Are Entrepreneurs (i.e. White People) Bad for Detroit?

Downtown Detroit, Detroit, motor city, Jason Lorimer, Dandelion, Dan gilbert, Phillip Cooley, Coleman Young, Kwame Kilpatrick, social enterprise, Leon Kaye
Downtown Detroit (Leon Kaye)

It is easy at first to become depressed about Detroit: the cratering population, diminished automotive sector and swathes of empty homes and buildings. At the same time, the Motor City is showing green shoots of rebirth with sustainable businesses, tech startups, massive reinvestment downtown and the influx of young workers looking for a new and different life experience.

Speaking of the new entrepreneurs arriving in town, Jason Lorimer sparked quite the buzz a week ago with an op-ed in which he waxed philosophical about the city’s potential. Unfortunately, his essay was laden with heaps of jargon and cliches more appropriate for a graduate course in sustainable business or social enterprise. Lorimer’s cloddish essay, in turn, inspired White Entrepreneurial Guy Detroit, a Facebook-based meme that at first was good fun and silly satire before it devolved into rabid bitterness.

So do these entrepreneurs, many of them white, who are moving into Detroit really get the problems of a city with a population that is 83 percent black? Are they really going to be part of the solution, or are they in it for themselves while turning their back on the huge structural problems Detroit now confronts?

Lorimer did fall into this trap–perhaps on purpose to score some exposure for himself and his startup–by his trail of digital dysentery over all the “good” he and his firm, Dandelion, was going to do without diving into specifics. True, those who define themselves as “social entrepreneurs,” or by a similar term, can come across as smarmy and self-important, consumed by their belief they can swoop into a city and inspire change just because they are being . . . themselves.

White Entrepreneurial Guy Detroit, Facebook
White Entrepreneurial Guy Detroit (on Facebook)

But the stubborn fact is that Lorimer, Dan Gilbert and Phillip Cooley did not have to invest in Detroit. Plenty of other cities, or suburbs, would have gladly benefitted from having them in town. So what if a 10-person consultancy or a barbecue restaurant is not enough to solve the problems of horrid schools, sclerotic bureaucracy or pot-holed-filled streets? The results are still dozens more employees hired and two more businesses launched than by the crowd taking potshots at Lorimer, et al.

Never mind the fact Detroit, in part, fell into its difficulties by electing buffoons such as Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick–or the all-too-typical stories of white flight during the 1950s and 1960s that, in turn, helped sow the seeds of many American cities’ decline. Now people, either professional, creative, or both–are moving back into urban areas because they enjoy the benefits of living in a city’s center core.

In addition, these “white entrepreneurial guys” are moving into Detroit because the city still has the bones to support a thriving community: universities churning out graduates, great buildings that need some (or a lot) of TLC and access to one of America’s most beautiful states with its endless recreation and outdoor offerings. Where they aren’t moving to are regions still pockmarked by the ongoing foreclosure crisis, such as the suburban areas of Nevada, California, Arizona and Florida.

Finally, the assumptions many of those on the “White Entrepreneurial Guy” bandwagon make are that every entrepreneur (in the old days people said “businessman” or “businesswoman”) is a clueless white person, or privileged, is absurd. Many of the most adroit entrepreneurs have such an affliction for a simple reason: they had to be because of the circumstances in which they grew up. And wanting to give a struggling city a chance is hardly a reason for someone to take offense. Incidentally, many of the comments on the various blogs defending or giving Lorimer a pass are long-time Detroit residents.

Satire can be brilliant and cheeky fun because it reveals elements of truth about a controversy, but it can also delve into bitterness: in the case of the crowd mocking Lorimer, it is masking the fact that they do not have a better idea and would rather attack someone who’s hustling and making a difference simply by investing in a city and people. And for a city with almost no people, a hundred Lorimers are better than the current alternative, which is no one moving into Detroit and giving the city yet another chance.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. At Better4Business in Anaheim on May 2, he will join a panel discussing how companies can present their CSR initiatives to the media. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Leon Kaye]

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

6 responses

  1. Ha! So silly. I really enjoy visiting detroit but this self-defeatest attitude is sadly prevalent – especially in the suburbs where people fear Detroit like monsters live there…

  2. I think it’s easy to misinterpret the frustration that lead to the popularity of White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy. It isn’t that new business isn’t valued, gentrification is an imminent danger to the majority of city’s inhabitants. And rather than exploiting the economic situation of the city, we need to keep in mind the citizens that did not flee, that are populating the schools, the poor neighborhoods, and keep the reality of the city in mind. As Detroit “comes back” we need to rise up together economically, not just business by business, new refurbished apartment building by new refurbished apartment building, leaving the families and the schools behind, or worse, pushed to a new impoverished area. Those who can move into a city and within the same year start a business should be hyper sensitive of both their privilege and of the impact they make.

    1. Help yourselves and don’t turn your nose up at anybody who is a positive influence in this disaster. Go ahead and insist that everyone has to be helped equally and you will continue down the current decline. This is not a socialist state

      1. AMEN Mark… I think you nailed it. Detroit has wallowed in self pity for so long many detroiters can’t see the forest for the trees. Hope to see this finally start changing.

  3. Detroit has so many problems (e.g., see below) that it’s absurd to denigrate people who want to move there if they’re not hurting anyone else.

    @ActionOrientedMark and @DavidSaulson sound like the other side of the rotten coin that scoffs at entrepreneurs. So-last-century red-baiting doesn’t lead to progress. It’s people, planet, and profit – not selfishness.

    ACLU: Detroit Police Dumping Homeless People Outside City

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