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Cities Startup Culture

How Detroit Turned Me into a Coder and Entrepreneur

In anticipation of our Techonomy Detroit conference on September 16, we are profiling Detroit-area tech startups and entrepreneurs that are driving the city’s re-emergence as a center of innovation. (To register for the conference, click here.)

There are three things happening in my life right now that, frankly, would have shocked the college-aged Kate Catlin:

  • I live in Detroit.
  • I’m being trained as a coder.
  • I’m starting a tech company.

All through college I was a gregarious environmental activist living in Washington State and happily climbing mountains every weekend. I dreamed of traveling abroad and leading political campaigns, or maybe a “social enterprise” like TOMS shoes.  It almost gives me whiplash to look around now and ask, “What just happened?”

37d70cbHow did I get to Detroit?

There is no way I’d be in Detroit if not for Venture for America, a program in which young people spend two years in the startup trenches in lower-cost cities (e.g., Detroit, Providence, New Orleans). The goal is that fellows become “socialized and mobilized as entrepreneurs moving forward.” After being accepted as a fellow, I interviewed with several Venture for America-approved companies across the country and one, called Grand Circus, caught my eye. A member of the Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub Network, Grand Circus is a Detroit startup that promotes tech startups in the city while providing tech trainings for all skill levels.

I accepted their job offer and moved to the Motor City.

I’m learning to code?

Joining Grand Circus was an incredible opportunity: I got to help open the doors of a business, set up operational structures, and create new programs with Google’s backing. Being surrounded by tech people, I came to the unsurprising conclusion that the stereotypes were wrong: Coders are actually cool and socially skilled people, not just weird dudes with comic-book tee shirts. I could actually see myself as one of them.

After a year of selling other people on pursuing tech careers through Grand Circus classes, I accidentally sold myself. I took a 3-day “Learn to Code” workshop at Grand Circus, then a 10-week “Build a Dynamic Website” course. Someone recently told me that coding is like a superpower: You have the power to create anything you can dream of with just your mind and your fingers. I was increasingly hooked.

Then, out of nowhere, another unbelievable Detroit opportunity turned up: The Detroit Labs Apprenticeship program. I heard about it from another Venture for America Fellow working there. Over 3 months, 10 lucky folks will be trained as mobile app developers with no background necessary. It not only costs nothing; they actually pay you a salary while you’re training. If you pass, you’re accepted as full-time developer for the company. Detroit Labs, which “dreams up and ships beautiful, intuitive apps,” simply has so much business that they can’t find enough coders and have invested in solving their own problems. After an interview process even more rigorous than Venture for America’s, I somehow got in.

I’m starting a tech company?

Suddenly I was comfortable in the forbidden realm of anything-tech-related. Meanwhile, Venture for America was launching another round of staff-supported crowdfunding campaigns for current fellows. The timing was too serendipitous to ignore. I’d always been passionate about small businesses, and now was becoming increasingly fascinated by the idea of using technology to help them achieve economies of scale. I launched, with Venture for America’s backing, a crowdfunding campaign on Rockethub.com to create what I’m calling Assembly of Commerce. It will be a Web platform for small businesses to band together and rent each other tools and talent. I reached my funding goal of $3,000 in just four days, and had nearly doubled the number by the end of the campaign. Much of the financial backing came through the Venture for America network.

I’m now in the process of interviewing potential customers with the design thinking that Venture for America taught me. I hope for an early 2015 launch.

How much did Venture for America have to do with this?

All of it. I never would have moved to Detroit if not for this program. I never would have met all the open-hearted Midwesterners I now call friends. I never would have gotten to work at a Google Tech Hub without the VFA stamp of approval. I never would have heard about other invaluable opportunities in this city—opportunities that don’t really exist elsewhere. I especially would not be launching a tech company. This program has literally changed my life.

Kate Catlin is a Seattle native, proud Gonzaga University grad, and 2013 Venture for America Fellow.

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