Having grown up nearly an hour from Detroit, going to the city always meant something special was about to happen. Whether it was my first time going to Joe Louis Arena for a Red Wings game with my Dad; family trips to the Detroit Zoo complete with a photo in front of the fountain with my younger brother; or the time my Mom surprised me with front row tickets to see Lord of the Dance at the Fox Theatre, my experiences in Detroit have never disappointed.
However, I felt like I had never truly seen the city until Friday, March 24, when we, a journalism class from Michigan State University, traveled from East Lansing to Detroit to hear from some of the most creative minds I have ever met. Since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the stories we heard, the sights we saw and what we learned. There’s so much opportunity in Detroit, and so many people who are seizing it.
Our first stop of the day was a non-traditional grocer called The Farmer’s Hand in Corktown. Here, we were fed and filled with not only great, farm-fresh food, but also knowledge about the difficult situation that many families face when trying to find healthy food options in their neighborhood. The founders, Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes, told us how they aim to offer a personal experience for people to come get food and supplies. Kiki and Rohani saw a critical need and came up with a solution that helps people.
The next stop was just a quick bus ride away to a place called Ponyride, a huge building where entrepreneurs can rent space to develop their startups. Jeanette Pierce, our awesome tour guide from the Detroit Experience Factory, was so right when she said we could spend a whole day in there.
At Ponyride, we met a few people, including Amy Kaherl who told us about how she got into the business and her work with Detroit Soup, a nonprofit that hosts monthly “soups” where people come together to vote on community projects. She did not sugarcoat the idea of being an entrepreneur and how hard you have to work. One thing she said that stuck out to me was: “No one is waiting for you to do it.” You have to find a product or a business that is good “enough” to have an impact.
It was also great to meet the women of Naturalicious and The Lip Bar. I admire what they’re doing with their brands – creating natural, healthy alternatives for beauty and skincare products. I am so impressed by their individual stories. Gwen Jimmere told us that she started her company, Naturalicious, with $32 in the bank while caring for her son; Melissa Butler (The Lip Bar) left a job working on Wall Street in order to follow her passion. They both supported the fact that you don’t necessarily need a degree in something to do it well. Neither Melissa nor Gwen said they were formally taught how to create beauty products. They are self-taught, which takes a lot of time and dedication. I look forward to hearing more about them!
Next up on our itinerary for the day was a visit to Detroit Denim where we spoke with the founder Eric Yelsma. Prior to meeting him we heard from Brad Hoos and Kay-Anne Reed from The Outloud Group, an influencer marketing agency. I will admit that I was particularly excited to meet with these two because I will be working with them at the agency this upcoming summer!
I’m not sure how many of my fellow classmates were aware of what influencer marketing was before our talk with Brad and Kay-Anne, but I have always been intrigued by it and eager to learn more. Influencer marketing is new, but it is becoming a very popular way for brands to reach audiences through YouTubers, bloggers and other digital personas, called “influencers.” Brad discussed how some brands are starting to realize the influence that this method can have for reaching a target market. Personally, I watch more YouTube than I do cable TV, so for a person like me, working with my favorite YouTuber will reach me a lot more effectively. I think that is potentially true for a lot of people in this digital age.
Meeting Eric, of Detroit Denim, was inspiring because we had just come from Ponyride, which was where he started his company. The success he reached allowed him the ability to open his own store in Detroit, which, I have to say, was really well-decorated.
Sidenote: The decor was definitely something I noticed as we went from place to place. People in Detroit 110 percent understand how to attract a customer, not only by creating and selling great products, but also by providing a nice atmosphere.
Now, back to Detroit Denim. I loved Eric’s story of how he chose to go into creating jeans. He repeated the fact that he “just wanted to make jeans” a few times and I think the sincerity in that is so genuine and admirable in a business owner. Eric also discussed how starting a business requires you to learn a lot, not just about how to make the product, but also how to promote it through social media marketing, create branding, packaging, etc. This really drove the point that there are endless things to learn when you’re running a startup company.
Last, but not least, we met Garlin Gilchrest II and Tamara Kamara at the City of Detroit’s Department of Innovation and Technology. I took a lot of good advice away from our meeting with Garlin and Tamara. Tamara shared a story about her work with department websites and working with the representatives from each one. She told us that it’s a good idea to approach clients with something to show rather than asking them “What do you want?” I think that is a really great point. It proves to the person you’re working with that you can work independently and take initiative. She also said, “The water is going to flow, it just might not go straight.” I absolutely love that. I want to take it and put it on a poster. That’s it! Tamara and I can team up to start a company that sells merchandise with the quote printed on it – laptop stickers, mugs, journals, etc. I’m kidding, but you can picture it, right?
On a serious ending note, I learned so much during our time in Detroit. I learned about the city and about the people and places that make it what it is. I cannot wait to live there this summer and truly soak it all up. For the first time, I will not be a visitor, like I was on so many occasions growing up. I will be living and working there. I cannot put into words how exciting that is for me to say. If I find my way back to each of the places where we met all of these great minds, I will definitely drop in and give a little Spartan hello.
See you again soon, Detroit!