By Myles Morgan and Justine Sheu
Evolve Lifestyle Group is a collective of social entrepreneurs who create disruptive solutions to urban problems. Their projects include PRO:UP, a web and mobile app that connects youth, educators and opportunity providers through a social platform; and EnACT Your Future, Inc., an ACT prep and college advising service designed to meet the needs of urban youth.
We’ll be the first to admit it: we are an unlikely trio of entrepreneurs. Two of us are black men who grew up in Detroit, left for college, and returned to the city. Two of us are young adults who dropped out of college due to a lack of guidance. Two of us are college advisors devoted to pushing opportunities to high school students and pushing students out of the hood. Together, we are all advocates of urban youth who share a vision and a drive. All of us are angry at the state of education and inspired by the experiences of disempowered people. All of us are aspiring to change the culture in positive ways. All of us believe that true social change emerges from self-refinement. And by some synchronistic happenstance, the forces of the universe drew us together to envision a better future.
Frustration = Inspiration
Before we knew anything about the world of business, we started with an idea. Truly, we were inspired by the stories of our students. We were all too familiar with the countless struggles they faced, with the overwhelming inadequacy of the educational system, and with the knowledge that opportunities existed that could change our students’ lives that they just didn’t know about. For each student we connected to a life-changing opportunity, there were hundreds more who fell through the cracks, who remained convinced that their local reality was the only one that existed. And the painful fact we faced was one that most counselors share: We had too many students and too many responsibilities to be able to connect everyone to a meaningful opportunity.
From our own frustrations as college advisors, the idea for our mobile app, Evolve Lifestyle Group, was born. What if there was a way to connect local youth to all the opportunities that exist in city—enrichment programs, internships, mentors—in an efficient and personalized channel? What if we could build an app to collect and deliver this information to every student? What if, using technology, we could create an infrastructure to maximize the collective impact of all the organizations in the city? With nothing more than a sprawling-but-shared vision, we submitted our very first business model to the 2014 DTX Launch Detroit summer accelerator program at TechTown Detroit—and were accepted.
“Hope to fail, and fail fast.”
Officially, DTX Launch Detroit is a 10-week summer accelerator for college students and recent graduates aspiring to launch a technology startup. But for us, it was the most grueling, rewarding and life-changing grind we’ve experienced in our quarter-century of existence. Sitting in a room full of peers on the first day, we listened to each of our coaches introduce themselves and offer Tweet-sized bites of advice. One line struck us most: “Hope to fail, and fail fast.”
The sudden static of awkward shuffling did not go unnoticed. What did they mean by fail fast? Only later did we realize that our coaches were instilling us with the mindset of using failure to sharpen ourselves and our ideas. (In business-speak: to validate our business models.) This is a lesson we do not often share with youth, but it is central to our team values and a necessity for entrepreneurs: Evolve everyday through failure. Over the next 10 weeks, we learned the meaning of failing fast by talking to over 100 potential customers, from students to counselors to administrators, about their pains and experiences. Our assumptions were challenged and often overturned. Each time we thought we had cracked the code, we would present our new model to our coaches and peers, only to realize we had to go back to the drawing board.
Along the way, we endured candid criticism, relentlessly refined our business model, and learned by doing. The many connections we made within the community and with our peers renewed our motivation. Our tireless coaches supported, advised, and pushed us every step of the way, even when it (often) meant Slack messaging about our presentation at 11 p.m. Three months down the line, we have an evolving business model, a basic prototype, and a framework for identifying problems and designing solutions. Most humbling of all, we left our final showcase with the George Orley Social Impact Award and an amazingly supportive network of educators, entrepreneurs and mentors. In just 10 weeks, the Detroit Technology Exchange program gave us the much-needed energy, framework and focus to bring our idea to life.
“A single experience can change the entire trajectory of a person’s life.”
As we prepare to enter incubation, TechTown has continued to connect us with the resources we need to realize our vision. We often tell our students that exposure is everything—a single experience can change the entire trajectory of a person’s life. DTX Launch Detroit has provided our new company with that very experience. It has transformed us from idealists with a vision to social entrepreneurs with a mission. Through our app, we intend to connect countless others with the experiences they need to do the same. After all, this is part of the ethos of Detroit. We recognize that a true revitalization of the city means connecting all residents to the resources and opportunities that are emerging. It may be a long time coming, but it all starts with a small ecosystem of people working together to evolve themselves and evolve Detroit.
DTX, the Detroit Technology Exchange, is a programmatic partnership between TechTown Detroit, Bizdom, Invest Detroit and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center. It is supported by the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Michigan Strategic Fund and the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan. DTX is a sponsor of the Sept. 16 Techonomy Detroit conference.