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Exploring a City on the Move

1/31/2013 --

Revitalization and Business Conference sparks engagement between students and Detroit.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A mix of entrepreneurs, students, and Detroit civic and business leaders explored the challenges and opportunities of doing business in the city at the third annual Revitalization and Business Conference, "Detroit on the Move," Jan. 24 and 25.

Created by the Ross student-led Revitalization and Business Initiative, the conference, with events in Detroit and the Ross School, connects students and the university community with Detroit's leaders and doers.

A picture emerged of a city that's experienced more than its share of struggles gaining momentum in attracting innovative, creative companies. For too long, Detroit worked to protect its manufacturing base, rather than seek out the creative class, said keynote speaker George Jackson Jr., president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.

But that's changing, he says.

"The world passed us by because we protected ourselves," Jackson said. "But we've brought in companies nobody ever thought would come to Detroit. Creative businesses are moving into the city."

One of those, referral network, moved from the Bay Area to Detroit and found a number of advantages in the city. For one, it's difficult for smaller, on-the-rise companies like Stik to attract talent when going against the Silicon Valley giants.

"We thought Detroit would be a better place to differentiate ourselves," said Nathan Labenz, the company's co-founder. "If you're a household name in technology, Silicon Valley is the place to be. But if you're like us, marching upward but not a household name, there are other places, like Detroit."

Josh McManus, a veteran of city innovation initiatives around the country, said Detroit is a place where startups can get more for their limited budget and there's real interest in engaging in the city.

"In the bones and infrastructure in downtown Detroit is the spirit of innovation that drove the industrial revolution," said McManus, curator and lead inventor of Little Things Laboratory. "When you can get light manufacturing space for pennies on the dollar, you have the ability to experiment and have your startup dollar go further."

Keynote speaker Nancy Schlichting, CEO of Henry Ford Health System, said that students should think about being in a place where they can make establish their difference and stand out.

"It's not hard to make a difference here," she said during her address at the Max M. Fisher Music Center in Detroit. "For young people, that's an important thing to think about. You can make a big difference here and it gets noticed. And it's contagious when that happens."

In addition to speakers and panels, the conference hosted an IdeaLab, co-hosted by Model D Media, which featured fast-paced, TED-style talks from innovators in Detroit-based ventures.

Andy Didorosi, founder and CEO of The Detroit Bus Co., said Detroit's rebound "is going to be a slow thing, less sexy than we want it to be." But that's part of what makes the environment good for entrepreneurs.

"Just find your problem, no matter how insurmountable it is, and just tackle it," he said.

The conference also highlighted Detroit Impact projects, where students collaborated with businesses and organizations that wanted some new ideas — and some extra hands and brains.

The hope for those in the R&B Initiative is to get students to engage with the city, learn about it, and take that with them, wherever they go after graduation.

"This is about exposing students to what's happening in Detroit and changing the perception about what's going on there," says Leah Zimmerman, MBA/MS '14, and an organizer of this year's conference. "It's a city with real problems. Nobody is overlooking that. But there are opportunities and resources at hand to make something happen."

— Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,