Archive for October 2009

Detroit IS America

Noah Alper in Detroit

Noah Alper in Detroit

When I told a Detroit native that I was invited to speak at two very different venues there he woefully commented, “America is in a recession… but Detroit is in a depression.” With this thought in mind, I landed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport last Thursday. I was surprised to see the signs were in English and Japanese, no doubt a result of the influence of that country on the American car industry. It was not too many years ago that even driving a foreign car in Detroit could get you a cracked windshield.

My first engagement was at a Sisterhood Dinner in Southfield, MI, at the Shaare Zedeck Synagogue. It was the largest synagogue I have ever visited. It was built in another era — during High Holidays the sanctuary opens up and seats 3000. I was treated to a delicious dinner in the grand ballroom and was ensconced in a mood of warmth and cooperation. One hundred women attended this gala event, which kicked off their fall social season.

After dinner and my speech, I was delivered back to my hotel, The Motor City Casino. A huge old bakery had been converted into a Las Vegas style hotel and casino. Glitzy, and showy with loud Motown music bravely reminiscing a brighter day.

The following morning I attended the E2 Entrepreneur Conference sponsored by the “Tech Town” initiative at Wayne State University. The conference was located close to the Casino, and on the way there, I witnessed vast tracts of land that were empty, and rows of beautiful Victorians, most of which were boarded up. The conference itself was anything but “boarded up” — 300 plus aspiring entrepreneurs and small business people came to learn about “Developing the Right Entrepreneurial Team” and to network with each other.

Thomas J. Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh, gave the inspiring keynote presentation. Under his leadership, Pittsburgh rose out of the ashes of the defunct American steel industry to be re-invigorated, with a diversified high tech economy including many, many new redevelopment and educational initiatives, which were realized.

High points from Mayor Murphy’s speech included:

* Education is key. Pittsburgh went from # 80 to # 2 in high school diplomas per capita for major American cities

* Eliminate symbols of decay

* Eisenhower funded the Interstate highway system by means of a very controversial gas tax. Where would America be had we not built that system?

* In 2009, why do Europe and China have far-reaching high speed rail systems and we don’t?

* There needs to be a community will to change, and a decision made whether to manage decline, or envision the future. Many are in love with process at the expense of results. Detroit was built on innovation. There is a legacy of quality here. We must eliminate the disease of “it’ll do”.

After lunch I toured an Entrepreneurial “Boot Camp” called Bizdom U. (www.bizdom.com) Started and initially funded by Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, 20 fledgling “wannapreneurials” receive four month, real life in-depth training, a living stipend and a chance to present their idea to a panel. If accepted, they are granted up to 50K in start-up seed money. In turn, if the business succeeds, Bizdom receives a cut of the profits (as well as the capital invested to fund ongoing operational expenses for the school.) One caveat–the businesses must be established in the City of Detroit.

Towards the end of the day, I gave my talk on “How Doing ‘Good’ is Good for Business,” and gave examples from my experience running Noah’s Bagels. For example, our employee turnover rate was roughly half of the industry standard because of our “family” atmosphere, and support of individualism.

The last speaker was Rick Inatone, Managing Director of Sterling Partners, a Venture Capital Group managing $4 billion. Rick was named by Inc. magazine as one of America’s leading businesspeople, and his basic thesis was that the corporate culture of a company was the key determinant to its success. He emphasized the team approach, and that an “honesty mirror” was important. He stressed that a culture of personal humility and professional will were essential, and that empowering employees to help fix defects, would lead to a continuous improvement loop. Rick, of Japanese descent, described growing up in Detroit in the fifties. His mother and father were interned during WW II, and were “sponsored” and relocated from Bakersfield to Detroit. His mother worked as a domestic, and his father was taken in by a minister. His parents met at Wayne State and Rick grew up on the hardscrabble streets a stone’s throw from my hotel.

So this is Detroit, this is America, where a Japanese American can rise to the top of the heap, and where Toyotas are on their way to replacing Fords and Chevys. This is Detroit, where an articulate middle-aged engineer described how he was laid off and trying to re-invent himself as a consultant. That he and his family had always supported the local food bank, but that now he was, unfortunately, a client. This is Detroit, where a woman recently went back to work so that her salary could pay for the groceries for the family (good news), but that her husband (who worked in real estate) had found his business dry up to the point of non-existence, and collectively they were not sure where they were going to wind up (bad news).

What is the answer to our current economic woes? To build on the past, but look to the future, to establish a culture of cooperation, for decaying cities to be brave enough to create a vision. For those with resources to invest in others, to take a chance, so that everyone, including themselves will benefit. I learned in Detroit that the only way out of our national economic morass is to look at the problem as a team effort, to believe in that “bright shiny day,” and to take risks to get there.

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