Detroit small business summit responds to 'urgent need'

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — This summer, Yolanda Massey plans to move her business Hooked on Books Childcare from a home-based operation in Redford to a 1,500-square-foot building in Detroit.

On Monday, she came to the Detroit Means Business Summit at the Roostertail to network and learn how to grow her clientele as she makes the transition.

Yolanda Massey, of Detroit, owner of Hooked on Books child care in Detroit, talks about her business and why she is attending the summit.

“I’m here for marketing,” she said. “To learn how to do that so I can get that waiting list.”

Massey is among the 400 business owners who attended the inaugural summit Monday for Detroit Means Business, a public-private coalition of 60 organizations that formed in May 2020 in response to an outcry for support during the pandemic from the small business community.

“The pandemic created this urgent need,” said Danielle Parker, spokeswoman for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, which operates the program.

The daylong event Monday was a chance for businesses and resource providers to meet face-to-face, some for the first time since the start of the pandemic. The free summit was so popular registration was filled up within days, officials said.  

“It speaks to the ecosystem,” Parker said. “I think Detroit has a really unique and robust entrepreneurial ecosystem and there are so many entrepreneurs that want to grow their businesses and might not be connected to the resources and the tools that would allow that business to thrive. We’re in the position to help support their business growth in a way that allows them to scale.”

Tamiko Williams, left, a contract and procurement specialist for the City of Detroit, updates the application of business owner Angela Alston of Detroit, who has been awarded a contract to install office equipment for the city.

Kevin Johnson, president and CEO of the DEGC, said Monday he hopes to hold another summit in late summer or early fall.

Among the organizations available to help business owners were funding institutions, various city of Detroit departments, TechTown and accounting services. The businesses represented ranged from startups to longstanding businesses. Among the sectors were mobility, retail, childcare and beauty services.

In a welcome to event attendees, Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist spoke of the numerous funding opportunities the state has made available for small businesses, including 23 support programs to help 25,000 small businesses across the state.

In addition, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has proposed a $2.1 billion MI New Economy program that would help Michigan's middle class and support small businesses and $500 million in Michigan Mainstreet Initiative grants for restaurants, event venues, personal service organizations and micro businesses.

Gilchrist said the well-intentioned federal Paycheck Protection Program excluded businesses with fewer than nine employees.

“In Michigan, 94% of businesses that are started by Black people have fewer than nine employees,” Gilchrist said. “There was a structural ineligibility, that was a structural inequity."

In response, the state created a $125 million micro enterprise support program for those businesses with fewer than nine employees, as well as for new businesses.

“We want people to be successful in Michigan,” Gilchrist said. “We’re willing to put our money where our mouth is.”

Achsha Jones, owner of Trip Slip, discusses her business during our interview at the Detroit Means Business inaugural Small Business Summit.

Among the micro business operators in attendance Monday was Achsha Jones, founder of Trip Slip, a tech company that creates digital field trip permission slips and related services.

Jones said she’s applying for grants and is receiving help from TechTown to help expand her business and develop an app for iOS and Google Play. 

"As a CEO and founder, I'm the only employee," she said. "All of this I do out of my own pocket. All by myself. I'm the IT person, the customer service rep person, the sale person, all of the above. What I'm doing now is applying for a lot of grants, a lot of programs, accelerators to be able to give us money to do this ... to help bring somebody else on who can help me expand the program and build it out."

Jones said she was pleased to attend an in-person event and have access to resource organizations. She spoke with a technical assistance firm, Proxie and marketing agency, Coates Communications. 

"There's a lot that can happen over Zoom, there's a lot that can happen over phone calls and email and messaging, but it's nothing like having a one-off conversation, a face-to-face interaction with people," she said. 

Latricia Wilder, owner of a group fitness business, The Vibe Ride Detroit, said she had some challenges in finding a space to open her studio, which offers cycling, pilates and other services in a high-tech environment. Months after she opened in 2019, the pandemic hit and the studio was shut down for nearly a year, she said.

Wilder, a member of Detroit Means Business’ small business owner advocates, said with support from fellow advocates and her landlord, Bedrock, she was able to avoid  permanent closure.

“It’s still an uphill battle,” she said. “There are so many people out there like me if they haven’t closed already.”

Wilder said she was hopeful to see so many business owners at the event.

“There’s so many businesses that don’t have access,” she said. “I was one of them. And then you start meeting the right people who know the right things. It shouldn’t just be that if you happen to meet the right people. It should be equal to access to everyone. That is what this is. That is why it’s so hopeful.

"I’m excited to see this continue to happen annually and people continue to get more and more information. That’s the only way small businesses will survive," she said. "And Detroit was built on the backs of working class, small businesses, blue collar people. It’s beautiful to see the city is recognizing that.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN