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Joe Spencer has big plans for Louisiana Creole Gumbo

In the early parts of 2014, the infamous polar vortex descended over Detroit, bringing temperatures that made the North Pole seem downright tolerable. With sub-zero temps combined with above average amounts of snow, it was the type of weather that inspired people to stay indoors, to avoid going out whenever possible. For a restaurant owner, it's the type of weather that means trouble.

At Louisiana Creole Gumbo, sales were down 20 to 25 percent that year, says the restaurant's president and co-owner Joe Spencer. The New Orleans and Southern-style kitchen is located at 2051 Gratiot Ave.just on the outskirts of Eastern Marketand has been since 1970. Spencer says it was one of the first, if not the first, Creole-style restaurants in Detroit.

The polar vortex threatened to put Louisiana Creole Gumbo out of business. Instead, Spencer has managed to turn the restaurant around, in part by taking advantage of the many small business programs in Detroit. Starting in 2014, Spencer enrolled in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small businesses program. He's since received funding from Invest Detroit and Motor City Match. Most recently, Louisiana Creole Gumbo won the $100,000 NEIdeas award.

With the help of those programs, Spencer recently opened a new location on the city's northwest side at 13505 W. Seven Mile Rd., near Schaefer Highway. The Goldman Sachs program helped Spencer conduct a survey, determining that 25 percent of his customers live in northwest Detroit.

"Detroit has a really terrific system that's designed to help small businesses, to help people start businesses as well as help businesses that already exist," Spencer says. "I've been benefited greatly from that."

The restaurant was first established in 1970, though not by Spencer. That distinction goes to Joseph Stafford, a chef who learned to cook from his mother in Bayou Laforche in New Orleans. Spencer, who's lived most of his life in Detroit, had never even tried Creole-style food before a fateful flip of a coin set the course for the second part of his career.

Before he purchased Louisiana Creole Gumbo, Spencer had made a name for himself in broadcast media. In 1972, he worked for WWJ, becoming one of the first black radio producers in Detroit. In 1975, Spencer became the program director at WGPR-TV 62, the first black-owned television station in the nation. He stayed with channel 62 through its purchase by CBS in 1994, eventually taking an early retirement opportunity in 2001. He's since focused on the restaurant full time.

It was in 1982 when Spencer and business partner Doug Morrison purchased the restaurant from original owner Stafford. Wanting to go into business for himself, Spencer had originally approached Morrison about purchasing an eight-unit apartment building on the city's westside. Morrison, on the other hand, had his eyes on Louisiana Creole Gumbo. A coin flip decided the duo's fate.

"Joe Stafford, having sold us the restaurant, spent the next year coming in to work every day to teach us how to prepare the product," Spencer says. "How to maintain his proprietary spice blends that he had, to control the taste of the food, how to manage the product, to introduce us to the vendors, create a relationship with the vendors, so we could continue his legacy. He really had a great product."

The restaurant's continued success, now edging toward 50 years since first opening, is a testament to Stafford's original product. And now that Spencer has gone through a number of Detroit's small business programs, both educationally and financially beneficial, he's gearing up for a major expansion of the business.

The new Louisiana Creole Gumbo in northwest Detroit is just the beginning. Spencer has an ambitious ten year plan to open 100 new locations throughout the I-75 corridor. He's also going mobile, having pegged the NEIdeas award money for two food trucks. The menu, too, is expanding; the new location features healthier options like red beans and quinoa, rather than rice, and vegetarian gumbo, in addition to the traditional favorites.

For Lousiana Creole Gumbo, just a couple of years removed from that nasty polar vortex, it seems that a new season has arrived.

Detroit nonprofit launches footwear line manufactured by local veterans

It's been nearly two years since a chance meeting on the streets of downtown Detroit left Jarret Schlaff inspired and searching for a way to help empower homeless veterans. What resulted is Boots on the Ground, the nonprofit arm of Pingree Manufacturing. The boot-making organization employs and benefits veterans, focusing on worker well-being rather than profit margins.

After months of wrangling designs and logistics, Schlaff and his line of multipurpose urban utility boots, Boots on the Ground, opened its first round of pre-sales on FridayVeterans Day. With only 500 pairs available and around 2,000 orders already pledged, the first round of boots should go fast. Luckily for those interested in purchasing a pair, a successful first round of sales means that Boots on the Ground will be able to keep manufacturing and selling their boots well into the future.

Schlaff started Boots on the Groundand its parent company, Pingree Manufacturing, named after former Detroit Mayor Hazen S. Pingreeout of a desire to address the difficulties many U.S. veterans face in finding employment. Currently in its beginning stages, Boots on the Ground employs two veterans on a part-time basis; more opportunities for employment will open up as the non-profit grows. All of the boot material is made in the United States, including many Detroit-made materials, and the ultimate goal is for all of the materials to be made in Detroit and in a sustainable way.

The idea for Boots on the Ground arose out of a chance encounter. Schlaff was walking around downtown Detroit when he got in a conversation with a veteran seeking employment. Though he may have been homeless, that veteran was more than qualified for employment, possessing a master's degree in engineering. Inspired by their meeting, Schlaff decided he would help that man and others like him.

"We want to create these jobs, we want to create employment for veterans. What can be handmade, what can we make? And I literally said this in a conversation, I said, what can be the boots on the ground in Detroit?" Schlaff says, snapping his fingers as the thought is triggered. "And then I said: boots."

Armed with good intentions but a lack of know-how, Schlaff began to research manufacturing boots. He was told it couldn't be done. Production would have to occur abroad if they were going to keep the boots affordable. But thanks to some helpful partnerships along the way, Schlaff figured out how to make Boots on the Ground happen. He put about $10,000 to $15,000 of his own savings and an additional $15,000 from donations into the project, he says. Schlaff estimates that Boots on the Ground has also received nearly $250,000 in in-kind services.

In starting Boots on the Ground, Schlaff says he's encountered a chicken-and-egg scenario. While there's been plenty of interest in the concept, Schlaff hasn't had the funds to get it off the ground. He's turned away investors because he doesn't want to give away equity and control. Also, investors haven't been incredibly interested in a worker-owned company that puts the emphasis on employee well-being over profit margins.

So Schlaff figured out a way to do it himself. Once the first round of 500 boots sell, Schlaff will take that money and operate Boots on the Ground full time, moving into a manufacturing facility connected to the Avalon Bakery building on Bellevue Street.

Instead of investors, it's been local partnerships that have helped Boots on the Ground get up and running. A storage facility in Pontiac has donated space. A retired engineer from Chrysler with a passion for shoes and a workshop in his basement offered his assistance. Southwest Solutions, Michigan Veterans Foundation, and local VFW halls are among those who have partnered with the organization. Bates Footwear of Rockford has acted as a sort of mentor, and without asking for anything in return.

"How do we find a way? It's allowing for the best kind of collaboration, which is that relationships are our main currency. It's been a lot of volunteers, a lot of people seeing an opportunity to support our work without necessarily a return on funds," says Schlaff.

"We've gotten where we are because of the relationships we've built. It's inspiring."
 
Name and title: Jarret A. Schlaff, co-founder and CEO Pingree Mfg & Project Boots on the Ground

Years business has been open: 2

What is one interesting job you held before owning/running your own biz: In 2009 I worked for Sen. Carl Levin in Detroit supporting veterans with their disability claims. I was introduced to the maze called the VA that veterans have to navigate and fight through to get the support they deserve.   

Favorite book: It's a tie between Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell 

Advice for new non-profits: Anything is possible. Remind yourself at least once a day what you're committed to and what's possible because of you and your team's unique contribution. Embrace relationships as your primary currency and since we're all in this together, seek out opportunities to amplify the people, groups, and organizations around you doing good work without expecting anything in return.

Ann Arbor companies win $100,000 at Accelerate Michigan competition

Three Ann Arbor companies took home a combined $100,000 in prize money at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition in Detroit.
 
Digital wellness platform developer JOOL Health was the biggest winner of the three, placing third and winning $50,000. Movellus Circuits and Workit Health each won $25,000 awards in the University Research Highlight and People's Choice categories, respectively.
 
This year's semifinalists for the state's largest business plan competition were narrowed down from nearly 200 applicants across the state and also included Ann Arbor's ContentOro, PreDxion Bio, and ShapeLog.
 
More than $1 million in cash and prizes were awarded, including a $500,000 grand prize for SPLT. The Detroit-based mobility company took advantage of intern placement and business incubation resources at Ann Arbor SPARK's Central Innovation Center earlier this year.
 
Movellus' prize money will go toward more protection for the intellectual property behind its semiconductor chip optimization software, which has already netted three major customers and significant interest from Silicon Valley, according to chief operating officer and cofounder Muhammad Faisal.
 
Faisal launched the company three years ago while finishing his doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan. Today, Movellus employs five full-time and four part-time employees in its downtown Ann Arbor office. Faisal credits the U-M networking community with helping get the company to where it is now.
 
In his pitch to the Accelerate panel last week, Faisal said we all benefit and depend on more powerful, less expensive electronics released every couple of years, thanks to regular advances in chip technology. But the physical space on those chips isn't unlimited real estate, and it's running out.
 
"There's a need for software and architectural innovation, and that's exactly what we do," Faisal says.
 
Using Movellus' algorithms, Faisal says developers can produce chips that consume less power, cost less, and get to market faster.
 
A new release is due out from Movellus in early 2017, and there are plans to open a "customer- and investor-facing office" in California in the next six months. Faisal says the company will continue growing the engineering side of its business in Ann Arbor.

The Craft Cafe Detroit thrives on city's lower east side

The Craft Cafe Detroit is off to a fast start. The "sip and paint" party venue opened last June on Mack Avenue, just blocks from city's eastern border with Grosse Pointe Park, and it's already turning away customers as some parties reach capacity. But that's a good problem to have.

While owner Candice Meeks is considering a move to a bigger location, she says she wants to keep the Craft Cafe in the neighborhood. Its location is part of the reason for its success.

"The location at Mack and Phillip, there's nothing like this in our community," Meeks says. "You have to drive downtown and pay for parking or drive out to the suburbs for this kind of fun. We need to keep something like this in the neighborhood."

Craft Cafe Detroit hosts a variety of celebrations, from birthdays to bachelorette parties. Guests can bring their own food and drinks while Meeks leads the party through a painting session. Subjects are pre-sketched onto each person's canvas, allowing them to paint along while Meeks teaches different techniques like blending colors. She also offers vision mirrors, where guests create collages on mirrors and then seal them with a clear coat finish.

Other parties include Eat | Paint | Drink, where refreshments are provided, and monthly date nights, where couples paint together.

Meeks credits a number of small business programs that helped her get off the ground. She graduated from ProsperUs Detroit, where she met her current landlord. Meeks was also the recipient of a $4,000 technical assistance grant from Motor City Match. She says she plans on using the grant money to help with marketing and website construction costs.

"Going through those programs really gave me a platform to open my own business," she says.

The Craft Cafe Detroit is located at 14600 Mack Ave. It's open Tuesday through Friday, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Gwen Jimmere makes all-natural hair care product to celebrities like Beyoncé

LeBron James. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Serena Williams. These are household names throughout the United States and even much of the world. They're also members of the The Root 100 for 2016, a list of the 100 most influential African-Americans as put together by The Washington Post-owned publication The Root. In November, a gala is being held in New York City to celebrate those that have made the list.

Also attending that gala will be Gwen Jimmere, a local entrepreneur who has seen tremendous growth in her all natural line of beauty products, Naturalicious. In just three years, Jimmere has quickly gone from creating an all-natural hair care product in her Canton, Michigan kitchen to being picked up by international beauty product distributor Jinny Beauty Supply and the first African-American woman to hold a U.S. patent for a natural hair care product. She's now based out of the ponyride facility in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, where she and her team make all the products by hand.

Jimmere comes from a corporate communications background where, before even creating Naturalicious, told a friend who worked at The Root that she would one day make it to their 100 list. It only took her four years to do so.

"To find out that I'm actually on it is a full circle moment for me," she says.

Jimmere hails from Cleveland. After attending Kent State University for both her undergraduate and master degrees, she was recruited by Ford Motor Co. to become their global digital communications manager. She would later leave Ford to become the digital marketing director for Uniworld, and soon after make her Root 100 proclamation.

An influential moment for Jimmere was seeing Chris Rock's documentary movie "Good Hair" during her pregnancy. She cites a scene that shows a pop can being submerged in a typical hair relaxer product and subsequently disintegrating. Concerned about what she was exposing her body and her unborn child to, Jimmere decided to create a safer and more natural hair product. She experimented, researched, and honed her product. Still, she treated it as a hobby, something she might one day give to family and friends.

A couple of years later, with a two year old son and about 30 days from divorce, Jimmere was laid off from Uniworld. What some might see as a dead end turned out to be a window of opportunity. With little left in the bank, Jimmere decided that it was now or never.

"Having your back against the wall forces you to not doubt yourself," Jimmere says. "You don't really have the luxury to doubt yourself. It's like, I might as well just try everything because the worst that can happen is nothing."

That attitude, coupled with a desire to make her son Caiden proud, got Naturalicious off the ground. Jimmere called the Whole Foods Market in Detroit to set up a meeting, eventually convincing them to carry her product. Now several Whole Foods locations carry Naturalicious. And Jinny Beauty Supply just signed on to distribute, starting out in 1,500 stores and eventually growing to 7,000.

Naturalicious currently carries 10 products, all made by hand, designed for people with curly hair. The company is becoming known for both its all natural ingredients, and 3-in-1 and 5-in-1 products that help cut down on time. The clay comes from Morocco, the oils from Italy, Spain, and Argentina.

Jimmere moved the company out of her kitchen and into ponyride this past May, making her first hires. Three of her six employees are supplied through Services To Enhance Potential, or STEP, which connects employers with people with special needs looking for work. She anticipates having to hire more people soon.

Another member of the team is her son Caiden, now five years old. Caiden holds the title of chief candy curator, making sure that each order is accompanied by a piece of candy.

As Jimmere relates Caiden's enthusiasm for Naturalicious, there's no need to question whether her son is proud of her. She's got it.

Quick Facts on Gwen Jimmere

Title: CEO + Founder, Naturalicious

Date of opening: 2013

One interesting job before Naturalicious: In grad school I was an editor at a risque book publisher. Every book I was responsible for editing was basically 50 Shades of Gray on steroids. When I interviewed for the job, they just told me it was for an editing position. It wasn't until the day I started that I realized I'd be editing freaky books.  It was a pretty interesting gig, though, and my co-workers were really cool. It was a very laid back office; we could bring our pets in whenever we wanted and wear pajamas to work every day of the week if we chose to. The culture was nothing like you'd expect for that sort of business. 

Favorite music to work to: 70s Funk (i.e. The Gap Band, Earth Wind & Fire, The Commodores, SOS Band, etc.)
 
One indispensable beauty care tip: Coconut oil is good for practically everything. It's an incredibly effective makeup remover, it's perfect for helping your nails grow faster and stronger, and it's a phenomenal conditioning ingredient when found in hair care products. I can think of at least 10 excellent beauty uses for coconut oil. I always keep a jar of unrefined, virgin coconut oil in my bathroom cabinet and another in my suitcase for when I'm traveling.

Motor City Match winners use grant money to help cushion construction costs

Construction has started on the Meta Physica Wellness Center in Corktown. The business will be located in the Bagley and Trumbull building, which counts the Bearded Lady salon and barber shop, Mama Coo's Boutique, and the Farmer's Hand market as its tenants. The latter two businesses are Motor City Match winners. All four businesses in the Bagley and Trumbull building will be women-owned.

Meta Physica Wellness Center owner Jenevieve Biernat started her massage business in Midtown, which she has since outgrown. The Corktown studio will feature expanded services, including two massage rooms, three saunas, a raw juice bar, and an apothecary. Biernat won both a $50,000 Hatch award and a $20,000 Motor City Match grant for her business earlier this year.

"Every bit of money helps," Biernat says. "You don't always know how much you need going in but it turns out you need a lot of money to do this."

Biernat says that once she's established, she'd like to put herself in a position to help others through the Motor City Match application process.

A resident of Corktown, Biernat has been visiting the other shops at Bagley and Trumbull nearly every day, learning from her future neighbors, and soaking up as much advice and information that she can.

Another $20,000 Motor City Match grant winner, Noelle Lothamer, is currently in the midst of construction of an Eastern Market storefront for her Beau Bien Fine Foods. The Michigan-sourced fruit jam-, chutney-, and mustard-makers recently celebrated the one year anniversary of their Eastern Market location, which has served primarily as a kitchen.

Lothamer says the money won from Motor City Match has quickly gone toward construction costs, including the storefront, roof, and some other much needed repairs. "As soon as we knew we could spend it, we did."

The hope is for the storefront to open by Thanksgiving, though Lothamer cautions that there is no set date. In addition to acting as a retail area for their jams, chutneys, and mustards, the Beau Bien Fine Foods storefront will also offer grab-and-go sandwiches, salads, and drinks.

Meta Physica Wellness Center is located at 1707 Trumbull Ave.

Beau Bien Fine Foods is located at 2478 Riopelle St.

Entrepreneur resource center to open in Arab American National Museum in Dearborn

The Arab American National Museum is adding entrepreneurship to its programming. Called the Growth Center, the entrepreneur resource center will offer small business coaching and tutelage to the area's Arab-American, immigrant, and refugee populations. There will also be a focus on nurturing the local arts and culture scene.

For the past three years, the Growth Center has been a part of ACCESS, the parent organization of the Arab American National Museum. As a result of an internal reorganization, the Growth Center will now have a physical presence inside the museum located on Michigan Avenue in east downtown Dearborn. 
 
Given its standing as a community center for metro Detroit's large Arab-American population, officials believe the museum to be best equipped to operate the Growth Center.

"With our cultural institutions and business districts, Dearborn is the heart of the Arab-American community throughout metro Detroit. Our built environment and culture within it is rich," says Devon Akmon, director of the Arab American National Museum. "How can we leverage those assets in a way that's beneficial to the community?"

Akmon and his organization believe the Growth Center is one way to do just that. The resource center is offering classes for entrepreneurs and one-on-one small business coaching sessions. Pop-ups too are a focus.

One way to teach small business lessons might be to turn the museum store into a sort of laboratory for budding entrepreneurs, exposing people to the different aspects that go into running a successful business, Akmon says.

There will also be a focus on arts and culture. An artist himself, Akmon wants to see more artists become financially successful. 
 
"Our region is a magnet for creative people from across the nation. We want to enable artists to have further reach and become artist entrepreneurs."

The Arab American National Museum is located at 13624 Michigan Ave. in Dearborn.

Warmilu's blanket technology goes to Kenya, scales up

From deployments in Nairobi to clinical trials in Detroit to a new home in Ann Arbor, startup Warmilu continues to explore new horizons for its warming blanket technology.

Warmilu's IncuBlanket is a non-electric, reusable heating wrap that acts instantly. First developed by University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University students as a way to keep newborns warm, the idea grew to include uses for the elderly and people dealing with pain or soreness.

In March, Warmilu team members traveled to Kenya, where they spent two and a half weeks working alongside Ann Arbor's Relief for Africa foundation to introduce Warmilu products to doctors, Ministry of Health officials, and potential distributors in and around the cities of Nairobi and Eldoret.

The Warmilu team brought 35 IncuBlankets with them to distribute and test at six different hospitals in Kenya. Grace Hsia, Warmilu's CEO and co-founder, calls the trip an "eye-opening" discovery mission.

"It really validated and helped us realize there was a challenge greater than we had anticipated and potential for acceptance larger than we had anticipated," Hsia says.

With letters of support from four hospitals on the way, Warmilu is finalizing a distribution deal that would allow the company to start processing purchase orders for about 20,000 blankets.

Closer to home in Detroit, the Warmilu team is working with Dr. Nitin Chouthai at the Children's Hospital of Michigan on planning and deploying clinical trials that could help make the IncuBlanket's case as a warming option for transferring critical-care and neonatal patients in emergencies.

Pending approval, the tests will last three to five months and rate the IncuBlanket for efficiency, effectiveness, and safety compared with current methods of transporting low-birthweight and premature infants.

With high hopes for new market opportunities, Warmilu also has another first on the way: its first home.

The company, which Hsia says was previously "nomadic," is moving into a new, 2,000-square-foot headquarters and production space on the west side of Ann Arbor. Hsia says the move will help the five-year-old business scale up while bringing all operations in-house, from administration to production to storing raw materials.

"It will allow us to produce the blanket volumes we're projecting for at least the next two to three years," she says.

Warmilu's team of six will expand soon too, as the company looks to bring on a quality and production manager and several sewers.

Motor City Match completes first year of programming, 11 more businesses awarded grants

Detroit continues to grow its base of entrepreneurs through its Motor City Match program, awarding 11 more grants ranging from $15,000 to $75,000 to area businesses. The awards complete the fourth round of Motor City Match, marking one full year for the quarterly program.

That pipeline of entrepreneurs, as Detroit Economic Growth Corporation CEO Rodrick Miller calls it, consists largely of Detroiters. According to figures released by Motor City Match, 64 percent of MCM winning businesses are owned by Detroiters, 72 percent are minority-owned, and 68 percent are woman-owned.

In the program's first year, Motor City Match has awarded $2 million in grants to 40 small businesses, leveraging over $13 million in total investment in the city.

This round of grant winners include:
  • Twisted Roots, a beauty supply retailer in Eastern Market
  • Block Party, a building on Livernois that will house two restaurants and the Live6 Alliance
  • Detroit Vegan Soul, a West Village restaurant opening a second location on Grand River
  • Norma G's, a Caribbean cuisine food truck opening a brick-and-mortar location on East Jefferson
  • Live Cycle Delight, a cycling studio opening in West Village
  • Amaze-Enjoyment, an early childhood center at 20067 John R Street
  • Guadalajara #2, a butcher shop expanding into a full-service facility in Southwest
  • Lil Brilliant Mindz, an east side daycare and Head Start facility
  • Beau Bien Fine Foods, an artisanal jam, fruit preserve, chutney, and mustard maker expanding in Eastern Market
  • Meta Physical Wellness Center, an affordable holistic spa opening in Corktown
  • Third Wave Music, a music instrument retailer opening in the Forest Arms building in Midtown
"These are the kinds of businesses that help to create complete neighborhoods where people want to live," says Mayor Mike Duggan. "Motor City Match is helping dozens of Detroit entrepreneurs live their dream owning their own business while being a real part of our city’s neighborhood comeback."

In addition to the 11 businesses awarded grants, seven others will receive free design and architectural services, 26 have been connected with landlords, and 50 more will receive free business planning support.

The next round of the Motor City Match application process begins Sep. 1 and closes Oct. 1.

Got a development news story to share? Email MJ Galbraith here or send him a tweet @mikegalbraith.

DC3 launches Detroit City of Design initiative

The Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3) wants to help figure out how best to harness the Motor City's flair for design to improve its local economy, and it's launching the Detroit City of Design initiative to make that happen.

"We want to build a community vision for what the designers can achieve," says Olga Stella, executive director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center.

This effort comes shortly after Detroit was recognized as an UNESCO City of Design, the first and only one in the U.S. The Detroit City of Design initiative's goal is to bring together design professionals in industry, academia, policy, and community to collectively build an innovative, equitable, and sustainable city through the power of design.

According to Stella, they'll ask and answer questions like, "What is unique about Detroit? What are our assets and opportunities?"

The Detroit City of Design initiative will take place over 10 years. In its first year DC3 wants to lay the groundwork for creating a common vision on how design can best impact the region. Specifically, organizers want to see how such a vision can boost Metro Detroit's economy.

Other cities with UNESCO City of Design designations have harnessed them for a variety of purposes. Since 2004, the creative sector in Buenos Aires has grown by 90 percent. It now makes up nearly 10 percent of the city's gross domestic product and employs nine percent (almost 150,000 people) of the city's workforce. Since 2009, Montreal has invested more than $225 million in public projects hosting 25 public design competitions that resulted in $17 million in revenue for the local design community.

DC3 hopes to make similarly big gains by harnessing the UNESCO designation.

"For us, it's about economic development," Stella says.

DC3 will host a series of events celebrating design in the Motor City throughout this year, including the annual Detroit Design Festival on Sept. 22-24. The three-day citywide celebration of design has attracted more than 100,000 people the past five years.
 

Greening of Detroit program helps unemployed harvest careers

The Greening of Detroit is heading up an initiative that aims to give careers to the chronically unemployed, while also beautifying the city.

The Detroit Conservation Corps provides unemployed residents in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park job training and certification in the landscape industry. It's recruiting people who have struggled to overcome barriers to maintaining a full-time job, such as incarceration, substance abuse, homelessness, lack of education or job skills.

Helping these people become part of the everyday workforce isn't a simple task.

"Being able to recreate hope in the first couple of weeks is the biggest challenge," says Devon Buskin, workforce development director of the Greening of Detroit. "We have to build a trust because they have been disappointed so many times before."

The Detroit Conservation Corps does this by harnessing the wrap-around services and resources of several partners, including Focus: HOPE, Neighborhood Services Organization, and the McGregor Fund

The hope is for members of the Corps to start over and stabilize their lives. Participants receive training in landscaping, forestry, snow removal, and floral decor. Each eight-week session provides participants with technical training, work readiness skills, and case management services. Upon graduation, trainees are placed directly into jobs. It graduated 54 people from the program in June.

The Detroit Conservation Corps is partnering with the city of Detroit to work on local projects that are transforming the neighborhoods where the participants live into healthier, greener spaces. One such project is clearing and prepping nearly 300 vacant lots in the Fitzgerald neighborhood on the city's west side.

Greening of Detroit has set a goal to train and employ 2,500 Detroiters by 2020.

Loven Systems creates big data tech that mimics user decisions

Lots of tech companies claim they can solve big problems in business with big data analytics. A new startup in Northville, Loven Systems, believes it can do it better than everyone else by making technology that can mimic its user’s decision-making process.

"We look at how people make decisions," says Satyendra Rana, CTO of Loven Systems.

Loven Systems is developing a cognitive software solution that will help business users outside of the IT department gain valuable insights from their available data. Rana is a serial entrepreneur who has worked in data analytics for decades. He co-founded Wayne State University's Big Data and Business Analytics Symposium and has worked to expand the data industry in the region.

Rana knows where the pitfalls are when it comes to big data’s potential and its reality.

"There is a big gap between what businesses want and what technology can produce," Rana says.

Loven Systems bridges that gap by crafting its software to think like its users. The idea is that if it makes decisions like its user would, then they will be more comfortable with the software's results and follow through on the insights. Rana points out that too often big data analytics firms come up short because they are used to running perfect information, which isn’t easily found in the real world.

"In the business world there is no perfect information," Rana says.

Loven Systems got its start 18 months ago with just Rana. By January of 2015, the company had a team of four people. Today it employs 30 individuals who are helping the firm lock up new clients in the retail and healthcare sectors. It's aiming to add financial sector firms soon, which will create the need for more hiring.

"We will probably have 40 people by the end of the year," Rana says.

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Personal tragedy inspires launch of U-M spin-out, Neurable

Making the world a better place is the kind of warm and fuzzy rhetoric tech entrepreneurs use when launching their new startup.

Ramses Alcaide wants to make the world a better place, too, but his inspiration comes from personal experience.

The University of Michigan PhD candidate is dedicated to developing technologies to assist people with physical disabilities because he witnessed first-hand the challenges of living with such disabilities. In particular, the hardships that faced his favorite uncle. That uncle, also a scientist, suffered an accident that immobilized his legs when Alcaide was a young man. His struggles stuck with the U-M grad student.

"I remember seeing him struggle to relearn how to walk with the archaic technology of the time," Alcaide says. "I thought there has to be a better way. But I had no idea what that was."

Those memories served as the inspiration for Alcaide's post doctorate studies and a new startup called Neurable. The University of Michigan spin-out is developing a non-invasive brain-computer interface that allows for real-time control of software and physical objects, allowing people to control wheelchairs, robots and even a car with no training.

Neurable currently has a working prototype of its technology and is working toward commercializing it next year. The startup aims to raise $500,000 in seed capital to make that happen and more.

"We have much bigger dreams," Alcaide says. "We want to make it into a full-fledged company."

It's off to a good start. Neurable, with the help of U-M's Zell-Lurie Institute, took second place in the Rice Business Plan Competition. That gave it $50,000 in seed capital, as well as up to $280,000 for the competition's OWL Investment Prize.

"I really wanted to bring this technology to the next level so I can help as many people as possible," Alcaide says.

Source: Ramses Alcaide, founder & CEO of Neurable
Writer: Jon Zemke

Immigrant turns American Dream into own business in Pontiac

Hector Martinez came to metro Detroit with little more than a dream for a better life and some loose connections to the area. 20 years later, he's built his own a business and created jobs in Pontiac.

Trees&Co has established itself as a staple in the local tree-trimming market. It added two people over the last year, expanding its staff to five full-time employees and another four part-timers, and is looking to hire even more, for jobs ranging from arborists to climbers to groundsmen to sales reps.

"We have been building up our system and our equipment," Martinez says. "Now I feel like we are there. We have the customer lists and the equipment. Now we just need the people."

Twenty years ago Martinez wanted to be one of those people, a guy on someone's team working for an honest day's wage. In 1996, he moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland in hopes of finding a better life, and choose Pontiac because an acquaintance lived there and could make room for him.

Martinez worked at a Taco Bell for a few months until a friend complained about being quoted an arm and a leg to have a tree removed near his house. Martinez offered to give it a try for $100.

"I was able to cut the whole thing down without hitting his house," Martinez says. "He said you should do this for a living."

That was the start of Trees&Co. Martinez wasn't afraid of heights and liked working outside. He bought a chainsaw and started building up a customer base. Word of mouth made slow-but-steady growth possible over the years, allowing Martinez to turn the weekend side job into his full-time gig. Then he started hiring people. Today Trees&Co does $500,000 in gross revenue.

"I want to provide more work for more people," Martinez says. "We have the potential to make $2 to $3 million and provide more jobs in the community."

Sizzles Burgers and Subs brings Mediterranean twist to downtown Ypsilanti

Many restauranteurs have grand ambitions for changing their local food scene with new foods and flavors, but almost all of them end up offering standard American staples like hamburgers, sandwiches and pizza.

Mohamed Fayed wants to put those two things together with his new eatery, Sizzles Burgers and Subs, in downtown Ypsilanti. He describes it as typical American fare with a Mediterranean twist.

"It will be burgers, subs and wraps with Mediterranean flavors," Fayed says. "It will be everything we are used to with fresh ingredients and a Mediterranean twist."

Sizzles Burgers and Subs is as much a new adventure for Fayed as it is a venture. The Dearborn resident came to the U.S. from Yemen at age six and grew up in Metro Detroit with family that had been here for generations. He graduated from Fordson High School in Dearborn, then the Michigan Institute of Aviation & Technology, and worked as a supervisor at Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems. Then he decided he wanted to be his own boss and open his own restaurant.

Fayed scanned Metro Detroit to find the right location. The right one for him turned out to be a tough one. He bought a small shoebox of a storefront in downtown Ypsilanti. 10 N Adams hasn't been occupied in the better part of a generation and it showed the day Fayed walked through it.

"It had a lot of clutter," Fayed says. "The ceiling had moisture. The paint was peeling. A lot of mold, but we have remediated that. It was just an all-around mess."

Fayed has cleared out the building with the help of his brother, Ali Fayed, and is working to take plans to the city for Sizzles Burgers and Subs this spring. The Fayed brothers are doing most of the work themselves to get it open.

"It's a big challenge," Fayed says. "There are a lot of hurdles we have to overcome."

But that doesn't mean the Fayed brothers haven't gotten a warm reception.

"I like the area," Fayed says. "Plus the people here are very friendly. They all came out and congratulated me."

Source: Mohamed Fayed, owner & operator of Sizzle Burgers and Subs
Writer: Jon Zemke
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