This past Friday our class got to visit Detroit and some of its small business owners, along with a couple of very impressive city officials. We left the friendly confines of East Lansing early in the morning, piled into our small Michigan State-themed bus, eagerly awaiting what was in store for us.
When we arrived in the Corktown district of Detroit we were greeted by Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes, the owners of Farmers Hand. We got to tour their very cozy farmer’s market and cafe, then we got to sit down and enjoy some of their sandwiches and ask them questions about their business.
The one thing that was very evident was the fact that these two are very passionate about what they do. They truly enjoy giving local people a fresh and healthy place to pick up food. It was also very cool to hear them talk about researching their target market and why they picked their specific location after researching the local competition and lack of a similar product in that area.
After that we visited Ponyride, an incubator for local manufacturing startups. Ponyride is a special place because its cheap space gives a lot of people that may otherwise not have an opportunity to run a business a chance to get off the ground.
Inside Ponyride we talked to the CEO of The Lip Bar, Melissa Butler. Before she started her business she was working on Wall Street, making a comfortable living. But she had a calling, to help women feel beautiful in ways that were not as widely accepted, with bright lipstick colors. I think her story is cool because she learned how to create all these products by herself. She reached out to experts in the makeup field and picked their brains, but she was putting in the hours herself, testing what worked and what didn’t with her own two hands.
We also spoke with Gwen Jimmere of Naturalicious, who specializes in hair care products. Her story was a little different than Butler’s. She had recently become unemployed, but in the process she had an epiphany; she wanted to be her own boss. She put everything she had into her company, without loans or anything. I thought this was a remarkable feat for someone who had no experience running a business before. The amount of research she put into her company was also a big step in creating a great product, and she has certainly reaped the benefits of her work so far.
The other business person that we talked to that really stood out to me was Eric Yelsma of Detroit Denim. When I had first read about his product of high-end denim, I thought that there was no way this was working. But Yelsma has worked his way out of Ponyride and into his own space.
I never knew someone could be so madly in love with jeans but talking to Yelsma you could hear his enthusiasm for his product. It was almost contagious and I admired his attitude. The fact that he went out and made a business entirely off of denim products is as surprising as it is incredible. His fearlessness was something else that struck me. He seemed to know that this was somewhat of a preposterous idea but knew that if he didn’t go for it he would regret it.
All of the people we talked to on our trip showed great determination and resolve to get to where they are today. It was truly an enlightening experience to meet so many inspiring people in one day and I appreciated them taking time out of their day to teach us what it takes to chase your entrepreneurial dreams.