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Detroit is Open for (Small) Business

When Carla Walker-Miller started her Detroit-based business, she felt that she’d risen as far as she could in corporate America.

Although the journey to being profitable was bumpy and long, Walker-Miller Energy Services is a success story and its president and CEO said entrepreneurial support made all the difference.

Walker-Miller recently participated in a panel discussion at the 2018 Mackinac Policy Conference on the ways small business is leading Detroit’s comeback. She wants fellow entrepreneurs to know that real opportunity and support exist in the city, often with no strings attached.

“We finally have an opportunity to do big things in a big way,” Walker-Miller said.

Pamela Lewis is director of the New Economy Initiative (NEI), which works to build an inclusive network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses in southeast Michigan. That can mean anything from networking opportunities, technical assistance, help with business planning and concept testing to providing capital.

“If you have the idea and will, there is an axis of support to help you,” Lewis said.

She points to the owners of Detroit Vegan Soul, who started the business in their basement and now employ 40 people, as a case in point. Established in 2012 as a catering and food delivery operation, Erika Boyd and Kristen Ussery won the 2015 NEIdeas $10,000 challenge, which helped them expand their business. They’re now running two successful Detroit restaurants in the West Village and Grandmont/Rosedale neighborhoods serving their lauded vegan soul food.

Lewis said Boyd and Ussery would have been successful regardless because that’s their nature, but having a supportive ecosystem helped accelerate their growth. Seeing small business owners thrive is good for the neighborhoods they set up shop in and helps to foster positive perceptions of Detroit overall.

“The growth of retail activity and small business development is really helping drive the perception that it’s a really good time to open a business in the city,” said Wendy Jackson, managing director of The Kresge Foundation’s Detroit region.

Research from the foundation shows that the number of entrepreneurs who would recommend starting a business in Detroit is rising. They also found that residents believe small businesses are essential for the city to keep moving forward.

Lewis said many of the new businesses popping up in Detroit are helmed by people of color and women, who often bring different values and priorities to their ventures. As an African-American woman, Miller-Walker said she’s happy to be changing the idea of what a CEO looks like and hopes others are inspired by her example.

She’s also committed to hiring people who live in Detroit, setting a goal of at least 70 percent, which keeps more money in the city that’s been good for her business.

“Our business philosophy is strongly based on our belief in the city of Detroit,” she said.

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Photo credit: velkr0

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