GRR2DET Social Entrepreneurship Showcase

Thinking about learning is a hard thing to do.

The idea of a classroom, a teacher, and for that matter, a library, are constructions. That is not to say that these ideas are bad or good, but that there are no hard, fast laws for learning.

One of these constructions is the separation of learning into different subjects. The idea that we have different areas of knowledge, and that these areas are taught separately by separate teachers is relatively recent. Life is rarely like that. There are few places where one can clearly find borders in knowledge, though as a librarian, it is my instinct to classify.


Street Art of Eastern Market

Detroit’s Eastern Market is a place where history, entrepreneurship, agriculture, city planning, community development, food production all seem to meet. It is a beating heart of that town, and it was only fitting that we began GRR2DET, a Rapid Growth Media event,  there.

We were given an extensive tour of the market from Devita Davison, the coordinator for Eastern Market’s community kitchens, the largest of which is currently being built in Shed 5. Once completed, the community kitchen will act as an educational space, as well as a production space for food entrepreneurs in the area.

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The Model D Building

Eastern Market, however, did not wait for the large grants it received to start that kind of a project; it currently operates a number of community kitchens in the surrounding neighborhoods out of otherwise fallow properties. This allows food entrepreneurs ready access to licensed kitchens for smaller projects and production runs.

What is impressive about Eastern Market’s current strategy is how they are mixing the agricultural traditions of the market with the needs of Detroit’s food entrepreneurs. From the neighborhood kitchens to new production facilities, the Market can serve food entrepreneurs at every level of development and size. They are developing an entire ecosystem to do so while serving as one of the oldest, and currently the largest, urban farmer’s markets in the US.

As we walked around Eastern Market, we could see the history of Detroit; I-375, a stretch of freeway that flanks downtown to the northeast. Buried underneath 375 is Black Bottom, once home to Detroit’s historically African-American neighborhoods. It was cleared in the 1950’s to make way for that freeway. In addition to breaking the back of the neighborhood, this development also cut off Eastern Market from the rest of the city.

Currently, there are plans being discussed to raise the grade of 375 to make it a walkable street. Short years ago such a plan would’ve been a non-starter, but so was the M-1 railway when it was first proposed, and construction on that project is set to begin in July of this year. The Dequindre Cut, which is basically a highway for bikes and people, is being extended in spurts so that, eventually, it will connect Eastern Market to the Detroit Riverfront, which only broke ground in 2007.

People say and write many things about Detroit, but no one can deny that Detroit is a place crackling with ideas. Of all the ink spilled on that subject, you need to hear from the people that are working on the ground to get the real stories. I was lucky enough to be able to hear some of those stories at the Social Entrepreneurship Showcase put on by the Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX).

Social entrepreneurship is a relatively new concept. The idea that you would have a social mission along with a drive to be profitable is odd to many people, especially those who would have the ability to fund such enterprises. That is changing. Lower returns for normal investments and the realities of our times have made social enterprises attractive not only to entrepreneurs themselves, but investors with the ability to fund them.

However, problems arise when you take a look at the funding for social enterprises. One of the panels, The State of Money for Social Change, outlined the disconnect between investors and social entrepreneurs. The two groups of people are speaking, at a basic level, different languages.

For example, one word that I heard all the time there was ‘sustainability.’ Sustainability, as it is spoken of here, is profitability. They are the same thing: taking in more money that you spend. An investor doesn’t necessarily know or want to hear about sustainability. They want to hear about how you’re going to be profitable. That is their focus.

In the same vein, a social entrepreneur doesn’t want to focus on profitability. They want to be able to sustain their enterprises, but no one goes into social entrepreneurship because they are looking for profit above all else. They might have a great idea, the drive, and the know-how to make things happen. On top of that, they may have the means to make their enterprise sustainable in the future. But they don’t speak an investor’s language, and investors need to be understanding of that side.

Because of this gap, funding doesn’t go to the people with the best ideas, or the best knowledge of their respective communities. It goes to the people with the best pitch. Horrible ideas are funded in this way, and are sustained not by the work of the people involved, but by winning competitions and getting startup funding.

The first panel had the winners of the past year back to speak about their experiences, and they had some really excellent ideas about entrepreneurship and how it can effect change. One business, Rebel Nell, uses graffiti found around the city to create jewelry while employing disadvantaged women in Detroit. This creates a positive system, wherein a company is taking what would otherwise be scrap and turning it into both jewelry and a means of helping the women of Detroit.

In fact, the social entrepreneurs with the most impressive ideas were all about creating a system to affect change and never focusing on just one stream of income or means to help people.

One presentation was particularly impressive: Wheels for Workers, a project started by Greg Szczesny, takes donated automobiles and uses them to teach people how to become auto mechanics. Then, Wheels for Workers can sell those cars to make money or give the cars to workers so that they can reach their place of employment. Transportation is a big issue for the whole city of Detroit, and many workers lose opportunities and jobs because they lack transportation. They were one of the Social Entrepreneurship Challenge winners this year.

This presentation was one of the best thought-out in terms of making a positive system of change. It was also sustainable; his project has seven projected streams of income.

Mr. Szczesny’s project dealt specifically in transportation, but we had social entrepreneurs working in job training, IT, construction, food. These entrepreneurs work in a variety of different industries, meet different needs, and are themselves all sorts of people.

Between sessions, I had gone out into the atrium of the Max Fischer Theater, where the event was being held. There was a monk there. The Catholic Diocese of Detroit is fairly strong, but it was still odd to see a monk in a robe among the ‘suits.’

It turns out he was a Capuchin monk, Brother Ray, and his project was the On the Rise Bakery. As a monk, he worked at the Capuchin soup kitchen and one Thanksgiving, he heard a patron say to a child that it was a tradition that they go to the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. This gave him the impetus to try something new; On the Rise was born. But the story did not stop there.


One of Midtown’s Shinola Clocks

On the Rise gives opportunities to young men who have been in the prison system, workers that few employers will chance hiring, to become professional bakers. Brian Talley, who gave the presentation with Brother Ray, spoke of the bakery giving him the chance, and the chance to tell others, that there is another way than the life he once lived.

This was, in my mind, the best presentation of the entire day. On the Rise already has revenue. It already has answered the question of sustainability. They spoke to those issues, but they mostly used their presentation to speak to the heart of their cause, and how they are using entrepreneurship to change the world for the better.

When you think of that word ‘entrepreneurship,’ it becomes apparent that this word is loaded. Immediately we think of business, we think of profits, we think of balance sheets. But entrepreneurship can be much more than that, and if this conference is any indication, it is more than that. It is a powerful force that can inspire real change in our communities in a variety of different ways in any number of disciplines and industries. Thanks to Rapid Growth, we in the Grand Rapids community were able to see how powerful that force can be in Detroit.

It is the hope of your Business Librarian that our communities can continue to learn from each other, no matter what our subjects, classrooms, and teachers might look like.

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Business Librarian

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