Team Fisher-Yale-HBS (Fishardale): Seeing is Believing in Detroit

2015 Summer Tour, Fisher-Yale-HBS Team Comments (0)

City: Detroit, MI

Entrepreneurs: Jen Rusciano, Noam Kimelman, Jake Schoenknecht

Detroit Food Academy

This week, we experienced the power of perception.

Having never been to Detroit before, our perception of the city was colored entirely by what we’ve seen portrayed in the media: taxpayer bailouts of the Big Three, bankruptcy, and the desertion of two thirds of its population. From the outside looking in, Detroit seemed to be the city that once was.

Within the city limits, the reality appears to be quite a different story.  Our partner organization was housed in the Green Garage, an energizing community dedicated to the revitalization of Detroit through sustainable innovation and entrepreneurship. The building itself embodies this principle in the reclaimed wood used to transform it from a Model T showroom into the vibrant co-working and incubation space it is today.

We were lucky enough to work with one such organization that embodies the concept of second chances and mobilization.  Detroit Food Academy empowers high school students to create their own triple-bottom line food business, creating the next generation of entrepreneurs tackling the problems within our food system. At the helm of DFA are dedicated superheros with various backgrounds who combine to create a powerhouse of vision for the future of their city. Co-founders Jen and Noam bring extensive experience in food policy and a passion for food access. As an Americorp Vista, Jake brings his background in food retail and nutrition to help grow awareness of their education programs.

During our work with DFA, we also experienced a perception problem.  DFA recently started a product line called Small Batch Detroit, built to launch students’ creations commercially. Kicking it off is a product called Mitten Bites. We initially struggled over how to classify this product, thinking that it should fit into a clearly defined category. As it turns out, survey respondents classified them as everything from no-bake cookies or a healthy snack to a nutrition bar replacement or granola snack. In addition, DFA landed placement in Whole Foods, where the Mitten Bites were placed on shelves in all of these categories. What was important, we learned, is not to project our own assumptions, but to listen to customers, understand their motivations and market the product to them based on their own interpretations of how it fits into their lives. We worked closely with DFA to identify who the Mitten Bites customer is, and aimed to provide actionable steps around how to reach each group. Time well spent was rewarded as the first online order by a target customer was placed just days after we left Detroit! As sign of good things to come.

We were lucky enough to get a window into the real Detroit, but there are so many like us that only have secondary sources to rely upon. In a fantastic Shop Talk hosted by The Social Grooming Club, one of the MBAx Fellows asked a question of the Deputy Mayor that was on all of our minds: how does a city leader correct the misperception of the city? The mayor’s response: banking on young people and entrepreneurs. DFA is answering this call and helping to develop their own cadre of social entrepreneurs aimed at changing the perception of the city of Detroit.

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On August 6, 2015

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