Blog: Creating Change in Detroit Through Entrepreneurship, Philanthropy


Over the past decade, Detroit has rediscovered what the entire region had already learned over a 100 years ago: there is nothing as powerful as a new idea in the hands of a first-class change agent, entrepreneur, or philanthropist.

By the second quarter of 2016, that simple notion has evolved from focusing primarily on traditional sectors — such as non-profit organizations, big businesses, and foundations — towards including socially conscious small companies, philanthropic investors, entrepreneurs, and traditional consumers like you and me.

In the midst of all of these groups is an emerging cohort of ambitious thinkers who either as consumers, philanthropists, or entrepreneurs are intentionally evaluating their role in positively disrupting social change instead of simple profit margins and product purchases.

Social entrepreneurs and socially responsible consumers are individuals who subscribe to innovative business or purchasing solutions in order address community challenges. They are motivated and persistent, tackling social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.

Social entrepreneurship by definition is: “the attempt to modify business techniques, private sector philosophies, and purchasing activity in order to create solutions to society’s most pressing social, cultural, or environmental problems.” Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or big business sectors, social entrepreneurs and consumers find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution and often persuading others to move in more relevant directions. They are also very keen at creating new businesses, participating in strategic philanthropy, and initiating partnerships in order to address immediate opportunities within their region.

In recent years, Detroit has been the location of choice for several socially conscious success stories from cutting edge community consortiums to nationally branded Detroit-based businesses. Examine what’s happening across the state and compare the underlying vision of inclusion, change, ROI, and responsibility towards the often forgotten residents.

Need specific proof? Consider these projects, businesses, neighborhoods, and philanthropic change agents: Midtown, Corktown, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, Shinola, NEI, Kresge Foundation, Live 6, Grandmont Rosedale, Brightmore, and others across the state.

Granted, several of the aforementioned are the “big fish” in the movement, but I can assure you that a critical component to each of their current agendas includes the voices of social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, neighborhood councils, and traditional consumers who are interested in leveraging the ideas of regional change and local re-birth. With that said, let’s be very clear — we have a long way to go and surely there needs to be more available seats at the decision making table with more inclusion of underrepresented citizens, young people, philanthropic innovators, creative, and long-standing residents.

It will take the efforts of all of these clusters along with the involvement of the business community and new independent participants, in order to wholly contribute to the “Detroit revival” narrative. But now, more than ever, there is a place for each one of us whether we self-identify as social entrepreneurs, non-profit donors, or just plain residents with purchasing power and choice.

The reality for cities like Detroit, where there are significant social challenges visibly present as well as a uniquely raw landscape for change, is that there is an opportunity for out-of-the-box strategies to solve complex problems. The issues in question include those such as education, mobility and transportation, employment, diversity and inclusion, small business development, and options for healthy fresh food.

By design, social enterprises present the unique opportunity to solve community issues as well as to garner financial sustainability for those involved. In essence, a social enterprise along with consumer support and philanthropy can become an active creator and supply chain for resources here in Michigan, rather than a pipeline for diminishing its limited assets. Essentially the social entrepreneur and those who support their practices can affect change by just participating in the system itself.

The questions you might ask probably begin with “how and why?” Think of it this way — just as traditional entrepreneurs change the face of business, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and consumers can act as change agents seizing opportunities in order to create solutions. While an entrepreneur might advance new industries, a social entrepreneur develops innovative approaches to community problems and then scales them for greater impact.

Here is a good reminder for all of us. Whether you are a business owner, non-profit donor, or a more traditional consumer, you can affect change through your community engagement practices and still garner a sustainable profit or purchase a quality product for consumption. Always consider the relevance of your purchasing power and remember that you have a choice where, how, and with whom you do business.

Chris Polk is senior fundraising executive and is the principal at Forte’ Management Group Inc. based in Detroit.