Business elite woo former Detroiters

Louis Aguilar and Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Gov. Rick Snyder was among a local A-list movers and shakers who came out Wednesday night to woo an A-list group of movers and shakers with ties to Detroit but like so many went elsewhere to succeed.

Now Snyder and scores of others political, business, foundation and creative types are on a three-day mission called the Detroit Homecoming to convince some of those prodigal sons and daughters to reconsider the Motor City.

The city's bankruptcy, Snyder said, "was a solution to 50 years of problems."

The opening-night gala was held in the elegant but-still-under construction lobby of the David Whitney Building in Grand Circus Park. The historic building, after languishing empty for years, is on the final leg of a $90 million rehab and will soon open as a boutique hotel and upscale apartment.

"This building is not finished and it's a metaphor," for the city, Snyder said, because the work in Detroit is not finished. "We can finish it together,'' he said.

The list of invitees for the three-day homecoming focuses on the elite: billionaires, sports stars, company presidents, venture capitalists, journalists and entertainers. One highlight of the event will be a conversation between Quicken Loans Inc. founder Dan Gilbert and investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett on "Why I'm Bullish on Detroit."

They want former Detroiters like Jules Pieri to return to the city in some fashion.

Pieri left Detroit 30 years ago. A Harvard Business School graduate, she's created three startups, worked as industrial designer and as an executive for Stride Rite. She was named one of the 10 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs for 2013 by Fortune Magazine, as well listed among the 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs by Goldman Sachs 2014.

Yet Pieri jumped at the chance to return.

"I'm coming back because my roots are in Detroit. Those years were incredibly formative to me as I've been building this startup," said Pieri, whose latest startup, The Grommet, based in the Boston area, launches undiscovered products.

"Detroit is national news. However I don't know any of the players. I'm looking to build some personal relationships," she said. "I love the idea of taking an expat approach and shining a spotlight on Detroit to create a true connection."

The three-day agenda includes tours throughout the city; a concert at Chene Park; and the Globe Building Outdoor Adventure & Discovery Center, an unfinished facility on the city's rebounding riverfront. Other incentives include batting practice at Comerica Park as well as experiencing a driverless vehicle on Belle Isle.

Billy Dexter, partner at the global executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles in Chicago, said he is excited to return to the city where he was born and raised.

"Even though I've been in Chicago the last 25 years, I have always worn my badge of being a Detroiter very proudly," Dexter said.

"I've watched as the city has had all the challenges. I was disappointed to see all that. But I've always rooted for," the city, he said.

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN