DETROIT FREE PRESS: Hackers, author herald a new vibrant Detroit

January 26th, 2014
By Tom Walsh

For those who are not yet aware, or convinced, that something of profound import is happening on the entrepreneurship front in Detroit, here are a couple of fresh proof points:

■ A new book titled “Smart People Should Build Things,” by Venture for America (VFA) founder Andrew Yang, is peppered with characters and anecdotes from Detroit, the city where more young VFA fellows are working in start-up companies than anywhere else.

■ And just last weekend, MHacks III brought about 1,200 crazy-smart young digital programmers from 70 schools across the country to downtown Detroit for a 36-hour hackathon to write software, create digital apps and compete for about $20,000 in prizes.

Watch the video produced by MHacks sponsor Opportunity Detroit by clicking here.

Either story would have been inconceivable just a decade or two ago, so pervasive was the Detroit narrative of a dying industrial relic.

Yang, a serial entrepreneur with two Ivy League degrees, had never been to Detroit before 2011 when he was creating VFA, a program inspired by Teach for America, but which sends top-flight college grads to work at young start-up companies in low-income cities, rather than as schoolteachers.

He quickly sensed that Detroit would be fertile ground for his vision of VFA remaking the U.S. economy through entrepreneurship, revitalizing America’s cities and creating 100,000 jobs by 2025.

“I found it fascinating and invigorating,” Yang writes of Detroit in his book. “In some Detroit neighborhoods there’s a visible line between new businesses on the one hand and abandonment on the other. The entrepreneurs, developers, businesses and residents of Detroit are literally engaged in a block-by-block, building-to-building fight to rebuild the city’s economy and reclaim vacant structures.

“Everyone there is pulling for everyone else to succeed,” he adds. “Detroit was like the new frontier, with unsettled and abundant cheap land.”

Yang found early supporters for VFA in Bernie Sucher, a Detroit native who’s now a financier and entrepreneur based in Russia; Josh Linkner and Jake Cohen from Detroit Venture Partners, the investment firm backed by Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert; Digerati founder Brian Balasia and others.

When nonprofit VFA launched in 2012, a dozen of the inaugural class of 40 fellows were placed in jobs with Detroit start-up companies for two-year hitches. Among those mentioned in Yang’s book are University of Oklahoma grad Scott Lowe, who has worked with Digerati and Chalkfly; Kathy Cheng, an MIT grad working at Doodle Home, and Max Nussenbaum, a Wesleyan grad working at Are You a Human.

Sixteen of the 69 VFA fellows selected last year were placed in Detroit. Others went to Las Vegas, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Providence, R.I. The 2014 class is expected to be about 100 in all.

Yang asked fellows for their impressions after their first year in the field and includes a few in his book.

Cheng wrote, “Detroit is not exactly a glamorous metropolitan center and coming from an urban planning background, there were elements that were very difficult to adjust to — the lack of walkability, urban density and public transportation.” But she also found “this engaging community of people who really cared about the city.”

“On the ground,” Cheng wrote, “you could almost feel this anxious energy around you, as you saw a city with so much need and so much potential.”

Also mentioned in the book is Rebirth Realty, a side project of Lowe, Nussenbaum and two other VFA fellows, Tim Dingman and Sean Jackson. The foursome bought a foreclosed Detroit house at auction for $8,200 and are fixing it up for future use by VFA fellows moving into Detroit.

Yang is slated to appear Feb. 4 on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to talk about his book.

Last week’s MHacks III hackathon was hosted in two Detroit buildings owned by Gilbert. Mhacks, run by the nonprofit University of Michigan student group, staged its 2013 hackathon at the Big House in Ann Arbor.

Rock Ventures, Bedrock and Quicken Loans donated the Detroit space last week and supplied wiring and other IT infrastructure, which Rock vice president Lisa Dancsok said “was very expensive to do” — so expensive she felt obliged to run the cost by Gilbert himself.

“Is it worth it?” he asked. Dancsok said she thought it was worth every penny to bring 1,200 of the most talented young programmers in the world into Detroit, many of them for the first time, arriving by busloads from around the U.S. and a few by international flights from as far away as Poland.

Other sponsors, including Apple, Pinterest, Yahoo, Domino’s Pizza, DTE Energy and yes, Venture for America, provided funds for transportation, food and prize money.

The word, apparently, is getting out: Something’s happening here in Detroit.