Saving a City, One Entrepreneur at a Time

An interesting twist on public-private partnerships – and a social enterprise home run – is Bizdom U, a bootcamp for aspiring entrepreneurs in Detroit. It is funded by Dan Gilbert, a self-made man who has focused his philanthropy on one city and on building a network of small businesses to raise that city's economy. For four months, the would-be entrepreneurs receive a stipend while they work on business plans and refine their products and services. Some receive a $100,000 grant to implement the plan.

Bizdom U, Detroit, innovation, networking, social entrepreneur, sustainable nonprofitThe New York Times story about the "university" mentioned several points that deserve a closer look.

  • Entrepreneurs are made, not born, but they need their natural talents enhanced with a clear understanding about how business works. That includes attracting investors, keeping accurate books, evaluating markets, and all those other things small business owners do to thrive.
  • The most innovative, creative idea has no value if it doesn't fill a need – the need can be perceived rather than real. Find a problem then solve it: That's entrepreneurship. Find a social problem, solve it and that's social entrepreneurship.
  • Networking matters. Bizdom U supports its students with mentoring and consulting for 8 months after they win a grant. Gilbert gives his graduates access to his business contacts and encourages other executives to support his proteges. He also encourages them to brainstorm both problems and solutions.
  • Long-term vision builds sustainable businesses. Bizdom U is investing in the entrepreneurs and their ideas. In return, they have to pay back not just the initial funding but an ongoing portion of their proceeds which will be used to fund other entrepreneurs.
  • Social enterprise can make money while solving social problems. Bizdom U offers nonprofit training to for-profit entrepreneurs in order to solve a social problem: the economic decay of Detroit. Each of the start-ups that results from this social enterprise will, by the rules of the game, contribute to other start-ups in an endless chain of for-profit, problem-solving, innovative, enterprises.

I suspect that Gilbert is teaching a few principles about teamwork and the importance of employees since his company has been named one of Fortune's top 100 places to work for seven consecutive years.

And I suspect that Gilbert will, over time, have a positive impact on Detroit's economy. He is harnessing and enhancing what every economist recognizes as the engine of growth: small business owners. I look forward to seeing the outcome.

What projects do you think will make a difference in economic recovery?

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