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Innovators and Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs take state to new heights

By Audrey LaForest
Page 56-57

Michigan has always been a state of creative thinkers, innovators and entrepreneurs. After all, those who dared to dream and work hard prompted the mitten-shaped state’s path from the colonial period fur trade to the resurgent automobile industry of. These entrepreneurs, through their individual hard work and efforts, create value that helps drive economic growth and success in the global economy.

While Michigan was hurt by the recession, its entrepreneurial innovation and energy is growing in strength as the state has made tremendous progress in improving the business climate and tax structure. Michigan climbed 15 spots from 2010 to 2011 for entrepreneurial change (a measurement of average growth over the last three years), now ranking 31st in the nation, according to the 9th annual Michigan Entrepreneurship Score Card by the Small Business Association of Michigan.

In terms of entrepreneurial climate, a measurement of overall business and financial conditions, Michigan ranked 16th. Key here was business tax cuts that prompted the Tax Foundation to improve its rank of Michigan’s overall tax structure for favorability to business from 49th in 2011 to No. 7 in 2012. And private lending to small business continued to rank in the top five states, according to the score card.

While more work needs to be done to continue to accelerate Michigan’s growth as a leading state of entrepreneurial business, there are already creative thinkers pushing to move the state forward.

One of the panels at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, “Encouraging Entrepreneurship: The Catalyst for Economic Growth in Michigan,” features several speakers who are a part of the resurgence of the state’s growth through innovation and creativity.

Caitlin James, one of five sisters who came up with a collaborating project called DROUGHT that would bring them all together, knows how important Michigan was to the success of their business. The company produces and sells glass-bottled, organic, cold-pressed raw juice, which was essentially nonexistent in the area before.

“There are very few people or businesses offering organic raw juice around here. We certainly realized there are low barriers to entry in the market here as opposed to opening somewhere else,” said James, who is one of the panel speakers at the Conference.

Although James and two of her sisters were living in New York, they chose Michigan as their business’ home due to  the networking resources and personal relationships available to them.

What started out as a small idea (the sisters initially wanted to start a farmers market stand to sell their juice) grew into a larger concept with a storefront and an evolving business plan.

Programs like Kickstarter, a venture capital firm who funds creative projects, enable businesses like DROUGHT to establish a financial foundation. The sisters raised just over $13,000 on Kickstarter, which allowed them to spread the word to the community and to gather support.

“I think there are a lot of larger small businesses that can help people with ideas, and that’s really how we’ve seen most of our business foster. Further developing the community around entrepreneurs and supporting them,” James said.

For Jacques Panis, director of business development and strategic partnerships at Shinola, he saw Michigan as an opportunity.

The company, which manufactures watches, bicycles, high-end leather notebooks and more, embraces Michigan  for the local kindness it offers and Detroit, specifically, for the motivated and skilled workers hoping to improve the city.

“If you think about it, where would you go if you needed to make an engine? Our engines, they power a watch,” Panis said. “And so, when we started to look for homes for Shinola, it became apparent that Detroit was the perfect fit.”

Shinola focuses on keeping its watches, which use quartz movements and Swiss quality components, in the middle-of- the-road price point, but uses the highest  quality standards. During the company’s limited-edition watch campaign, it sold around 2,500 watches.

“We sold out in just under 10 days and that was an incredible indicator of the enthusiasm and trust that the folks in Detroit and Michigan, for that matter, felt for the brand,” said Panis, also one of the panel speakers.

Panis says Michigan can continue to encourage entrepreneurial growth by avoiding all of the negativity surrounding Detroit and focusing on the positive changes taking place. For example, Quicken Loans, which has brought roughly 8,500 jobs to the downtown area; the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, which provides business acceleration services to the creative community and entrepreneurs; and Roger Penske’s work with the Detroit Grand Prix, which represents an incredible opportunity for showcasing the city’s beautiful story.

“You don’t need to show the old buildings. You don’t need to show the burned down homes…Just live in today, and look what’s going on in the future.” Panis said. “Let’s move forward.”

Audrey LaForest is a metro Detroit freelance writer.