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This Native Detroiter Feels the Pull of Home

"Turbo Charging Detroit's Techonomy," with (from left) David Kirkpatrick, Jack Dorsey, Scott Moloney, Catherine Kelly, Alex Southern (all photos by Asa Mathat)

From left, David Kirkpatrick, Jack Dorsey, Scott Moloney, Catherine Kelly, and Alex Southern at Techonomy Detroit 2013 (photo by Asa Mathat)

In the days since Techonomy Detroit, I’m more hopeful about my hometown than I have been since I left for New York to go to Columbia University 30 years ago. Yet before I headed to the conference, when I joked with media and tech pals that I was on my way to “the Paris of Southeastern Michigan,” I’d get a laugh or a look of grave concern. In their eyes, a place I love was a disaster zone, a dear family member on the critical list.

I’ve lived in New York since I left for college, but I still refer to myself as a “child of The Motor.” To say so means to me that I have street cred. It means I am from the land of Motown, Iggy Pop, and the White Stripes. Like the prideful Chrysler ad campaign starring Eminem that launched during the 2012 Super Bowl, I’m “imported from Detroit.”

The challenges confronting the city are enormous. Yet, in keeping with the message of Techonomy Detroit, those challenges are overwhelmed by the opportunity for reinvention and rebirth.

Front and center at the conference were extremely successful entrepreneurs with plenty of options who are now betting on Motown. At the top of the list is Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who has moved all his ventures to downtown Detroit, bringing 6,500 jobs with him. Gilbert spoke passionately about Detroit’s unique ecosystem and why he’s happily made it his corporate home.

When Venture for America’s founder and CEO Andrew Yang spoke about how Detroit came in near the top of the list of where budding entrepreneurs from the country’s best universities want him to place them, it made perfect sense. Why sit on a beach in Silicon Valley, or a bench in Silicon Alley, when you can be an entrepreneurial freshman with an open field in front of you? I mean this literally, not as a metaphor. That’s one measure of the scope of the challenge facing Detroit.

During the City Re-Vision session, an audience member asked for examples of cities in other parts of the world that had faced such devastation and could offer a road map to recovery. Bruce J. Katz of the Brookings Institution mentioned Dresden, the industrial East German city that faced a serious crisis after the Berlin Wall came down and it suffered a brain and capital drain to prosperous West Germany. What an apt example, I thought, remembering Kurt Vonnegut’s classic “Slaughterhouse Five,” a semi-autobiographical account of a P.O.W. trapped in an actual slaughterhouse while Dresden is firebombed to cinders during World War II. Through a concerted effort from government and the private sector, Dresden has experienced tremendous growth and become a vibrant industrial center again.

Still resonating are words from Catherine Kelly, the publisher of The Michigan Citizen, a newspaper targeted at the African-American Community that was founded by her father 35 years ago. Not only is she facing the challenges of all newspapers in the digital age, but much of her audience is poor, and finding advertising revenue is an uphill battle for her. She was on a panel moderated by Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick and Square CEO Jack Dorsey. Kelly understands she can deploy social media tools and other digital strategies to build her business, but the day-to-day challenge of keeping the lights on make it tough to find ways to integrate innovation into her business. My hunch is that others in Detroit’s growing startup culture, many of whom were in that auditorium on the campus of Wayne State University, will see her efforts as an inspiring example of perseverance.

I had a lunchtime conversation with Brian Mulloy, who spoke in a session about Detroit’s infrastructure. The co-founder and CTO of the Palo Alto-based mobile app company Apigee, Mulloy recently decided to return to his native Detroit to open an Apigee satellite office. Mulloy and his wife Stacey sold their place in a posh San Francisco neighborhood and plunked down $100,000 for a mixed-use fixer-upper in Corktown, Detroit’s burgeoning hipster neighborhood. Think of being a pioneer in Williamsburg or Dumbo 20 years ago. “I think I’m making a pretty good bet,” said Mulloy, who is also an amateur Detroit historian. “It certainly makes sense for our business. In Silicon Valley, I’m competing against Google, Oracle, and Apple for talent. Here, there are so many quality people who want to work, to be part of something. I get the pick of the litter in an afternoon, no problem.”

Mulloy was one of a handful of people I spoke to who said: “When are you coming back? We need you.” I used to think never. When I left for college, I couldn’t put the pedal to the metal fast enough to head East. Since Techonomy Detroit, I’ve been thinking: “You never know.”

You can follow J. Max Robins on Twitter @jmaxrobins.

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