"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," President Obama's then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is reported to have said of the 2008 meltdown of the financial sector. And perhaps what's true for world leaders stands, on a smaller scale, for young, aspiring entrepreneurs: in crisis lurks opportunity.
That's what new initiative Challenge Detroit is betting on. It's hoping to lure 30 graduates with entrepreneurial dreams and a willingness to muck in and get their hands dirty to revitalize troubled Detroit. The program, which is accepting applications now, will offer those selected a $500 a month housing stipend, a $30,000 salary to work at a top Detroit company. They'll have organized social and cultural events, and monthly team challenges in exchange for a year of participation in the city's hoped for transformation from poster child of urban dysfunction to rejuvenated metropolis. All you need to apply is a degree and a willingness to work, said Deirdre Greene Groves, executive director of Challenge Detroit.
"There's really one main qualifier and that is that they have a bachelor's degree," she said. "Other than that, I'd say the most important thing is that these individuals are creative, that they're innovative and that they're entrepreneurial in their thinking." But why would anyone sign up to move to Detroit?
Despite downtown having what the New York Times described as "a thriving youth culture" (and houses in the region recently selling for as little as $6,000), for many people the place comes freighted with unpleasant associations—unemployment, urban blight, bad weather and yes, even Eminem—that might not immediately appeal to a dynamic young person looking for a locale to call home. So I asked Greene Groves whether the scene in the city had much to offer a recent grad with big ambitions. She answered from personal experience, noting the Detroit's less than stellar reputation can actually be an advantage for young people looking for opportunities to really contribute:
I'm not 30 yet, so I'm part of that environment. It's really unique in Detroit because there are opportunities that the government, private investors, companies and individuals are really supporting. Lots of folks are rallying around the young professional community because they see this is the next generation of leadership.
We want to find tomorrow's leaders to participate in this program because we have these opportunities right now and, God willing, five years from now, ten years from now, Detroit is going to be a place that people are just clamoring to be a part of. I often say to my friends that my job would not exist anywhere else. As a young person, to be a leader of an organization like this, I couldn't do that in Chicago or New York. This is something that's really special about Detroit. You can do a lot and people will listen to what young folks have to say.
The city might be in such a state that institutions of all types feel it's necessary to throw resources at it, creating opportunities for young entrepreneurs who won't have to compete with as crowded a field as they'd find in New York or Silicon Valley, but that doesn't exactly solve the problem of what to do on a Saturday night. Socially, is the city a dreary place to call home? Greene Groves stresses that Challenge Detroit isn't just for dower do-gooders. Challenge Detroit is about playing in Detroit as well as working there.
"Playing," says Greene Groves, "is really important because young people are not just looking for a great job. They're looking for that holistic lifestyle and part of that is being socially and culturally engaged. That's a unique side of Detroit—a lot of it's under the radar. There are some really great bars, galleries and places to go that not everyone knows about. There are also a lot of wonderful institutions like the Detroit Institute of Arts that are just amazing. We want to make sure that our participants see all the things that make it special."
There's no guarantee of a job after the program finishes for participants, nor any obligation for them to stay on in the city, but Greene Groves hopes that spending a year in Detroit will help convince participants to build longer-term ties to the city. "I believe that a lot of these individuals after this year will say: 'You know I want to start my own business and this is a great place to do it,'" she says, "so we'll connect them with some of our partners in the city. They will be introduced to lots and lots of local leaders, influencers and does. Our hope and my belief is these people will want to stay here," she says.
"This is a year of really being an influence and a change maker in an amazing city that's really at the forefront of the revitalization efforts in our entire country," says Greene Groves concluding her pitch for the program, ending with a paraphrase of the Michigan governor's pitch for Motor City: "Yeah, you can go to another city, but if you want to make a difference, come to Detroit."