The Detroit Entrepreneurs You Never Hear About

March 10, 2015, 9:57 a.m.

DE­TROIT—Cor­por­ate in­vest­ment is re­viv­ing parts of down­town De­troit, but the rest of the city’s fu­ture may rest in the hands of low-in­come en­tre­pren­eurs. A grow­ing num­ber of im­mig­rants and Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans are launch­ing small busi­nesses against all odds in De­troit’s crum­bling neigh­bor­hoods. 

In the past two years, roughly 300 De­troiters have made busi­ness plans, learned to bal­ance their books, and ap­plied for mi­cro loans through Prosper­US De­troit, a re­l­at­ively new non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tion fo­cused on help­ing low-in­come small-busi­ness own­ers thrive in five strug­gling De­troit neigh­bor­hoods. Its 20-week busi­ness class and coach­ing ses­sions have launched mar­ket­ing firms, beauty salons, and ca­ter­ing com­pan­ies—and coached would-be busi­ness own­ers through some of the obstacles that can make start­ing a new ven­ture seem too daunt­ing.

“It’s not just writ­ing the busi­ness plan,” says Kim­berly Fais­on, dir­ect­or of Prosper­US. “It’s writ­ing the busi­ness plan, and your house is in fore­clos­ure. It’s writ­ing the busi­ness plan, and your car got re­pos­sessed.”

Poor cred­it bars many small-busi­ness own­ers from get­ting bank loans, so Prosper­US of­fers cred­it coun­sel­ing, budget­ing, and ac­count­ing help. About 40 per­cent of pro­gram gradu­ates have opened new busi­nesses in the city since 2012, and 47 per­cent already own one, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey of par­ti­cipants. None of them have de­faul­ted on their loans.

The biggest chal­lenge now is reach­ing im­mig­rant en­tre­pren­eurs, Fais­on says. Many don’t speak Eng­lish, and they of­ten dis­trust fin­an­cial in­sti­tu­tions. One of Prosper­Us’s goals is to of­fer its busi­ness-train­ing pro­gram in Ar­ab­ic and Span­ish. Right now, about 85 per­cent of par­ti­cipants are Afric­an-Amer­ic­an. Sev­er­al are former auto­work­ers, such as Wil­lie Brake and Helen Shaw.

Brake, who owns a com­puter-ser­vice store called All About Tech­no­logy, worked with ac­count­ing and mar­ket­ing ex­perts from Prosper­US to open his first re­tail loc­a­tion and hire his first em­ploy­ee in a largely His­pan­ic neigh­bor­hood in South­w­est De­troit. Helen Shaw, 39, as­sembled Ford Ex­ped­i­tions in sub­urb­an De­troit for 10 years be­fore the fact­ory shut down in 2006. She went to beauty school and began do­ing hair in her midtown apart­ment. A few years ago, she wanted to make the jump to open­ing her own salon. With the help of Prosper­US, she was ap­proved for a $25,000 loan and was able to move her salon, Mod­el Be­ha­vi­or, from a run-down street to a more up­scale area in South­w­est De­troit. Shaw says she wouldn’t have got­ten this kind of sup­port if she opened her salon in the sub­urbs.

“We need it in the city,” she says. “If you ride up cer­tain streets, there are no busi­nesses open. It’s just all aban­doned busi­nesses. The city is where we need the help.”

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