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Achille Bianchi

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Social Entrepreneurship: A Budding Industry (of Sorts) in Detroit

Posted: 12/01/11 06:34 PM ET

My family has scant ties to the auto industry. We all drive foreign cars. Like most American families, we're not fully American. My sister and I also did not grow up around parents who had corporate jobs -- we were pretty blue-collar.

Maybe it's because I didn't grow up in a GM or Ford household that I don't believe big companies can solve the unemployment and jobs problem by adding, or subtracting, thousands of jobs at time. To me it makes more sense to create an environment where individuals are encouraged to create jobs based in their communities and on work and the skills they're most comfortable with.

The point is, no matter if your job comes from a CEO's pen or your own hard work, we all work hard. To me, though, it's not necessarily about how hard you work, but where you put your effort that counts for more than anything else.

It's hard to ignore the increasingly louder voices of the generations succeeding the baby boomers. While we're not as experienced as them, we're taking action and not asking for permission. We're starting to feel the consequences of decades of their decision and policy making and some of those consequences hurt -- a lot.

If you live in Detroit and have tried starting a business or buying real estate or even tracking down meeting notes from a city council meeting, you've surely been led on a run-around and ultimately to frustration. I'm also sure I'm not the only person who's had simple solutions to some of the problems that exist within these institutions.

But sometimes it's hard to get the city's attention.

This is why so many grass-roots and socially progressive movements and organizations thrive and continue to thrive in Detroit. Their invention, innovation and efficiency spawns from a certain type of need that only specialized tools can fix.

And the best part? If you're motivated enough you can find ways to get paid to solve problems and build communities.

Social entrepreneurs, as they are called, seek to not only generate profits through business ventures, but the emphasis relies much more heavily in establishing and nurturing hearty social values in the communities they serve.

This kind of place-based problem solving and activism has been around for decades, and in Detroit especially. For Detroit entrepreneurs though, our work and business practices are steeped in diverse and dynamic social values, consciously or subconsciously. We've all been exposed to the hardships in this city and I'm sure many of us would be damned before starting an enterprise that wasn't sensitive to our city's context. It's just not in us -- that's not why we're here.

Detroit and Michigan should be creating conditions that foster social entrepreneurs like those at the Heidelberg Project, Allied Media Projects, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC), the Mt. Elliot Makerspace, the East Side Riders and others.

Organizations like these start as modest ideas from one singular problem. In the DDJC's case, it was lack of information in Detroit neighborhoods, whether from having no libraries or Internet, which got the problem-solving gears spinning.

Now just a few years later and with $2 million in grant money, DDJC is able to employ a handful of full-time employees while tackling one of the most profound and fundamental problems in the city. They're working fast, and they're working efficiently and through community input and feedback, people are already beginning to benefit, too.

With the authentic desire to build community and solve problems, it's the local people who have the greatest handle on the solutions our communities seek. With the right values and tact, an abundance of talent and unprecedented access to affordable technology, Michigan and Detroit can realize the 3.0 future we all dream of -- we just need to embrace the movement and encourage our representatives to put politics aside and to listen to us a little bit closer.