Entrepreneurs setting up shop in Detroit

Posted on April 25, 2012

They didn’t come because of major tax breaks. They aren’t looking to move even as city leaders attempt to stave off bankruptcy.

Many entrepreneurs have staked their ground in Detroit because they see business opportunities and social needs.

“There are countless examples that showcase Detroit’s real spirit,” said Rishi Jaitly, Detroit program director for the Knight Foundation, which supports what Jaitly and others say is a thriving network of social entrepreneurs and small businesses.

“There is a spirit of urban innovation that’s advancing economic opportunity, quality of life and civic engagement across Detroit.”

Here are four examples of companies that are enthused about Detroit, and hope to capitalize on its emerging trends and unmet needs.

Detroit Bikes

“I have never felt more welcome in any city I have ever been in. It’s infectious,” said Zak Pashak, a Calgary native who first visited Detroit two years ago.

This year, the Canadian started Detroit Bikes, his vision to create an accessible, well-built three-speed commuter bike for the masses. The 31-year-old loves the fact that his small production crew of four is working on the prototype in the carriage house of his Boston Edison home. Henry Ford once lived in the Boston Edison neighborhood.

“Henry Ford’s goal was to create affordable, reliable transportation,” Pashak said. “That’s my goal.”

He eventually he wants to build 100 bikes a day.

If he ends up buying a building in Detroit, Pashak could end up investing up to $400,000 to get Detroit Bikes in motion. He believes the market is there: A 2012 report by the Alliance for Biking & Walking found the number of bicycle commuters in Detroit rose 258 percent over the past two decades.

“It’s very important to me I hire Detroit workers,” Pashak said. “I cannot even tell you how many people have inspired me and encouraged me here. And, it’s a city you feel where there is still room for many people to carve out their own niche.”

En Garde! Detroit and Sword Dreams

“I’m all in; heart and soul and everything that’s happened to me tells me I was right about being in Detroit,” said Bobby Smith, who three years ago founded a social entrepreneurial company dedicated to fencing, called En Garde! Detroit.

The 28-year-old Jamaican immigrant has been fencing almost half his life.

His prowess led to an athletic scholarship to join Wayne State University’s world-class fencing team.

Smith wants to offer that kind of opportunity to inner-city youths by teaching about his sport. He loves to tell students that fencing originated in Egypt, and it sharpens the mind as much as the body. “There are too many public schools with no arts program, no cultural programs. I want to offer them something they can feel, touch, breathe — be totally connected to,” Smith said.

Last year, his programs reached more than 1,000 students.

This year, he started the nonprofit Sword Dreams, whose goal is to buy fencing equipment for students. He also opened a studio on the edge of Corktown to offer free classes.

On Thursday, Smith delivers the keynote speech at the 2012 Governor’s Fitness Awards at Ford Field.

Detroit Farm and Garden

“The best way for me to operate and feel like I’m informed is to understand and respond to what is happening in the blocks and the neighborhoods. When I focus on that, it tells me a lot,” said Jeff Klein, 38, co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.

The store opened April 2 in what used to be the parking garage and lot of a former Detroit Police precinct in southwest Detroit.

Detroit Farm and Garden’s goal is to provide high-quality gardening, farming and landscape resources to Detroit. Nearly everything in the store is organic, and much of it is locally made.

Already, there has been a run on 50-pound bags of chicken feed, Klein said. And at the request of several customers, the store now carries pig feed.

The bales of hay and straw are selling pretty well, too, said Klein, who has lived in Detroit for 16 years and owns a landscaping firm.

There were 1,351 vegetable gardens in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck in 2011, according to the coalition groupcalled the Garden Resource Program Collaborative.

That includes 800 family gardens, 300 community gardens, 60 school gardens and 40 market gardens.

“I have no idea how much money we will make,” Klein said.” All I can tell you is that I feel that we are really servicing a need. It’s just a great opportunity.”


“Why Detroit now? It’s where the action and excitement is — it’s really that simple,” said Scott Susalla, director of sales and marketing at Pluto, a Birmingham-based “creative content” firm that is setting up an office in a warehouse on the southwestern edge of downtown Detroit.

Pluto plans to create 10 jobs from the get-go, and aims to become a hub for visiting New York- and Los Angeles-based advertising and marketing professionals.

Pluto was inspired by the decisions of Compuware Corp., Quicken Loans Inc. and General Motors Co. to relocate as many employees downtown as possible.

GM has tried to convince its new marketing partners to commit to Detroit. New ad agency Commonwealth — a 50/50 partnership between Chevrolet’s U.S. agency, San Francisco-based Goodby Silverstein & Partners and New York-based McCann Erickson Worldwide — is bringing 280 jobs into the city. Social media company Twitter and at least two public relations firms also are setting up shop in the city.

Pluto specializes in broadcast and online marketing. Its workers include motion designers, Web designers, computer graphic artists and sound designers.

Next month, the company plans to open a 5,000-square-foot space in a West Fort Street warehouse.

Pluto has converted it into a sleek, playful area with state of-the-art editing, Web-serving programs and design facilities. “Everyone knows the challenges Detroit faces,” said Natasha Marin, a member of Pluto’s sales and marketing team. “But so far our experience in Detroit has been amazing.”

By Louis Aguilar, Detroit News