By Leslie Smith (President & CEO, TechTown)
We are TechTown, one of the oldest and most established entrepreneurial support organizations in Detroit.
It all started in 1999, when Wayne State University President Irvin Reid decided the city needed an incubator that could help stimulate the local economy but also further the region’s economic diversification efforts by initially serving technology-based business, including those spun out of the university.
To get the ball rolling, he negotiated partnership agreements with General Motors and Henry Ford Health System. Startup funding came from a public, private coalition of local and national sources, with investment totaling approximately $35 million.
As part of its involvement, GM contributed our approximately 140,000-square-foot facility. The structure, designed by famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn in 1927, was first a service department for Pontiac then later became the Chevy Creative Services building. The Corvette was designed on the building’s third floor, and auto show displays were built here as well. TechTown incorporated in 2000 and officially opened its doors to a renovated facility in 2004. Just a few short years later, the Great Recession hit.
Taking straight from the pages of the Steve Jobs how-to manual, and without the luxury of years and years of planning, the TechTown team began tackling a monumental task: to shift the culture of Detroit back to one of innovation and entrepreneurialism. The situation was dire and a response was needed, so our enterprise pivoted. Not frivolously, or haphazardly, but to meet the evolving needs of the city it serves.
In 2009, we launched a program that gave 1,500 Detroiters access to entrepreneurial training programs; 67% of these people were unemployed for all or part of the year. At the end of their training, half of them started new businesses.
TechTown has made itself a place where people with bold ideas make their start. Since 2007, we’ve assisted 647 companies, which have created more than 1,000 jobs. In 2011 alone, these companies generated $52 million in revenue; and 60 percent of clients were women. Stem cell scientists and microenterprise entrepreneurs alike have found the guidance and resources they need to realize their dreams.
We are a diverse community of entrepreneurs, launching a portfolio of startups to fill the economic gaps within our city. Each of these startups are enriching the region through their commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship.
As our city again rises from the ashes, we’ve chose to support industry verticals that are specific to the region’s inherent assets and address the city’s identified needs. This includes a renewed focus on our tech roots through a highly competitive accelerator for technology-based businesses, but also programming in support of the city’s retail and wholesale enterprises.
As we continue pursuing our mission, we commit to meeting our entrepreneurs where they are on their personal journey – providing guidance and support, access to relevant and timely resources and a genuine partnership as we work together to revitalize Detroit’s economy.
In doing so, we can restore Detroit to its storied vibrancy, celebrating its unique diversity with a shared sense of hope and looking forward to a new chapter of prosperity.
Women 2.0 readers: Are you starting up in Detroit? Let us know what you’re working on the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Leslie Smith is the President and CEO of TechTown. She joined TechTown Detroit in July 2010 to be on the ground floor of economic development in Detroit. Leslie serves as chair of the Business Accelerator Network for Southeast Michigan (BANSEM), sits on the management committee of Invest Detroit’s First Step Fund, the board of directors for Midtown Detroit, and the advisory board for Belle Capital LP, Collision Works, C.S. Mott Center for Human Growth & Development, and Detroit Nation’s DRIVE.