In Detroit and across Michigan (and just about anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, for that matter), there is often talk about becoming the next Silicon Valley. This comparison gets pretty tiresome. If innovation is about "new and different," why would we want to be something that already exists?
Detroit has its own set of unique challenges and opportunities, and we should strive to be something new, something different.
For starters, it’s not clear to me why we would even want to be Silicon Valley anyway. The region is plagued with astronomical rent and real estate prices, heavy traffic, and a hyper-competitiveness that leaves depression and anxiety in its wake.
Many articles and lawsuits have documented the region’s lack of diversity and history of sexism and sexual harassment.
But perhaps most importantly, what opportunities are there to actually give back to Silicon Valley, a region flush with cash, wealthy entrepreneurs, and plenty of venture capital investors eager to fund the next Uber or SnapChat that doesn’t really help solve real problems?
Detroit can be an alternative to all this. To be sure, we can learn from Silicon Valley and other more mature tech communities, but that also includes how not to do things.
Given our history and demographics, we have a unique opportunity to position the city as the go-to place in the country for women and minority entrepreneurs.
We can also capitalize on our Midwestern culture, which is less cut-throat and more friendly. Even Google uses the cultural appeal of the Midwest to draw talent to its Ann Arbor office, describing it as “Mountain View meets Midwestern Values.”
So what’s the Next Idea?
The intersection of technology and social entrepreneurship is where Detroit can really make its mark.
More and more young people are looking for ways to combine their education and passion with their interest in making the world a better place. Some are even leaving traditional, stable jobs to work on their own social impact projects.
Detroit has an established culture and entrepreneurial infrastructure to lure this talent. Already, promising new ventures like SproutsIO are choosing to relocate to Detroit from other cities. Now is the time to capitalize on this momentum and actively court more social entrepreneurs.
One idea that comes to mind is an advertising campaign in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Chicago, and Austin that targets social entrepreneurs and new college graduates.
This campaign could be a city-led initiative in partnership with organizations like Green Garage and TechTown Detroit, and showcase some of our successful entrepreneurs, along with accelerators like Bizdom, co-working spaces like Ponyride, and start-up competitions like Accelerate Michigan.
The campaign could also focus on attracting women and minorities, especially on diverse college campuses with student organizations and centers related to social entrepreneurship, like the University of Michigan’s OptiMize and the Center for Social Impact.
A combination of public and private resources could be used to fund the campaign. It would be perfect for the Knight Foundation’s Cities Challenge, and the Challenge’s three key drivers of a city’s success could be the campaign’s core mission:
- Attract and retain talent.
- Expand economic opportunity.
- Create a culture of robust civic engagement.
Let the entrepreneurs who are just looking for their big payday go to Silicon Valley. Steer the Brooklyn hipsters just looking for cheap rent elsewhere. For those who are interested in working on something greater than themselves, with a community of entrepreneurs that has already been doing meaningful work here for years, we should do more to welcome them to Detroit.
Razi Jafri is co-founder of NeighborFix and CrowdFeed, two social entrepreneurship ventures based in Detroit.