As a millennial approaching the starting line of the workforce I am faced with a lot of questions. What’s your next step? What do you want to do with the rest of your life? Where will you go after college? The go-to batch of questions we are asked by virtually everyone around us are perhaps even more noticeable when we are unsure of the answers. One question I can say that I’ve never been asked before is, “what is your definition of opportunity?” Before starting my internship in downtown Detroit, I hadn’t put much thought into the meaning of the word opportunity. I did not weigh in the possibilities of what opportunity could and could not be. I had not thought of the word “opportunity” as another word for “chance” or “circumstance”. In two short months, I have quickly realized that the reason for this was simply because, before my summer in Detroit, I did not know the meaning of opportunity had the potential to be what I now know it is. I’ve longed for that ah-ha moment of where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to do with my life, but I wasn’t in downtown Detroit, so I didn’t see it. I didn’t hear it. I couldn’t feel it.
I watched Steve Case, co-founder and former CEO of AOL and founder of Revolution, arrive in his Rise of the Rest bus last week outside the M@dison Building downtown, prepared for a day of touring Detroit and meeting with ten startup companies, all competing for a chance to win a grand prize of $100,000 from Steve, personally. To the founder of a startup, that prize is not just a monumental step forward in bringing their company to life, but to be considered by one of the greatest entrepreneurs of our time worthy of an investment is a once in a lifetime honor in itself. This was the chance for another startup in Detroit to be recognized for the hard work and sleepless nights and be given the chance to bring their idea to life.
Last week, the Rise of the Rest tour made its journey to a few cities that may not be top-of -mind as tech startup communities just yet. The tour started in Detroit, then on to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and ended in Nashville. I know what you’re thinking…Why not Silicon Valley? Did he forget about Boston? New York? Why go to a city in the midst of bankruptcy of all places? Steve knew he could expect these questions and that was the main premise of the tour- shine a spotlight on these emerging startup communities and give promising entrepreneurs the means to move forward in their goals. To help us understand his rationale, Steve quoted President John F. Kennedy by saying; “We choose to go to the moon and do other things today not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
The day was action packed. After a morning of being welcomed by Mayor Duggan, Governor Snyder and Dan Gilbert, Steve Case and the Rise of the Rest team went on to witness the vibrant entrepreneurial community and growing businesses in our city. In just one day, they met with countless business people, participated in multiple media interviews, toured buildings, witnessed five-minute business pitches from ten companies and awarded a unique startup (that Steve and the group had just met) with $100K. They then got back on the bus and started all over in Pittsburgh the next day!
I rode the bus with the Rise of the Rest crew down Woodward Avenue, up Broadway Street, and through Midtown. After a tour, we’d all load back on the bus. I thought Steve Case would take the opportunity to take a break from the jam-packed day; check emails, return calls, or perhaps talk about something other than Detroit. But even behind closed bus doors, the curiosity and amazement on the crew’s faces didn’t dissipate. To my right sat a wide-eyed Steve Case, looking out the window at the lunch crowd at Campus Martius. A band played on the stage as people walked by waving to their friends eating lunch, not a typical scene illustrated in the headlines about Detroit. The crew came here because they wanted to feel it, too. Mission accomplished.
The day ended with the pitch competition, a moment that ten Detroit startups had spent weeks preparing for. I watched as the entrepreneurs convinced a room full of judges and their peers how their idea would make our lives easier, how it would benefit us and why Steve should invest in it.
The financial circumstances surrounding a startup company usually don’t pave the way to instant success. Many ideas with great potential are thrown away too soon because of doubt and frustration. How can a startup succeed in times of economic downturn? What matters most are the people who BELIEVE in the idea. Steve Case and Rise of the Rest believe in Detroit because of the entrepreneurs, residents and visitors they met in the city. Detroiters are hungry for opportunity, and carry a contagious drive that is unmatched in any other city. When entrepreneurs reinvent their ideas into startups, they, much like inspired Detroiters, recognize the risk, ignore the naysayers and forge ahead.
My experience as an intern in downtown Detroit goes beyond witnessing the rebirth and revitalization efforts of a city. I didn’t need to be a startup founder like the grand prize winner from Stik or an executive from a large technology company to see the opportunity that exists. I simply had to open my eyes. Any idea or dream I have has the potential to be whatever I want it to be. If we spend our time focusing on where we are stuck in life because of circumstances, we’ll never arrive at our moment of clarity. We don’t need to have the answers of everything, but if we believe in the potential of our ideas, the only question remaining will be: “where will opportunity arise next?”