City as a Startup: Detroit

Earlier this month, we kicked off fall in true VFA fashion—hosting our second annual City as a Startup conference in Detroit. For one day, Fellows, team members, entrepreneurs, and civic leaders gathered at Wayne State University to talk urban development, emerging technology, and working together to build things.

CasS was a one day event that packed a serious punch. Attendees heard from a wide variety of speakers:

  • Mike Duggan, the mayor of Detroit, with Andrew Yang and Rip Rapson, the President & CEO of The Kresge Foundation, discussing how philanthropy and the government can work together 
  • Pashon Murray, the founder of Detroit Dirt—a compost company working to turn forgotten parcels of land in Detroit into urban farms—with a panel of Detroit entrepreneurs building pro-social companies 
  • Melissa Withers, the Managing Director of Betaspring, a Providence-based accelerator and one of our Company Partners, with other tech leaders working to build entrepreneurial hubs in their cities 
  • Dan Senor, author of Start-Up Nation, on what makes Israel such a fertile place for founding new ventures
  • Jerry Paffendorf, the Co-Founder & CEO of LOVELAND Technologies, on his ongoing project to map every parcel of land in Detroit—and eventually, the world

And that’s just a handful—if you’re curious about the full lineup, check out our online program.

But the biggest highlight for us? Watching our Fellows take the stage.

sean jackson dan gilbert

2013 Fellow Sean Jackson interviewed Dan Gilbert, the Chairman & CEO of Quicken and Rock Ventures, about the history and future of Detroit, and what it takes to start a company there today. “I bet on the jockey, not the horse,” Dan said—he looks for people with the grit and resilience to fall and get back up again. Sean’s been working with Dan at Rock Ventures since joining VFA in 2013, taking on projects from surveying all of Detroit’s land parcels to turning an unused downtown alley into a mini art gallery.

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Edie Feinstein ’12 of Dinner Lab spoke with Matt Bonoma, the General Manager of Red Idea Partners, and Brian Rudolph ’12, the Co-founder of Banza, a chickpea pasta company, about food, entrepreneurship, and why Soylent will never replace a real meal. “You shouldn’t look at food as just sustenance,” Brian said. “You need to take time to live.”

max panel

Max Nussenbaum ’12, the Co-founder and CEO of Castle, a property management startup, joined a panel of founders who have launched Detroit-based companies in the last few years. The panel included Anya Babbitt, the Founder & CEO of SPLT (pictured with Max above), and Reid Tatoris, the Co-founder & COO of Are You a Human, the company where Max spent his Fellowship. They discussed the Detroit startup landscape and how to draw the right talent to the city—and find the talent already there. 

fellow speakers

Finally, we heard from Kate Catlin ’13 about why she views cities as a form of code; Max Walters ’13 on how to increase young people’s civic engagement; Peter DiPrinzio ’13 on his work in Baltimore, and how to keep the needs of the community in mind; and Jacob Robinson ’14 on how hustling hard can create opportunities for others—something he learned firsthand.

Other highlights from our trip to Detroit? Visiting the amazing underground offices of our Company Partner dPOP!, a walking tour of Downtown courtesy our very own Sean Jackson, and most of all, catching up with Fellows from all over the country. 

We came away from CaaS inspired, informed, and eager for next year. Keep an eye on our blog in the next few weeks for videos from the conference!

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