Changing Gears
10:37 am
Fri November 19, 2010

Can Detroit use lessons from Pittsburgh? - Part 4

All week we’ve been looking at the reinvention of Pittsburgh. Now, we move west to see whether the ideas that worked there can work in other places. One such city is Detroit.

Like Pittsburgh, Detroit has always faced a challenge in convincing its talented citizens to stay. Many business owners try to buck the odds and keep their businesses in the city, only to find the hurdles too high. Others find it is simply too daunting to head out on their own.

Judy Davids’ story starts out like a lot of Detroiters'.

Her grandfather moved to Detroit after working in the steel mills in Pittsburgh, lured by Henry Ford’s $5 work day. Her uncle dropped out of high school to work in the factories, and her father started working for Chrysler in 1958. He was laid off the year Davids was born.

“So my whole childhood, it was like a love-hate relationship with the auto industry,” Davids says. “I understood what a pink slip was when I was in elementary school.”

Davids had no interest in going into the car business. She worked first as an interior designer, then as an environmental consultant, but she still found her fate tied to the auto industry.

“It was unavoidable in this town,” she says. “Whatever I did, we had to worry about Ford. You know, were they going to stop buying Herman Miller furniture because they weren’t making enough cars.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Davids’ work dried up as the auto industry circled the drain. Her skills were outdated. She had a mortgage, and two kids who would soon be off to college, but she had just enough magical thinking to believe she could launch a new business of her own. She found help in the same kind of program that has helped keep entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh.

Davids signed up with Bizdom U. It’s a boot camp that provides office space, training, laptops, and a living stipend for people who want to become entrepreneurs.

People with promising business plans win financial backing from Bizdom, but only if they locate their businesses in Detroit. Davids’ company, PostEgram, won $115,000 from Bizdom to launch. PostEgram takes the updates and pictures people post to their Facebook pages, and prints them in full-color newsletters Her customers are mostly people who buy subscriptions for older parents or grandparents who don’t use the Internet.

Bizdom is the brainchild of Dan Gilbert. He’s a native Detroiter, and the owner of Michigan-based Quicken Loans – although he’s probably best known as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Gilbert is trying to create a culture of entrepreneurship in a city that didn’t really need entrepreneurs in the decades after Henry Ford became the most famous one in history.

Gilbert says he’s trying to create Detroit 2.0.

“Instead of having two, three large mega companies employing thousands, the idea is you’ll have the reverse, you’ll have hundreds or thousands of companies employing maybe 10, 20, 30, 50, 100 or 200 people or even larger,” he says.

Davids says Detroit is a unique place right now, with CEOs like Dan Gilbert willing to help fledgling entrepreneurs like herself. That’s one of the ways that Pittsburgh’s business community contributed to its rebirth, but she didn’t expect to find it at home.

“It’s been really amazing to me how willing people are to give up time and talk to me for an hour and try to help me with my little company,” says Davids. “I mean, CEOs and stuff will actually sit down with you and talk to you and help you any way they can. And I don’t know if that happens in any other city. That’s the great thing about Detroit is it feels to me like we’re all in this together.”