THE BLOG

Detroit's Future Rise Is Rooted in Its Rich Past

08/08/2013 04:31 pm ET | Updated Oct 08, 2013

Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, wrote in his book The Coming Jobs War, on the premise of why the economy stalled "There are two reasons for this. One, business leaders aren't in a 'growth' state of mind. ... They have lost their will to 'dream it, build it,' as our friend, ad man Roy Spence, put it. Second, the country is seriously short on startup companies. We need a minimum of 2 million startups per year to keep our economy and jobs pumping, but we're running at roughly 400,000 a year. Nothing fixes America's economic problems unless the number of startups soars to new heights."

Startups, small businesses run by entrepreneurs, similar to Operation HOPE, are in short supply in modern Detroit, but it was not always this way.

Detroit was built on the rise of the automobile industry, but that rise was actually built on a big, bold and noble American idea: for the people, of the people and by the people. If not for the working poor, struggling class, and the middle class dreamers there would be no Detroit, or the wealth and opportunity that came along with it.

Similar to many powerful American innovations, the automobile industry became sustainable once car prices decreased; this created a larger consumer base. In many ways, the powerful aspirational dreams of the working class -- man and woman, manifested into real outcomes that built modern Detroit.

According to Forbes, dealers were not allowed to directly sell to African-Americans. Despite this restriction, African-Americans realized their American dream, of owning a luxurious Cadillac, by paying white men to purchase a car on their behalf. In fact, these Cadillac purchases would greatly contribute to saving General Motors, during the Great Depression.

One of Detroit's first dreamers is the automobile innovator Henry Ford, celebrating his 150th birthday this week. Ford not only created the assembly line, but also was astutely aware of the importance to pay his workers enough to buy the very cars they were building. Financial inclusion and financial dignity for all are part of the Detroit success story.

Entrepreneurs with dreams, who turned them into truly powerful and transformational ideas, made Detroit, but the city was built and sustained by a working class that grew into a solid, broad and wide middle class.

Then Detroit did what many success stories do -- it forgot the magic that made it successful in the first place. Narrow-minded capitalists replaced the innovators, dreamers and entrepreneurs.

Instead of reviewing, reinventing and challenging the status quo, leaders sat on their laurels, riding success right into a bankruptcy-filled ditch. Risk-averse managers replaced managers who actively drove risks in the name of progress.

And then there is the real tell-tale sign of the coming collapse. 'Innovation,' the very thing that created Detroit, became known as something it actually is not, in business. As Jim Clifton of Gallup says, "innovation, no matter how amazing, has no value without a paying customer standing next to it."

For a very long time, Detroit was producing and selling products consumers considered passé and did not buy, while paying workers amounts that could not be sustained, in a simple quest to keep the current party going aka the status quo. This is anything but, "for the people, of the people and by the people."

Detroit will come back, but the question now is -- how, when and in what form?

If fear and small mindedness assumes control, Detroit will re-emerge as a small, well-heeled city of the elite; But, if the history that made Detroit great in the first place finds a way forward, to re-imagine itself, to re-emerge, then Detroit will take this moment as an opportunity for a reset, rather than the death sentence through bankruptcy.

Detroit can choose to invest in entrepreneurs, true innovators, and things that give people real hope. In doing this, America's comeback city will re-root its soul in the future, and retool the skills of the people that made it a great city in the first place, thereby tapping the un-leveraged opportunity, the ideas, and the city's broad-based human capital to spark an entrepreneurial and small business economy that creates jobs.

Here at Operation HOPE we are partnering with Gallup on the Gallup-HOPE Index and HOPE Business In A Box Academies, soon bringing a generation of youth economic energy to Detroit's youth. We call our vision America 2020, but each of us can call our individuals efforts to revitalize Detroit, simply what Americans do.

This is a solution that's not solely for Detroit, but America as a whole.

Remember -- rainbows after storms. You cannot have a rainbow without a storm, first.

John Hope Bryant is an entrepreneur, author, adviser, and one of the nation's most recognized empowerment leader. He is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, The Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), the only African-American bestselling business author in America, and is chairman of the Subcommittee for the Under-Served and Community Empowerment for the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability, for President Barack Obama. Mr. Bryant is the co-founder of the Gallup-HOPE Index, the only national research poll on youth financial dignity and youth economic energy in the U.S.