It’s only been a little over two years since the iconic Motor City—the historic heart of the American automotive industry—filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
The aftermath left the once thriving city of Detroit with tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, vacant lots and unlit streets. While most picked up and left, some Millennials saw opportunity. And, the city has become a breeding ground for young entrepreneurs ever since.
“I moved to Detroit the day they filed for bankruptcy,” says Sean Jackson, 26, a former marine who says he was eager to rebuild some of America’s fallen cities after his deployment to Afghanistan.
“America’s middle class was created here. As a returning veteran, I wanted to help America here at home and make Detroit a better place,” he says.
Jackson was part of the Venture for America program (VFA), a national nonprofit that recruits, trains, and places top college graduates with startups. After his five-week training boot camp at Brown University, he was placed under Billionaire investor Dan Gilbert, who some say is single-handedly “saving” Detroit while other big investors have left.
Gilbert is the Chairman and Founder of Quicken Loans, one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders and Rock Ventures, the umbrella entity for his portfolio of companies, investments and real estate, as well as the Majority Owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
“The decision to support the Venture for America Fellowship program was a no brainer,” said Gilbert. “It’s exactly what cities like Detroit and Cleveland need to continue to thrive.”
Jackson says it’s been a whirlwind working with Gilbert.
“He has taught me everything I know about business,” he says. “You can meet a lot of movers and shakers here and make a lot more of an impact than you would in Boston or New York. You would be crazy not to come here,” he adds.
Brian Rudolph, another VFA fellow agrees. He moved to Detroit in August 2012, and has already created his own company called Banza, a food innovation startup that specializes in high protein pasta made from chickpeas.
“Banza is now in 1500 stores and has created 30 jobs in Michigan,” says Rudolph, who adds that even though Detroit has lost some “steam” in recent years, the history of the city still inspires him.
“Henry Ford lived just a few blocks from my house here when he created the Model T,” he says.
Twenty-three year old, Avery Hairston, who also works for the startup Banza moved to Detroit in the summer of 2014 and says while some people look at abandoned buildings and homes as the once great city that is once was, others, especially young entrepreneurs, see opportunity.
“There’s this romantic element to Detroit, rooted in history of invention and entrepreneurship. The fact that it’s partially abandoned now adds an element of ‘wild wild west’ mystic,” he says. “It’s hard to understand a city like this if you only read about it in the news.”
Hairston says while bankruptcy, crime, and poverty still exists here, there is also plenty of potential as well.
“You just need to know where to look,” he says. “There’s construction going on all over Detroit. That’s definitely a sign of good things to come.”