach elementary school on the west side of the city. When I tell my friends and family on the east coast why this city is so special to me, the spirit of Detroiters always stands out in my mind. Everyone I meet is passionate and involved in something to create a stronger Detroit – whether it’s working with youth, rehabbing a home, starting a business, organizing a block club, volunteering in spare time, and much more. Doing all these things is not the unique part, but it’s the underlying purpose – contributing to something greater – that sets Detroit apart.
With all the challenges Detroiters have faced in the past and present, those who have chosen to stay and those who are moving here now share a common passion for making Detroit a better place. It’s an infectious spirit that has always made me want to play my part.
Roughly one year ago, I left my job as an elementary school teacher to start a new social venture, Detroit Horse Power. We plan to open a new urban equestrian center that repurposes vacant land and provides year-round programming for local children, helping them develop critical skills that set them up for future success. We have achieved a lot in one year: incorporating as a nonprofit, receiving tax-exempt status from the IRS, raising an initial budget of $6,000, organizing two successful pilot programs in June and August reaching a total of 18 kids, The vision was mine, but I can’t do this work alone and I am deeply grateful to all the different people and organizations that have helped Detroit Horse Power get where it is today.
It’s this trend that makes me most hopeful about our city. By unlocking the brilliance across Detroit, we have the talent and resources to achieve incredible things. Synergy will multiply our achievements – with potential partnerships like locally sourced hay for horses to eat, recycling dumped tires to create synthetic footing for our arenas, and composting horse manure to fertilize urban gardens. We are stronger together; Detroiters know this implicitly. Lifting each other up is the only way we can move forward because our collective success is tied to the fate of each individual. And if we have the power to help someone realize their dreams, we will all be better off as a result.
So as I reflect on a successful first year of Detroit Horse Power, I would like to honor many of those that have helped me along this first step in this journey. There are many to recognize and I’m likely forgetting a few. I hope this goes to show that your efforts are deeply appreciated and to let others know of these wonderful folks and the larger spirit they embody.
The Build Institute has been tremendous to my development as a social entrepreneur between the Build Social class as well as events and networking with Build alumni and fantastic resources. After going through Build Social, I got to work with Eastern Michigan’s Center for Advancing Social Entrepreneurship, who generously donated their time to give me guidance, feedback, and connect me with critical resources. And Gingras Global LLC has worked with me one-on-one to put in place systems to document our finances and social impact.
There are several other organizations that have taken an interest in our social mission and helped lift up what we are doing. Detroit Future City has been a great supporter of our plans for innovative land use and helped connect to valuable expertise and resources. Michigan Community Resources has a terrific pro bono legal services program along with valuable events. Two Wayne State programs – the Community/Business Law Clinic and Blackstone Launchpad have been great opportunities to get initial legal support and further develop our business plan, pitching in front of investors and Detroit stakeholders for grant funding. Lawyers from Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss and Olson Bzdok & Howard have also patiently answered many questions to support our strategic planning.
Detroit Horse Power’s community partners in our first two pilot programs were Alternatives For Girls and Burns Elementary/Middle School, which both took a leap of faith on a new organization, entrusting me to successfully deliver on the program I had in my head.
Those camps would not have been possible without our generous hosts at the Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Center and Equinox Farm. These gracious folks made their facility and their wonderful horses available for our kids to have amazing experiences this summer. In order to get our kids to the second camp, Summer in the City gave us a sweet deal on using one of their 15-person vans.
We had an amazing group of volunteers from across southeast Michigan (and even one from Indiana!) who gave their time and skills to make this program a success for our participants. A big thanks to the United States Pony Club, and FCA’s Motor Citizens Program (which also led to a grant opportunity). We also had guest speakers from different equine professions give up time in their busy schedules to spend time with our kids!
I’d also like to thank Nancy Kotting who took the time to write a terrific piece about Detroit Horse Power in our early stages, which was published in the Huffington Post. Additionally, Kecia Freed has patiently worked through a half dozen iterations of our soon-to-be released logo. Kate Sumbler has been so generous with her time in working up our new website (also launching soon). Then there are dozens of individuals, family, and friends from around the country that have offered advice and perspective at various points in this journey.
Thank you to all who have lifted Detroit Horse Power closer to our goals through your generous contributions. The best way I know to honor your acts of kindness is to pay it forward. I know this collective spirit will lift Detroit to new heights.
For many of our graduates, Build Institute is a place to toss around a business idea, find support in an entrepreneurial environment, and get connected to a network of doers that welcome collaboration. For some, Build becomes the place where they found exactly what they needed to launch their idea – a business partner.
Jonathon Colo and Benjamin Kehoe applied for the same Build Basics class in Spring 2015 with similar business concepts, but with no knowledge of one another. Neither of them went into the Build class with the sole intention of finding a partner, but knew it was a possibility when joining the Build community.
“I had thought about having a partner before Build but I wasn’t sure who or how to find one. I’d shared my ideas with a lot of people but nothing really came to fruition,” said Benjamin.
Benjamin grew up riding bicycles and working in a bike shop in metro Detroit. He went into the Build class for a bicycle and coffee shop concept, which came from exploring other cities in the Pacific Northwest and realizing there wasn’t that same shop density in Detroit.
Jonathon grew up with a family of small business owners from auto dealerships and real estate to pizza parlors and lunch spots. He went into the class with the idea of opening a cycling centric coffee shop called “The Little Café”, the name of his family’s restaurant on Gratiot from the 1930s into the late 1980s.
“There was nothing I loved more than talking with my father about The Little Cafe and all the relationships he was able to build with community members,” said Jonathon.
After meeting the first day of class, combining both Benjamin’s idea for a bicycle shop and connected coffee shop with Jonathon’s idea for a bicycle centric coffee shop into Woodbridge Bikes & Coffee was “business partner love at first site,” according to Benjamin. They grabbed a beer after class and talked about how they could make a partnership work. However, partnership is more than just finding someone with the same idea. How both Benjamin and Jonathon work independently and together was a huge factor in partnering.
“We each live pretty organic lives but from different views and processes – I am more methodic, a writer, and typically thinking about the next 5 steps needed [to have] everything planned out. Ben is more of a brainstorming, creative, hands-on person that is ready to get things done as soon as possible. It is warming to know that we have such similar visions for what we want in Woodbridge Bikes & Coffee, but have completely different skill sets that allow us to get tasks done in an efficient and effective manor while learning from each other, too,” said Jonathon.
Working with a partner through the Build class can be very beneficial. Both business partners are able to have the same material and collaborative atmosphere but different experiences and ideas. Similarly the Build class can provide that space to make sure partners are on same page about what stage the business is at and what needs to be worked on. Jonathon had already been moving forward prior to the Build class in securing a location in Woodbridge for the business and was able to get Benjamin up to speed and in agreement about their goals.
“Our goal is to be the commuting cyclist shop in the city, supplying the town with all the best coffee to start the day with. We want it to be a welcoming spot to come, hang out, study and have business meetings…The project will be a huge lift to the community,” said Jonathon.
Their most recent developments and challenges revolve around funding and branding. They applied for Hatch Detroit and made top 25 out of 300, which was very exciting and reassuring for Benjamin. They have some private investor interest and are exploring different loans; however, they are still looking for more funding opportunities and recognize their sometimes limited capacity as they still both work full time jobs.
“Financing seems to be the toughest part of any project, but we will make it happen,” said Benjamin.
Not only did the Build class provide them with a collaborative, supportive environment to learn the basics of a business plan, but they had that opportunity to meet others with similar passions and goals that ultimately led to their partnership.
“[Build] is an encouraging network. We are able to see so many different examples of how a business opens, and of how what was wrong for someone else could be right for you. I encourage others who have great ideas to become small business owners – the water is warm and the resources in the city is plentiful,” said Jonathon.
They look forward to opening their Woodbridge Bikes & Coffee tentatively in Spring 2016, but for now continue to be assets to the community by providing weekly Bike in Movie Night at the Woodbridge Community Garden where they screen movies, brew coffee, and provide basic bike tune-ups. Check out their Facebook page to learn more.
On the eastside of Detroit, minutes past the buzz of the city’s freshly developing urban sprawl, sits the quaint neighborhood of West Village.
The streets are quieter – the loudest sounds those of saws grinding from renovation sites screeching, “The revitalization is here. It has taken root.”
In the last few years, new storefronts have popped up in the neighborhood with increasing frequency among the community gardens and turn-of-the-century homes.
With a handful of established shops in the neighborhood, doors all ready open, and several more set to open this year and next, it would seem that owning a small business in Detroit would be easy as pie.
Lisa Ludwinski, owner of the village’s Sister Pie bakery, tells me the journey from ideas to concrete and metal walls is anything but easy.
Three years after her decision to go it alone, Ludwinski has utilized everything from fundraising campaigns to community classes, loans and a 24-hour dance marathon to get her brick and mortar on the corner of Parker and Kercheval.
She said it was organizations like the Build Institute, a local non-profit dedicated to helping people turn their entrepreneurial ideas into reality, that made it possible.
It’s about pie time
Pulling up to Sister Pie, I could see the kitchen, which opened on April 24th of this year, was busy finishing up the workday. Customers walked past me with smiles, intoxicating smells drifting from their to-go containers.
Ludwinski, who was sitting at a large wooden table by the front window ordering checks on her laptop, her brown hair tied up and what looked to be remnants of flour on her shirt, seemed a perfect balance of flustered and excited, eager and tired.
In the final hour ‘til close, the shop was so brimming with customers that we decided to sit in the plastic lawn chairs out front for our chat. Ludwinski mentioned that she had not yet been able to sit in those chairs – from lack of time, no doubt.
After several internships, part-time jobs as a nanny or barista and years as a New Yorker (complete with self-produced YouTube cooking show “Funny Side up”), Ludwinski, fresh from an inspiring trip to San Francisco, decided to move home to open a bakery in 2012.
“There was something about San Francisco that made me think of Detroit more than New York ever did. It was just an energy, a certain type of people,” she said.
“There were all of these bread collectives and they were worker–owned or you would buy into them, and it was all toward this greater good. They would make sure that people had fair wages and that the food was up to a certain standard. I thought, ‘Okay, I want to do that in Detroit.’”
Ludwinski sent out emails, professional typeface and all, to friends and family announcing the business, set up an Instagram and preheated the ovens.
That Thanksgiving of 2012 she made 40 pies in her mother’s double-stacked ovens at their home in Milford.
“They were probably ten years old. My mom will gladly – not gladly, maybe not so gladly – tell you that her ovens have never been the same since I used them,” Ludwinski said.
Ludwinski said those struggles in the beginning were some of the hardest because she didn’t know anyone else doing what she was.
She found out it wasn’t as difficult to break an oven as to break into the Detroit scene.
“I wasn’t breaking into it, necessarily, through social media,” she said. “I had to meet people, introduce myself and chat it up. You can only feed pie to your friends and family for so long. You need to take that risk of giving it to people that won’t just tell you they love it.”
People couldn’t simply hear about the pies. They needed to taste them, and Ludwinski needed help getting to their taste buds.
Ludwinski took Build’s 8-week business and project planning course in January of 2013. It was the first time she was able to connect to Detroit’s entrepreneurial community.
“The whole structure of the class was that we were working through a business plan, so it was the first time I was starting to ask myself questions about this future here,” she said. “‘How much do I need to make in order to survive?’ ‘What kind of things am I going to have on my menu?’ ‘How many employees am I going to hire?’”
Ludwinski said that as far as the Build class goes, you reap what you sew.
“There is no ‘you have to do this.’ It’s beginner level. They don’t go to a lot of specifics because there are so many types of businesses. I think it’s a great place for people who have an idea to start and sort of flesh it out.”
The course brings in local experts to teach aspiring entrepreneurs the basics of starting a business – from licensing to market research – while providing them with the resources and tools they need to succeed in the community.
“I firmly believe, and Build Institute firmly believes, that we need to invest and keep our money local and in people and projects that can develop commercial corridors and keep ownership in our communities,” said April Boyle, executive director of Build Institute.
Because of its dedication to Detroit, Build makes it easy for anyone to attend the course or get involved with its mission.
The course, called Build Basics, is flexible, offering daytime, evening and weekend sessions, and classes are priced on a sliding scale based on annual household income and family size.
By the numbers, Build has graduated over 600 aspiring entrepreneurs from over 100 zip codes in the metro Detroit area. Seventy-one percent have been female and 85% have been low to moderate income, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Labor.
“The reason why it takes a village to open a business in the city of Detroit is because the types of businesses that the city needs – mainstream life-style, place-making businesses – are not traditionally and easily funded because they’re high risk [for banks],” Boyle said.
More than ever in the city, entrepreneurs from all backgrounds are not alone when trying to fund their business plan. Build is only one organization in a large network that has taken a grassroots community approach to help business owners.
Through Build, Ludwinski heard about FoodLab, a local community of food entrepreneurs that, according to their website, is committed to making the possibility of good food in Detroit a sustainable reality.
FoodLab helped her with licensing her first commercial space and offered much of the hands-on technical advice she needed.
“It’s very community-operated with a focus on inspiring and giving the people tools to make a really good food business. There’s a lot of support there,” Ludwinski said.
A village approach
Build and FoodLab helped Ludwinski get a foothold in the city and opened the door to a larger network of resources she eagerly utilized to secure her West Village storefront.
She did an Indiegogo fundraising campaign, competed in and won the 2014 Comerica Hatch Detroit contest, which landed her $50,000 she put toward the Sister Pie kitchen, and received a micro-loan from the Kiva organization, a non-profit that connects people through lending to alleviate poverty.
When it comes to opening a small business in Detroit, it is clear that the help and know-how trickle down, up and sideways through an equal-parts community – a village, if you will.
The village keeps growing with owners like Ludwinski giving back to the local economy with their business practices. She and her “right-hand woman,” Angie, go to Eastern Market every Saturday to buy seasonal, Michigan-sourced ingredients.
“Not everything we use is highly local or organic, but we try our darndest to make sure that when we can source locally, we do,” Ludwinski said. “We use all Michigan sugar. All of our produce comes from Michigan farms, other than things that don’t grow here. What’s great about that, is that we have these relationships with these farmers from around Michigan, and it is so rewarding.”
Sitting in front of her shop window talking about the last three years, it seems as though the struggles Ludwinski has faced pale in comparison to the help she has received in creating Sister Pie.
Her journey proves that once you have the right ingredients, it can still take a village to start a business.