Detroit’s revival supported by immigrant entrepreneurs

With more grants and entrepreneurship programs, a growing number of immigrants are starting businesses in Detroit

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — If Detroit had a “Little India,” it would be Ojas Akolkar’s studio tucked in the third floor of TechTown.

Vibrant embroidered bags adorn the walls, patterned pillows from Gujarat line the couch and dozens of block-printed wraps, signature of the Indian state Rajasthan, fill the racks.

Ojas Akolkar, owner of Tribalfare, says she has found her home. “With Detroit, I love the grit and the people and how the community just pulls together to do things,” she said.

Akolkar, a 43-year-old founder of the online retailer Tribalfare, purchases the clothing, accessories and home decor straight from artisans she meets in India. She then sells them to Detroiters and Americans nationwide.

“There are certain things that are so intrinsic to a culture and the region where it originates that you can’t match that. Like what is ‘Detroit made?’ It’s Detroit made because it’s made in Detroit. You can’t replicate that in India or China the same way I can’t replicate these colors,” she said, spreading out skirts dyed with royal blues, indigo and vermillion reds.

Akolkar is among the growing number of immigrant entrepreneurs who have chosen Detroit to launch their clothing, food or technology businesses in the past seven years. Many are drawn to the Motor City because of financial resources available for entrepreneurs through programs like ProsperUS Detroit and Motor City Match. Others have found affordable entrepreneurship classes through the Build Institute, TechTown and FoodLab.

For Akolkar, who immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago, Detroit’s diversity and imperfections inspired her to launch her business in 2014.

“I grew up in Mumbai, so for me, Detroit feels like home. I feel very comfortable knowing things are not perfect. That’s OK,” she said. “With Detroit, I love the grit and the people and how the community just pulls together to do things.”

Popular wrap skirts in plenty of colors from Tribalfare, which offers clothing and home decor from India.

Other immigrant entrepreneurs who spoke to The Detroit News feel the same way. And the data prove it.

For 20 years, Detroit was losing immigrants at a rapid clip, just like it was losing population as a whole, said Steve Tobocman, executive director of the nonprofit Global Detroit, an economic development initiative started in 2009 that assists Metro Detroit immigrants.

“Over the last five years, the immigration population numbers have reversed themselves, and there has been a 12.7 percent growth in the immigrant population since 2010,” he said.

According to the census’s American Community Survey, Detroit’s foreign-born population grew from 34,207 in 2010 to 38,669 in 2014. The U.S.-born population, meanwhile, decreased 5.3 percent, or 35,991, in the same period.

In Detroit’s Banglatown — a north-central neighborhood with a large presence of Bangladeshi immigrants — foreign-born people are 46 percent, or 5,013, of the area’s 10,913 residents.

“There’s a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit and community revitalization impact going on largely through Bangladeshi and some Yemeni (groups),” Tobocman said.

That entrepreneurial spirit has taken off in the last five years with the establishment of the Build Institute, TechTown’s SWOT City program and FoodLab — all in 2012 — and Motor City Match in 2015.

These programs have helped immigrants open grocery stores, restaurants and other main street businesses. Akolkar herself enrolled in Build Institute’s eight-week course, which covers business plans, finances and marketing, and TechTown’s Retail Boot Camp, and applied for Motor City Match, which offers $500,000 in grants to businesses each quarter.

Before then, she wasn’t sure if her curation of Indian products would be a viable business, and if she should stick to her day job as a dental hygienist.

“For me, (the Build Institute) made me commit to being a full-time entrepreneur,” she said. “It was a turning point when I decided, ‘OK, this is what I’m going to do.’ ”

According to a June “New Americans in Detroit” report by the New American Economy and the Detroit Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, nearly 1,400 self-employed immigrants in Detroit generated $15.5 million in business revenue in 2014.

Matthew Bihun, a senior loan officer with ProsperUS, a lending program launched by Global Detroit, has granted loans to immigrant entrepreneurs who would not otherwise be able to access capital to start those businesses.

In total, ProsperUS has given $180,000 in loans to seven immigrant entrepreneurs. They include a Trinidadian immigrant with a food cart who hoped to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and an Iraqi refugee who was captured by al-Qaeda and managed to flee. He had no Social Security number and $500 in his pocket when he applied for a loan to start a cellphone and computer repair shop.

“What these entrepreneurs lack in terms of traditional underwriting criteria — things like credit score, collateral, capital — they make up for in having exceptional character, having an incredibly exciting and viable business plans,” Bihun said.

Cooking up ideas

All entrepreneurs have a reason why they want to start a business.

For Christian Guevara, his “why” was because his parents came to Michigan from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to provide a better life for him and his siblings.

“Being an entrepreneur and creating something great is a way to say thank you, and pay it forward to the world,” he jotted down after his FoodLab facilitator asked him why he wanted to start Conchy’s Empanadas.

The 27-year-old teaches at Detroit’s Covenant House Academy while running his business on the side. Guevara cooks the empanadas at a commercial kitchen in Brightmoor Artisans Collective and sells them at local farmers markets and events. His goal is to launch a food truck and then a brick and mortar restaurant.

Christian Guevara, second from right, started Conchy’s Empanadas in 2015, inspired by his Puerto Rican and Dominican Republic roots. . The business is named after his mother (second from left) Consuelo Guevara, whose nickname is Conchy.

“There’s so much change happening in the city and people are just being encouraged to bring out their own ideas and do their own thing, and I love that,” he said. “I don’t think I’d have that same opportunity anywhere else.”

“He’s taking the culture and tradition and the way his mother and grandmother showed him how to make empanadas and he’s putting his own twist on it,” said FoodLab director Devita Davison.

The nonprofit helps entrepreneurs launch and grow food businesses. Of the 225 members, over half are entrepreneurs of color and roughly 3 percent are immigrants. Davison would like immigrant membership to reach 10 percent.

“We are striving to do better in terms of providing our training to the immigrant community,” she said. Plans include offering classes and other materials in Spanish to reach the entrepreneurs cooking out of their homes in southwest Detroit.

In Springwells Village, a corridor along West Vernor Highway, 26 percent of the 22,000 residents are foreign-born, with 88 percent of immigrants coming from Mexico.

Many have started produce markets, bars, bakeries and taco trucks.

Davison said these businesses epitomize the passion and work ethic of immigrants “who take a step into the world of entrepreneurship.”

“They want to pay homage to their ancestors, and they do that through food,” she said. “It keeps their culture alive.”

For cousins Ali Bazzi and Saad A. Saad, their business, Retea, which sells flavored loose leaf teas, was a way to provide education for refugee children worldwide.

Ali Bazzi of Dearborn packages 10 flavors of tea, including Vanilla Mallow, for Retea that he cofounded with his cousin Saad Saad.

Bazzi’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon in the 1970s, while Saad came with his family in 1999. After attending Columbia University, where he studied conflict resolution, he wanted to create something that offered solutions.

“What do you do to resolve a conflict? You sit down with people and drink tea and resolve those conflicts,” said Bazzi, 35.

The cousins spent a year tinkering with a tea recipe, until they were satisfied with flavors like vanilla, cinnamon orange and green jasmine. Today, the teas are sold online, and each $10 pouch provides 10 hours of education for a refugee child.

They originally thought about launching the company in New York City, where Saad works, but decided against it after finding myriad resources geared toward young entrepreneurs in Detroit.

“Everybody in Detroit is super supportive, whereas like here in New York, it’s really hard to even get somebody to answer an email,” said Saad, 29, who travels to Detroit for the business.

They also found affordable food prep space through Detroit Kitchen Connect, renting a licensed kitchen near Livernois and Michigan Avenue for $10 per hour.

“There was no upfront investment,” Saad said. “It was really easy for us because we were able to take much less risk.”

Overcoming challenges

A major challenge for Detroit entrepreneurship programs is making immigrants aware of free and low-cost opportunities.

TechTown’s SWOT City, for instance, supports brick and mortar enterprises in neighborhoods such as Brightmoor, Grandmont-Rosedale, Osborn and the University District.

“Immigrant business owners, they probably fall into the category of folks that think, ‘Oh, that’s not for me. That’s only for downtown. It’s only for newcomers to the city.’” director Amy Rencher said. “A big function of our work with that population, in particular, is making sure they’re aware of the breadth of resources available to them.”

Detroit resident Razi Jafri worked for a year as a small business adviser for the nonprofit Kiva and also saw firsthand how Detroit immigrant entrepreneurs could jump over funding blocks. The crowdfunded online lending platform offered a pilot program in 2011 for Detroit entrepreneurs to obtain interest-free loans up to $10,000.

“It provides a pathway to capital where many communities of color or low-income communities are precluded from access to capital,” Jafri said.

Other Detroit-based organizations offer similar low-barrier opportunities.

In the last two years, Motor City Match has granted $4 million to 763 entrepreneurs, many of them immigrants.

Mike Rafferty, vice president of small business services for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, which partners with Motor City Match, said Detroit has seen “decades of poor diversity” in goods and services, and immigrant entrepreneurs are filling those voids.

Twenty years ago, several reports painted Detroit as “the most under-retailed city in America,” Tobocman said.

That’s all changed.

“Suddenly, it’s the best place to do business,” he said.

Akolkar recently moved to Mexico due to her husband’s job and closed her TechTown space, but she continues to sell online and plans to return in 2019 to open a brick-and-mortar store in Detroit.

As she explains it, she fell in love with the city and couldn’t imagine running her business anywhere else.

“I have met exceptionally diverse and creative people,” she said. “The energy of these creatives pushes me forward to accomplish more.”

And that “immigrant” label doesn’t hold her back.

“I feel like I belong here,” she said.