It is not often that the 11th wealthiest person in the world according to Forbes, with a net worth of $50 billion, comes to the east side of Detroit. Businessman Michael Bloomberg and former mayor of New York City from 2002-2013, talked over coffee with small business owners and entrepreneurs at The Commons laundromat, cafe, and community center.
The entrepreneurs in attendance were Motor City Match winners representing restaurants, coffee shops, a grocery store, and cycling studios, among others. They were joined by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) president and CEO Kevin Johnson. The Commons is a 2016 Motor City Match winner.
Duggan said as Detroit was going through its resurgence, he called upon Bloomberg for advice and assistance. As leader of one of the largest cities in the world for over 10 years, who better to ask?
“When I came in, I met with Mayor Bloomberg, who has a huge philanthropic organization, and he said, ‘where can I help?’” said Duggan. “You remember what it was like 4-5 years ago, and I gave him a list of things where we needed help. They have given us expertise on foreclosure reductions, putting in bike lanes, and having more outdoor cafes. A lot of what you see (in Detroit) is because of what the Bloomberg associates have provided us. And now he’s here to see how things are working out.”
Motor City Match began in 2015 and helps business owners start new, permanent businesses in Detroit’s commercial corridors by providing assistance throughout the business start-up and building renovation process. The latest round of applications ended October 1.
For former winners, the roundtable setting was a moment for them to meet one of the more elite businessmen of the world and to pick the brain of a man who attended both Johns Hopkins and Harvard. He is the owner of a company that employs over 20,000 people, but it also a supporter of small businesses.
“I am a believer that we need young entrepreneurs to start businesses, create jobs, create a tax base, and to help people who need help and can’t do it on their own,” said Bloomberg, who began his business career on Wall Street. “All of you are tried, true, and tested and successful business people so far. I hope your businesses keep growing.”
Ezekiel Harris is the Executive Director of MACC Development, the non-profit that built The Commons, buying an old furniture store for $500 on the corner of Mack Avenue and Beals, then investing $1.5 million into the project. He said he was surprised that Bloomberg was in Detroit, but even more surprised that he decided to come to a part of the city that was outside of downtown and midtown.
“He’s lived a ton of different careers, as a mayor, huge philanthropist, and business owner,” said Harris, who was happy to host the 8thrichest man in the United States. “And he didn’t get there by luck. He had some skills that allowed him to do all of those things, so as business owners, there is a lot that we can take from him and his successful business career.”
Entrepreneurs in attendance asked Bloomberg questions on customer service in a world of technology, how to gain capital, and business diversity, among others. It was also an opportunity to get their business or product in front of him, for whatever it was worth. That is what Jennifer Lyle did. She is the owner of Lush Yummies Pie Company in Detroit’s Historic Eastern Market and wanted to ask Bloomberg how to grow her business team and whether to rent or purchase a bigger production facility for her lemon pies. He told her to go by what is available on the market and to stay true to what inspired her to begin a business born from an old family recipe. On his way out, she did not hesitate to slip Bloomberg one of her delicious lemon pies.
“He said my pie was just what he needed,” Lyle said on giving Bloomberg one of her pies. “I think this was a great opportunity to sit with him in a room and it was up to you to take advantage. I know that I had a couple of pressing questions in terms of growing my business and I think that I got the answers that I needed.”
Not everyone in the room was fan of Bloomberg’s presence in the city.
“It really didn’t mean anything,” said Raphael Wright, co-owner of Neighborhood Grocery and former Motor City Match winner, on Bloomberg’s presence in his former neighborhood. “If you heard some of the commentary and some of the responses to the questions, they were generic and came from a space of privilege. Majority of the people in that room probably couldn’t relate to that and most of the issues that we have, he couldn’t relate to. It could motivate some but be a disconnect to others.”
Bloomberg will be back in Detroit, October 28-30 to lead the CityLab conference at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel. The by-invitation conference will feature a series of site visits, discussions, and networking aimed at helping urban leaders from around the globe learn from Detroit’s recent experience.
The mayors of many of the world’s leading cities will be coming to Detroit in a couple of weeks to see for themselves what lessons they can take from Detroit’s nascent revival.
“There are mayors like Mike Duggan around this country who are turning cities around that nobody thought had a chance,” said Bloomberg. “We are all trying to share best practices, and on my way up here, the mayor pointed out these green lights (Project Green Light) on the businesses. I think it’s one of the smartest things I’ve seen in a while and I’m going to connect the mayor of Baltimore, where I went to school, with Mike (Duggan) to see how they could use that same technology there to fight crime.”