Kai Bowman: Helping Detroit Small Businesses Make a Big Impact

UpNext is an editorial series highlighting eight burgeoning business and real estate developers who are impacting the economic mobility of Detroit. Presented by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, the series highlights Detroit professionals who are leaders, innovators, and influencers in their industry and community. This week’s UpNext profile is Kai Bowman. Bowman is vice president of Detroit Mean Business, a subsidiary of the Detroit Economic Growth Association (DEGA) formed in May 2020 as a coalition of government, business, nonprofit and philanthropic partners to assist in providing emergency assistance to Detroit’s small business owners in the face of COVID-19.

Bowman was previously the executive director of development for Mayor Duggan, where he negotiated over $35 million in community benefits as part of the $2.5 billion FCA plant expansion deal generating 5,000 new jobs. Additionally, he co-chaired the mayor’s equity council entrepreneurship committee and worked on mitigation strategies for Detroit small businesses in response to COVID-19.

“I took a lot of interest in making sure that the projects I was working on were equity-driven,” said Bowman. “Myself and my colleagues got the mayor to put his focus around equity issues before it was trendy. From my work, specifically in the entrepreneurship subcommittee, that led me into the small business space.”

As VP of Detroit Means Business, Bowman aims to tackle issues like access to capital, legislation, inclusion, and training – that can limit growth for Detroit’s entrepreneurs. “The difference between us and what other [business] organizations are doing is that this is meant to be additive,” says Bowman. “This [DMB] is meant to be a platform that basically on-ramps business owners. This is the first place a business owner should come, and then as we gather their information and what they need, we connect them to the right resource.”

The right resources are available in the form of business servant organizations. For one business that could mean introducing them to TechTown, DEGC’s Motor City Match team may be a better fit for another. According to DEGC vice president of marketing and communications, Charlotte Fisher, the Detroit Means Business call center has fielded more than 4,600 calls, delivered 11,500 PPE kits, and their website, detroitmeansbusiness.org, has had over 35,000 visits.

“We are filling a space where the small business ecosystem has kind of been fractured. You have a lot of different resources, and people don’t really know how to navigate. This makes it easier,” said Bowman. “I tell people my boss right now is the 50,000 plus business owners in the city of Detroit. Half of the people who work in the city of Detroit work for some sort of small business.”

According to Bowman, we are living in an unprecedented era that presents an incredible opportunity for business owners.

“This probably will be one of the only times in history that you have affordable capital that provided you spend the funds in the right manner that money will, in essence, convert to a grant. There aren’t many other opportunities to get free money for small businesses, but we have to educate our small business owners. There was $650 million worth of PPP loans made available in the city of Detroit. Why can’t that number be a billion? We need to continue to educate our folks.”

To properly educate, Bowman said Motown’s digital divide must be addressed.

“You have 30-40 percent of Detroiters who don’t have access to the internet or don’t own a computer. If you don’t have the internet, then how do you get that information? What we’re working on is trying to close that digital divide.”

Looking forward, Bowman is excited about where Detroit Means Business is going and wants his work to be the best reflection of his identity.

“Delivering affordable capital, creating new jobs, creating new high growth businesses, removing barriers to do business in the city…I think if we’re able to do that, then that’s my legacy. For me, it’s about service to Detroiters and how I can ensure opportunities are presented to them in an equitable manner.”

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