The beginning of this year’s Detroit Startup Week provides a good moment to take the pulse of southeast Michigan’s entrepreneurs.
Some 20 years ago, the startup scene barely existed in metro Detroit, so dominant were the giant auto companies. But the entrepreneurial ecosystem has grown here by leaps and bounds. There are now multiple mentoring organizations like TechTown in Detroit and SPARK in Ann Arbor. A roster of angel investors and venture funders has emerged to back local startups. And university tech transfer offices are commercializing cutting-edge university research.
Detroit Startup Week, created and sponsored by Quicken Loans, celebrates all of this. Over five days this week, nearly 200 speakers from the startup world will engage audiences through interviews, panel discussions, and more. Due to coronavirus precautions, this year’s edition will be virtual, accessed here. But even virtually, Detroit Startup Week promises to inform and inspire as in past years.
As Scott DeRue, dean of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, put it, “Detroit Startup Week has a wonderful history and opportunity for us to connect around the city that we love and celebrate the innovative spirit of the city of Detroit.”
Dug Song, founder of the unicorn company Duo Security in Ann Arbor, said Monday the big change in metro Detroit’s startup culture has been moving from a few celebrity entrepreneurs to a more grass-roots, bottom-up roster of numerous players.
“There’s been this swell of support for broader, more community based entrepreneurship,” he said. “I’m excited to see how far that’s gone and a very rich community of support.”
Other speakers celebrated the same diversity of startups in Detroit. Ashley Williams, founder and CEO of RIZZARR, a content marketplace for millennial creators, said “having the welcoming type of community made it easier to start a company.”
Other sessions this week will deal with a range of topics. StartupNation and Dell Technologies will sponsor a presentation on using augmented reality and virtual reality in your business. Topics this week will range from food startups and female entrepreneurs to marketing and media help for newcomers. The expertise available is broad and deep.
This is not to say all is perfect today in startup world. The coronavirus lockdowns have severely tested small businesses in metro Detroit. Restaurants, shops, salons and the like have lost at least three months of revenue and some may not survive. Government aid is helping tide over many, and many entrepreneurs have figured out how to use curbside pickup and other tactics to carry on. But the crisis is real.
And so are the long-term difficulties facing entrepreneurs of color. Minority startups have always faced a harder road, since entrepreneurs of color tend to have less family wealth to back them up, and they may face a residue of misunderstanding and racism in applying for loans and the like. Many programs have attempted to address these inequalities, including the Entrepreneurs of Color Fund created by JPMorganChase, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and others, which has aided dozens of minority entrepreneurs in Detroit. But there’s still a long way to go to even the playing field.
Despite the challenges, the mood Monday at Detroit Startup Week remained optimistic. And one big reason is that startups like Dug Song’s Duo Security now serve as role models for others.
As Suneel Gupta, entrepreneur, author and faculty at Harvard, put it, “Seeing is believing. When we see stories like this we start to believe.”