Ross School to boost neighborhood entrepreneurs in Detroit

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The University of Michigan’s Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project, which has helped nearly 700 small businesses since its introduction in 2016, has moved to the Stephen M. Ross School of Business from its longtime home at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

The move better connects Detroit’s budding businesses to all the entrepreneurial offerings available at one of the country’s premier business schools, said Christie Ayotte Baer, managing director of DNEP.

“DNEP was successfully incubated at the Ford School as a race/wealth gap intervention as about 90% of the businesses we work with are minority-owned. Ford gave us an economic and community development lens for our work,” she said.

“As the program grew, it made sense to shift the focus to tapping greater entrepreneurship expertise, and move to the Ross School. Plus, our accounting services and our summer internship program both originated at Ross and are housed at Ross.”

The Ross School is highly rated for its entrepreneurship programs and runs the Impact Studio, an incubator focused on student-led impact businesses. It is home to an award-winning graduate course focused on spawning green businesses in Detroit, and hosts a DNEP/Impact Studio summer internship program that supports Detroit businesses.

Jerry Davis, faculty director for Business+Impact at Ross, said that as DNEP has grown, its contribution to the Ross School has as well. For several years, DNEP has been sourcing clients in Detroit for various classes.

“So, it made perfect sense to relocate DNEP to the Business+Impact unit at Ross to continue its great work,” said Davis, also the Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Business Administration and professor of business in the Ross School, and professor of sociology in LSA.

The program has always been a collaborative effort involving faculty from Ford, Ross and other schools, as well as students from across campus. This includes those from the College of Engineering, Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, Law School and School of Information.

“We try to stay with businesses until they can afford to hire professional staff. We want to help them with accounting, legal, business strategy, marketing — whatever they need,” Baer said.

As part of the move, she said, the program plans to expand the number of supervising faculty to boost its capacity to serve Detroiters and give more students hands-on experience in Detroit.

“An important part of doing this work is recognizing our role,” Baer said. “We tell students that as consultants we are never Player 1. The business owner is the hero of the story always. But we can be really important nonplayer characters who help the hero succeed.”

In recent years, the program has focused on specific neighborhoods including Jefferson Chalmers, Southwest and Six Mile/Livernois. Part of that work is to recruit businesses to those neighborhoods.

Lutalo Sanifu, director of Neighborhood Resilience, Safety & Business District Services for Jefferson East Inc., said he’s excited about the Ross connection.

Jefferson East has worked with DNEP for several years and has a strong relationship, he said.

“We appreciate the value that’s added to our business owners when they get to sit with a team from DNEP and really dive into their business and figure out what could be done to improve it,” Sanifu said.

“Most of our business owners are microbusiness owners or solopreneurs, if you will. Having extra minds at the table to help build out their process is critical to their success.”

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