Today, as you drive along Woodward Avenue from the riverfront through downtown Detroit and recall what it was like 10 years ago, the changes are visible and noticeable.
LaunchDETROIT, the Rotary-supported program that began ten years ago to help entrepreneurs in underserved areas of Detroit, while not as flashy, was also making significant strides.
According to Margaret Williamson, Chair of LaunchDETROIT, the program has provided 83 entrepreneurs with business education, mentoring and networking opportunities, and microloans of up to $2,500 each to 39 qualified participants.
Loans went to businesses in Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and many downstream communities, as well as other cities in the Detroit metro area.
Inspiration for LaunchDETROIT began in 2012 with a presentation by Rotarian Marilyn Fitzgerald, author of “If I Had A Water Buffalo,” to a Rotary District 6400 assembly. Fitzgerald described her travels to countries around the world and the benefits of microfinance to a sustainable future for impoverished people.
Then-District Governor Mary Kehoe and Deputy Governor Donna Schmidt of Allen Park organized a committee to investigate the establishment of a microfinance project, which resulted in LaunchDETROIT. Rotarians led the way—chairman Larry Wright (from Taylor), vice chair Margaret Williamson, and treasurer Liz Smith.
“From the beginning, we quickly realized that a business education was key to our entrepreneurs’ success,” said Williamson, the current chairman, who thanked Rotarian Aaron Maike, then president of Baker College of Allen Park, for his help with the Design of the first business classes of the program.
As news of LaunchDETROIT spread through local news outlets and Rotarian International Magazine, similar models surfaced, including LaunchMyCity in Raleigh, North Carolina.
In 2018, the program’s efforts paid off with the receipt of a two-year global grant from Rotary International (RI) with Detroit Rotary as the host club in partnership with Taylor and Trenton Rotary clubs and an international partner – the Toronto Sunrise Club of District 7070.
Williamson noted that the award is significant because it is RI’s first microfinance grant in the United States. Level One Bank acted as a community banking partner, while Wayne State University’s Mike Ilitch School of Business and International Strategic Management (ISM) partnered to provide additional business education resources tailored to the business needs of participating entrepreneurs .
With the global grant, entrepreneurs were divided into small groups of five to seven people and assigned mentors who meet with them regularly and recommend additional resources.
With many small businesses either closing or relocating with the onset of the pandemic, LaunchDETROIT continued to accept applications from entrepreneurs and interviewed people virtually to participate in the program.
“We’ve also connected with graduates of our program via group Zoom meetings to find out how entrepreneurs and their businesses are doing,” added Williamson. “To our delight, we listened as they gave each other tips and helpful recommendations to generate more business.”
Partnerships have also expanded across national borders. More than five years ago, the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University (IU) contacted LaunchDETROIT and offered to send students to help the program’s entrepreneurs with marketing and financial needs as part of the school’s alternative break program. This spring, IU students and consultants came for a week-long visit to five companies founded by LaunchDETROIT entrepreneurs, who welcomed the students’ insights and recommendations.
A new group of entrepreneurs is currently undergoing individual training with ISM and will soon be meeting regularly with Rotary volunteer mentors. “We continue to accept online applications and plan to conduct the next round of interviews in late summer,” Williamson said. “Our experience shows that the energy and passion that each person brings to this program helps them succeed in their business.”
For Williamson and her committee, the program pays off in other ways. She said, “Our entrepreneurs have learned that the Rotary motto of Service Above Self is not an empty commitment, and they want to give back to the community by becoming Rotarians themselves.”
Visit www.LaunchDETROIT.org for more information.