Howes: Rotary helps entrepreneurs launch Detroit dreams
Detroit – Brianna Williams' road to having her own shop on the city's Avenue of Fashion began 14 years ago with G-strings.
For male dancers, that is, who paid her seamstress mother good money for hand-sewn costumes. To help out, 12-year-old Brianna would sew 10 G-strings per day at $15 apiece — something she says she never actually saw in use until she was 21.
Entrepreneur? You bet. Now 26, Williams runs her DCreated Boutique on Livernois, just north of Seven Mile. The smart shop features custom hand-crafted baby clothes and the imprimatur of a Rotary-sponsored micro-loan program dubbed "Launch Detroit."
"We've been in business for four years now," says Williams, who used a $2,500 loan from Launch Detroit to renovate her retail space a year ago with cheery paint, new fixtures and refinished wood floors. "I stretched every penny. I stretched it.
"I haven't cleared profit yet," she adds, looking onto a section of Livernois featuring art galleries, bistros and shops selling eco-friendly goods. "It depends on your customer base, your location and your product."
Understanding that and more are key to Detroit's expanding network of entrepreneurial capital efforts. From Goldman Sach Inc.'s "10,000 Small Businesses" initiative to JPMorgan Chase & Co. Inc.'s $100 million commitment, Launch Detroit is the latest to leverage donated capital in support of profit-making urban business.
The new program of Rotary District 6400, with 48 clubs in southeast Michigan and southwest Ontario, envisions doing more than providing small business loans to budding Detroit entrepreneurs.
It aims to build relationships between its business-owning volunteers and fledgling Detroit businesses who hire Detroiters. It's partnering with Baker College's Allen Park campus to offer classes in entrepreneurship, accounting, management and how to identify a target audience.
"We're a low-doc kind of organization," says Larry Wright, president of Launch Detroit and owner of Wright's Landscape Services in Brownstown Township. "We need more resources to ramp up. We want to get the finances expanded."
The program has issued 18 loans so far, ranging from $1,000 to $2,500. Baker College, the Presbytery of Detroit and the Michigan Women's Foundation are among backers of a program that is as much about building entrepreneurial credibility as credit-worthiness.
"We're not doing the background or credit check," says Wright, a former district governor of Rotary. "We do an interview."
So far, they're making the right calls — loans are being paid back, and entrepreneurs like Willie Brake are coming back for seconds. Talk with him, as several Rotarians and I did on a recent Friday, and you hear a business guy who understands his market and its potential.
"I went where the opportunity was," says Brake, the president and CEO. He opened his All About Technology Inc. computer retail and repair shop in January on the ground floor of a renovated apartment building on Michigan Avenue in southwest Detroit.
"I knew we could make a bigger impact in this market, so I said, 'let's come here first.' There's a lot of opportunity in southwest. People need access to affordable computer repair in the city. I have a leg up — for now."
His start came in 2001, when he would repair computers from the back of his car. Seven years later, Brake moved to Russell Trade Center; expanded into a second booth there for training; and looked for a chance to open a retail store front.
He landed on Michigan Avenue. Already, he says, the business is profitable; and walk-in traffic suggests pent-up demand for local repairs and electronic goods otherwise mostly available only at big box stores.
"There was a real need for the services that we have to offer," he says. Launch Detroit "gave us the foundation to launch our retail business. Marketing is our challenge. We're trying to get the word out that we're in the community."
None of this is particularly front-page news in a town whose bellwether industry and whose City Hall are the nation's twin epicenters of restructuring and reinvention. Auto bankruptcies, a municipal Chapter 9 and the Dan Gilbert-led rush to recast downtown are powerful levers in the unfolding Detroit story.
But they are not the only ones. It's in the neighborhoods where entrepreneurs like Brianna Williams and Willie Brake can use a little help to fulfill their dreams, make a difference and launch something meaningful in Detroit.
That matters, too — a lot.
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.