Detroit is bouncing back in a big way from its recent economic decline, and some of the Motor City’s homegrown technology startups are rolling up their sleeves and putting their enterprising visions to work to accelerate that revitalization. In the process, many of these new ventures, by way of their social missions and double bottoms lines, are having an extraordinarily positive impact on more than just the local economy.
Sonya Mays believes you’ll see more and more of that in Motor City’s future.
One of the leading advocates for social entrepreneurship as a vehicle for positive change in Detroit, Mays is the founder and president of Develop Detroit, a community-driven real estate and housing development firm that renovates and rebuilds multi-family housing and commercial developments throughout the city in partnership with Invest Detroit, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and several other public and private entities. Mays says entrepreneurs are only just beginning to reimagine and reinvent her beloved hometown, and there are still plenty more opportunities to come for those willing and able to offer innovative, citizen-inspired solutions.
“There are a host of social and community challenges in Detroit that are ripe to yield to innovative approaches from energetic social entrepreneurs,” Mays told Free Enterprise. “As someone who is adept at ‘double-bottom line’ activities — merging business fundamentals with measurable community and social impact — I am amazed at the sheer breadth of opportunity available here for those willing to take the risk.”
Jerry Paffendorf is among those who have taken the risk. In 2012, the social entrepreneur and futurist co-founded Loveland Technologies, a Detroit-based startup that works with government officials, developers and community groups — including Develop Detroit — to gather and share data about real estate properties via its online searchable parcel map technology.
Some of Loveland’s recent Motor City initiatives include mapping tax foreclosures at detroit.makeloveland.com, as well as putting all of the city’s property information online at motorcitymapping.org with the goal of combating the area’s widespread urban blight.
Paffendorf explained to radio network WBUR that his startup’s digital mapping solution helps Detroit public officials make “much more intelligent decisions about how to allocate resources” in their ongoing efforts to reduce housing decay across the city, which last year averaged about 150 vacant property demolitions a week.
Loveland’s pioneering mapping innovation enables officials — and anyone who signs up to use them — to quickly visually assess which vacant properties are heavily distressed or fire damaged beyond repair and which can be rebuilt and returned to the housing market.
“It’s kind of like going from Detroit not having glasses — about how to fix itself — to suddenly being able to see what the problem is,” Paffendorf said.
Another purpose-driven entrepreneur contributing to the resurgence of Detroit through online innovation is Roger Mensah. In May of 2013, the Detroit native launched Endless Crowds, a unique crowdfunding platform designed to support active and veteran members of the U.S military, police officers, firefighters and other first responders.
Like Mays and Paffendorf, Mensah understands that the challenges facing the Motor City and its approximately 689,000 residents are, as he puts it, “better solved together, rather than alone.”
“If you’re born in Detroit like I am or raised in the area, the opportunity to be a positive voice for the city when others try to tear us down is a pleasure available to everyone launching here,” Mensah told Free Enterprise.
For his part, he’s building his stomping grounds back up by forming “a tight-knit community of supporters working together to fund, create and launch the ideas and businesses” of those who selflessly serve us, Detroit’s — and all of America’s — servicemen and servicewomen.
To monetize Endless Crowds, which users can create crowdfunding campaigns on for free, Mensah deducts a five percent fee from each donation received. For now, he says, he’s starting small, then gradually scaling up, a strategy that’s been part of his plan all along.
“Thankfully Detroit is a good place test ideas and innovations like these to solve problems many face, before scaling up to a national level,” he said.
Taking his first major step toward his company’s growth, Mensah moved the startup into Bamboo Detroit in late 2013 after meeting the co-working space’s co-founder, David Anderson, a proud fellow Detroit native who’s also extremely passionate about revitalizing his stomping grounds.
“Joining Bamboo as one of the earliest members allowed my growth as an entrepreneur to grow as fast as the co-working community,” Mensah said. “Everyone there has different work habits, across various industries and ventures, and I was learning something new twice a day.”
Bamboo — named in a perhaps fortuitous nod to how fast and strong bamboo stalks grow back when cut down — is perched in the heart of city’s historic downtown district, on 1420 Washington Blvd., just a short stroll from the legendary General Motors.
The buzzy shared office space also happens to be directly across the street from a new urban housing complex called Detroit City Apartments. In a nod to service members reminiscent of Mensah’s mission, the realty firm that owns the upscale property waives certain rental fees for active and retired military members as part of its Stars & Stripes program.
Affordable housing for veterans and first responders appears to be a cause near and dear to some of Endless Crowds’ early adopters, Mensah points out. In fact, one user, a veteran, launched a crowdfunding campaign on the nascent platform seeking donations to help restore a blighted housing development in Midtown Detroit that had been acquired by Motor City Blight Busters Detroit, Inc. The campaign aimed to provide transitional housing through a “Veteran’s Village Center” to local veterans. Meanwhile, another Endless Crowds user leveraged the site to raise funds to help provide shelter for homeless women in nearby Flint.
“I’ve always aspired to have Endless Crowds serve as an example of what’s possible in Detroit,” Mensah said. Looking ahead to what he sees as Motown’s even brighter tomorrows, he plans to mentor and offer micro-grants to younger, purpose-driven entrepreneurs in the community. He also hopes to use a portion of the proceeds from his startup earnings to fund a charitable foundation to further benefit veterans.
Mensah’s ultimate goal, he says: “To get more Detroit startup ideas off of napkins and into business plans.” A vision he’s surely not alone in having.