Made in Detroit: Why the Motor City is a great place for creators

After filing for bankruptcy in 2013, Detroit famously rolled up its sleeves, and got back to work. This “can do” attitude is what you’ll find behind its booming startup culture and efforts to rebuild one business at a time.

“‘Made in Detroit’ has become a brand in itself,” says Ryan Landau, founder of Detroit startup re:purpose, which matches people with jobs by finding the right culture fit.

“It’s a rare opportunity to be part of the comeback story,” he says. “I think you can see it in the retail, the restaurants, the new businesses, and technology scene that is popping up. In the last five years, each year, the rate of change is exponential.

WeWork is hoping to contribute to that growth. On May 25, Detroit will host the Creator Awards, a global initiative by WeWork to “recognize and reward the creators of the world.” Finalists from the Midwest and Canada will compete for $1.5 million in grants. Over the course of the year, WeWork will be giving out more than $20 million at a series of events taking place in cities spanning the globe.

With two WeWork locations, at Merchant’s Row and soon at Campus Martius, Detroit is the second city to host the Creator Awards, after Washington, D.C.

If you ask Landau, the reason Detroit is so attractive right now is the talent, the resources, and the fact that it’s affordable. Home to one of the country’s most skilled workforces, the 29 colleges and universities graduate more engineers per capita than any city in North America.

wework detroit common area_

“From a talent perspective, there is a real hustle,” says the Merchant’s Row member, who launched the first business out of WeWork’s new space in Detroit. “People are loyal to this city and trying to make things happen, not only for their individual company, but for everyone. We are all a part of a collective effort to rebuild.”’

From a resources perspective, Detroit is still a big city, but compared with San Francisco or New York, people here, especially in technology, have a bigger piece of the pie.

“From a customer standpoint, you’re not getting lost in the buzz of competition,” Landau explains. “Every new business is a win for the city.”

That means entrepreneurs have access to more capital and more customers than in saturated markets. And that has attracted new brands like Warby Parker, Shinola, and Bonobos, all of whom have made big bets on Detroit.

One of the first people to make that bet was Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, who moved his headquarters and 1,700 employees to downtown Detroit in 2010, in effect jump starting the urban revitalization.

Today, Gilbert’s businesses employ over 17,000 people. That includes Bedrock, which has invested several billion dollars in local real estate, a major driver behind the city’s ability to attract talent.  With new lofts and apartments opening every day, employers are finding the cost of living is much lower than other major U.S. tech hubs.

Historically Detroit’s economy was powered by aviation, defense, and the car industry. The new Detroit continues to build upon its manufacturing roots, while diversifying into a next-generation hub for technology, creators and makers.

Take Shinola, which has helped put Detroit back on the map as a place for high quality goods with its signature watches, leather products, and bicycles.

“The mission of the brand is to create jobs, and we were 100 percent ready to hire local people and provide that training,” says Bridget Russo, chief marketing officer at Shinola, which opened in 2011 with just a handful of people. “From a people perspective, there is a good vibe here,” says Russo. “They are still open to collaborating and being supportive of new businesses coming in and being helpful.”

That kind of collaboration is also evident in Detroit’s thriving artistic community.

standby detroit mural

“When we opened our gallery over four years ago, we wanted to make an impact beyond these walls, with a public art component,” says Anthony Curis, owner of the Library Street Collective, a contemporary gallery located in the heart of downtown.

Curis, and his wife JJ, have been instrumental in Detroit’s downtown public arts scene, supporting the installation of large and small sculptures, paintings, and large scale murals.

“When we heard there was going to be a new, massive parking garage, we were concerned how it may affect the neighborhood,” says Curis. He came up with a plan which would be a game changer for Detroit.

Curis worked with garage developer, Bedrock, to create large scale murals on every floor of the Z Garage, bringing in 27 artists from Detroit to Kiev. Once that was built, Curis pitched the idea for a pedestrian alleyway called at The BELT, a public space that is home to murals and art by local, national and international artists including Nina Chanel Abney, Shepard Fairey and Cleon Peterson.

nina

Today, the BELT attracts visitors from all over the world and boasts a James Beard nominated restaurant, the Standby, and a seasonal cocktail bar, The Skip.

Russo thinks what’s happening in Detroit resonates with many people because “it’s an emblem of hope that if things can turn around here, they can in places like Baltimore or Cleveland — it’s already happening in Pittsburgh.”

“Simply put: If you want to be part of the rebirth of a great American city, there’s no better place to live, work, and have an impact,” says Landau. “This isn’t just something we believe. It’s something we’re betting on by locating our headquarters here.”

Photos by Sal Rodriguez

 

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