My Detroit Opportunity

A development director leaves New York to reignite his career in Downtown Detroit.

 I have the good fortune to write this opinion piece from my dining room table in Detroit’s historic Indian Village neighborhood. My road to this point is not well-trodden. Raised in suburban Detroit and educated at Michigan State University, I started my career in New York — but traded Wall Street for Woodward Avenue in 2010. As a result, I’ve experienced in a short time personal and professional opportunities that would have taken me years to achieve most anywhere else in America.

Working in New York for more than four years in investment banking and private equity was a great professional experience, but when news arrived that my wife and I were expecting our first child, it was the sign I was looking for to return to my roots in Detroit. I began searching for the best possible career opportunity, and found it through my longtime mentor, Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Detroit-based Rock Ventures (the umbrella entity that manages real estate, investments, and companies owned by Quicken Loans Inc. founder and chairman Dan Gilbert). I met Matt during an internship at General Motors, when I sent him a “cold call” email after reading about his work with the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy. Little did I know where this one email would lead me more than five years later.

I joined the Rock Ventures team before the recent series of headline-making downtown real estate investments. Since then, I have focused on financing activity for our company’s casino gaming and real estate investments, and my role and experience on the team have far exceeded my expectations.

I’ve had opportunities to make contributions that would not be possible in a typical New York hierarchical structure. For example, last summer, while closing on a deal to finance our Ohio casino developments, I was leading the discussion. Had I followed a typical New York path, I likely would have been a wallflower in the meeting.

The decision to work in downtown Detroit was easy. But where would we live? I had always dreamed of living in the city, but with a wife and son, it was not such an easy decision. Ultimately, if someone with a long-time passion for the city did not choose to live there, who would? I was inspired by the Mahatma Ghandi quote: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” My wife supported the move, and we purchased a home in Indian Village. Where else do you have the opportunity to live in a beautiful, historic mansion for the price of a modest house in the suburbs?

I also have been actively involved in the business community, focusing on attraction and retention ideas to bring talented people to our city. It was during collaboration on one such project with a friend, Josh McManus, that we asked the question, “What does opportunity look like?”

When the Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures teams were looking for inspiration for a Detroit-centric World Series commercial last fall, the “opportunity” theme resonated with us and was then shared with the world in a 60-second spot narrated by Kid Rock. Since that time, the concept has evolved into “Opportunity Detroit,” a comprehensive brand campaign created to promote all of the amazing prospects in the city.

The campaign had a huge presence at this year’s North American International Auto Show, thanks to massive Opportunity Detroit Fathead wall graphics and a passionate team. I never imagined the idea would gain so much traction in such a short time.

At the end of March, “Opportunity Detroit” was front-page news. Rock Ventures, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, and Detroit Economic Growth Corp. announced a remarkable downtown “Placemaking” vision and retail plan, some of which takes effect this summer. That’s good news for thousands of workers, residents, visitors, and interns helping transform an increasingly vibrant urban core.

For many years Detroit suffered from the “you go first” dilemma. People would often say, “I would love to live in Detroit if only (fill in the blank),” or, “I would move back to Detroit if only (fill in the blank).” Fortunately, over the past few years, many of those barriers have been removed thanks to people who have seized on the opportunities in Detroit. There are an increasing number of entrepreneurs and expanding businesses in technology, real estate development, retail, and restaurants blazing their own trails in Detroit. They are energized by Detroit, and intent on growing their careers and the city at the same time. It is being part of this culture, the culture of opportunity, which makes life in Detroit so rewarding.

It won’t be long before the mindset will change from concern about “going first” to fear of missing the party. The opportunity is here, and the time is now. This is the story of my Detroit opportunity. What will yours be? db

RYAN SULLIVAN is director of business development at Rock Ventures, a subsidiary of Quicken Loans Inc. in Detroit.