Haworth Inc.'s 'Bluescape' collaboration tool. (Haworth.com)
Detroit — A century ago, plucky entrepreneurs armed with vision and a healthy appetite for risk laid the foundation for Michigan’s rich 20th-century economy.
Could history be repeating itself? Because a byproduct of the fall and rise of Detroit’s automakers — and the evolving pull they exert over the the state’s economic life — is a refreshing reprise of the entrepreneurialism evoked by names like Ford and Durant, Dow and Kellogg, Gerber and Olds.
Now, it’s Veronika Scott and Eli Thomsson of Armune BioScience Inc., Dug Song and Dan Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. Save the mortgage mogul, none of them are household names. But they could be, just as Gilbert parlayed an online mortgage business into a sprawling family of companies helping to drive the rehabilitation of downtown Detroit and a burgeoning venture capital scene.
Which raises a question: What do you get when the state’s most prominent business roundtable — Business Leaders for Michigan — holds its “CEO Summit” Wednesday in Detroit? You get no griping about organized labor, fewer dissertations on the blocking and tackling of economic competitiveness and more on the collective state of mind that separates winners from middle-of-the-pack, for too long this state’s default setting.
You get the chairman emeritus of Haworth Inc., the Holland-headquartered office furniture maker, extolling the power of its “Bluescape” collaboration tool. Its seven million square feet of virtual white board, now in beta testing, aims to enable anyone with a smartphone or tablet, laptop or Wi-Fi hotspot, to share data, ideas, even hand-drawn pictures, with colleagues around the world.
You get the founder of The Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit in Detroit that recruits its employees from homeless shelters, preaching the value of culture and collaboration: “Some of our biggest collaborators are GM and Carhartt,” said Scott, an art student turned entrepreneur. “Without them, I wouldn’t exist. Making sure what you don’t know and finding those people is huge.”
You get the CEO of Duo Security, an Ann Arbor-based high-tech information security company with 3,000 customers (including Facebook, Twitter and Zynga) in 80 countries, advising would-be startups to dream big, start small and grow fast: “Culture is really one of the biggest differences we have,” said Dug Song.
Mostly, you get a positive sense for the future, not an endless rehash of past battles already decided. Namely, the next chapter for Michigan will be as defined by an emerging class of entrepreneurs as it will by the success of a hometown auto industry that has dominated the state’s civic and economic identity for decades.
Diversification? Yes. Balance? Yes. Greater understanding that how companies treat their people and what opportunities they provide — chiefly, to make an impact as much as cash a paycheck — are the new currency of an economic ecosystem that will increasingly reward education and entrepreneurial risk taking, not entitlement and just marking time.
From Ann Arbor, East Lansing and Detroit to Kalamazoo, Midland and Grand Rapids, the innovation and raw material is here for new companies in emerging sectors. What the minds behind them need is more homegrown capital steeped in the local knowledge of Michigan’s economic failures and successes to replace the coastal investors backing companies like Duo.
“It’s getting better,” Song said Wednesday in an interview. “What we’re missing ... is early stage investing in tech. It’s challenging. There’s not as robust a venture capital business in Michigan as there could be. They don’t understand venture capital as an asset class.”
Partly, that’s because the big money held by Old Michigan gravitates to traditional investments managed the old-fashioned way, Song and others familiar with the situation say. Partly that’s because the high-risk, high-reward ethos powering Silicon Valley from San Francisco venture-capital shops is foreign to a staid establishment.
And partly it’s because the state’s homegrown entrepreneurs, born from the rubble of Michigan’s economic implosion, are ahead of the capital they need to grow and to prosper. Their success, their stories, would help to change the conversation about a state marked by the traumas of federal bailouts, municipal bankruptcy and the edge of financial collapse.
“None of us were around to remember when GM was just another start-up,” said Jeff Helminski, managing director of Blackford Capital LLC in Grand Rapids. “Of what? Two hundred auto companies.”
More than three, anyway. That’s the power of entrepreneurialism — someone wins, big.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday.