Selling Out Detroit

Recently, we made an invitation to our fellow students at the Ross School of Business to take an evening out of their busy lives and come down to Detroit to learn about all of the amazing things happening in the city.

For most of our fellow students, who come from all over the US and the world, the only part of Detroit that they had voluntarily seen in the last two years was the strip of I-94 from Detroit Metro to Ann Arbor. Their perceptions of Detroit were not much different or better informed than the rest of the country despite being so close to the city. For most, they assumed Detroit had little of interest to them.

The evening was the kickoff of the two-day Revitalization and Business Conference hosted by the Ross School of Business. The R&B conference, which was the culmination of a series of events on campus, was a grass-roots student-driven effort to begin to shift perceptions of Detroit on campus at the University of Michigan. Its focus was on the opportunity and positive momentum in Detroit with a particular emphasis on the role that business, innovation, and entrepreneurship could play in the city’s revival.

Given it was the inaugural year, our goal was to involve 150 students in the event.

After we opened registration, we had 150 students signed up within a few hours and with more than 10 days to go, we ran out of room.

We completely sold out.

It was beyond our most hopeful and optimistic expectations.

All told, over 700 students ended up participating in the conference, include the 350+ who packed into the top floor of the College for Creative Studies on a snowy Thursday evening to hear an inspiring keynote from Phil Cooley (and enjoy some wonderful Slow’s BBQ). It was an incredible success.

The most common remark was “I had no idea…that is great”.

The immediate benefit is that these 700+ students now have a more positive and complete picture of Detroit. While most will leave the state, they at least leave equipped to tell a more hopeful and accurate story about Detroit. They will tell others and on occasion speak up on behalf of Detroit. It is a small but important start to shifting perceptions.

But, the longer term significance of this event holds more hope and potential. The fact that over 700 students participated was a clear sign that students are not only interested in what is happening in Detroit, they want more avenues to engage with Detroit. It was a clear demonstration of just how much untapped interest in Detroit existed at the University of Michigan.

Fortunately, as a result of the conference we see a number of signals that a larger shift is happening:

  • A recruiter at a top firm in Detroit concluded that it was time to fully embrace Detroit rather than talk around it. For them, this means having more of their recruiting dinners in downtown Detroit rather than in Ann Arbor so they can show potential hires more of what Detroit has to offer.
  • A key member of the Office of Career Development indicated that “We have to do even more to bring Detroit companies to campus given all of the student interest”.
  • The University of Michigan Board of Regents has asked the R&B group to give a presentation on its efforts as it explores the ways the University of Michigan as a whole engages with Detroit.
  • The R&B initiative is now fully established as a student group on campus and had over 25 students apply to be part of the leadership team next year.

We still have a long way to go but these are important baby steps in the right direction.

To learn more about the Revitalization and Business initiative, please check out the website at   We encourage you to check out the IdeaLab videos – 6-8 minute stories from individuals who are driving real change in Detroit.

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