Memphis to Detroit

I have always looked to other Cities to provide perspective for economic development work. While I was working in Detroit, we regularly drew ideas and inspiration from Cities a little farther ahead than us. We weren’t traveling to Silicon Valley or Austin, places where we could not possibly see or conceive ourselves mirroring. Instead, we went to other post-industrial cities, like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, who had gone through similar struggles and had begun to see their way to the other side. Those visits were both instructive and inspiring. When you’re in the midst of work, you don’t necessarily see where the work is going; but when you lift yourself up from the day-to-day and visit another place, it becomes much more clear. 

Three full years into our work at Epicenter, we had come to the place where we needed this perspective. I wanted my team to see and hear how communities in Detroit were interacting with each other and how relationships were built. I wanted them to see that the relationships weren’t always strong, and hear how conflict was addressed. I wanted them to see a glimpse of where our work is going. 

So, we did just that. We planned round-table conversations, site visits, and community conversations with economic development players in Detroit. We had a roundtable with CDFIs, venture investors, and angel investors talking about capital stacking. We hosted a table with Henry Ford, NextEnergy, and TechTown, talking about innovation in the tech space. We had a table of entrepreneurs talking about what it feels like to interface with community. We had conversations with folks leading coworking spaces, who went from having one active coworking space to dozens. If you had told me in 2008, we would have rooms full of people talking about tech innovation, capital stacking, coworking, food entrepreneurship, and community engagement, I may not have believed you. We went from one organization, TechTown, to literally conference rooms full of folks driving entrepreneurship forward. 

We must draw stronger connections between our individual work and the work taking place in entrepreneurship nationally. We must see the reality that economic development is a broader practice seeking to solve systemic issues across American cities, and that while we seek to address the poverty, economic disparity, and wealth disparity in Memphis, our work has implications beyond Memphis. We must hold to that perspective to provide context for our work. We must keep hope that we can create economic vibrancy alongside Cities across our nation. 

We have to work beyond convening and imagining. We must also learn from our mistakes and move with the changing landscape.  We must try new things, and evolve the old.  We must acknowledge when things don’t create the change we want to see in our communities and stop doing them, without apology. The world changes and so must our work.  We cannot run ineffective programs and hope for effective outcomes.  We, like our entrepreneurial heroes, have to iterate and pivot.  And recognize that beyond responsiveness, there is an urgency for/to change. We have to evolve the way we behave. 

Whether we like it or not, systems-based work begins with individual people. True collaboration means absolute accountability mixed with absolute selflessness. A part of how we build a strong entrepreneurship ecosystem is the same way we build a strong economy: by sharing the talents, resources and influence we possess.  We have to model what we want to see in the economy in our work. If we are not willing to try new things, fail at some of them, acknowledge imperfection, distribute resources and transfer power, we will never be successful at building the movement and economy we so deeply desire for Memphis. 

And so, we must continue to learn from our neighbors in other Cities. We must keep conversations going to share best practices, challenges, and struggles. We must accept that our entrepreneurship movement in Memphis is connected to entrepreneurship movements across the country. We must realize we are not alone. And we must keep going. 

Jonel Turner