Here's your guide to White Entrepreneurial Guy, the Detroit-themed (for now) meme that's viral now and will probably be dead by Sunday.
About this meme:
Jason Lorimer, according to his HuffPo bio, is the founder and CEO of Dandelion. Dandelion, as Lorimer explains, is "a think-then-do tank made up of designers, strategists and technologists...a proven team of entrepreneurs with an intimate understanding of sustainable business models that build, connect and celebrate the change they want to see more of in the world."
I still have no idea what exactly Dandelion does, but according to Model D, Dandelion is doing some big things. "I am not from Detroit," Morimer writes in Model D this week, "Yet, in the 14 months since I have lived and loved in this place, my team and I have managed to gain access to and partnered with a myriad of civic-minded institutions to provide new ideas and measurable outcomes in the communities they wish to affect." And to prove he's really about that life, he took a photo in front of the train station.
So now that I have somewhat of an idea of what Dandelion does, I wonder if they can help me figure out why the kids who live around my neighborhood are tweeting photos of themselves holding rifles and drinking brown liquor.
Origin of this meme:
There's a certain process you have to go through in order to become a new business owner in Detroit. In podunk towns like Grand Rapids and Lansing, you have to apply for a state business license, register a business name, establish a bunch of tax and employee codes and wait for an approval process — ain't nobody got time for that!
Here in Detroit, you buy someone's foreclosed property for $100 or so, tell the local business publications that you're not black (because the quota for quotable and trendy black entrepreneurs has been filled by the lady that owns the crepe place you always hear about and the guy that owns D'Mongos, and we wouldn't want to upset the balance with quotable black political commentators) and watch the profits roll in. Bonus points if you 1. Land a recurring column in one of the local pubs 2. The New York Times features you if one of its every-four-month Detroit progress reports or 3. You're featured in a local documentary.
Jason Lorimer, like other local white-guy changemakers Phil Cooley, Josh Linkner, John Corcoran and ultimate white-guy Detroit changemaker (Crain's literally compared him to God) Dan Gilbert, has done all of these above things but has also given us a golden meme generator in the process.
Spread of this meme:
Lorimer's buzzword-tastic post (autonomous! communities! create change!) and accompanying photo in Model D is the other side of what's bizarre to understand about Detroit, besides the crime and failing schools and budget problems and emergency managership and abandoned structures and high insurance rates and property tax hikes. Sure, a social entrepreneur might pale in comparison, and I can hear your "just be thankful someone wants to move to Detroit" comments brewing, but let me explain.
I am all for people moving into Detroit and helping rebuild this place. I think the term "Detroit is open for business" is a bit overused, but if it helps people invest here I'll let it slide. Let me also make clear that, if you didn't notice my profile photo, I am a black guy who lives in 80%-black Detroit, but I'm not going to be one of those "I was here first!" kind of Detroiters who turn their nose up at people, regardless of race, who want to come make change here.
I do have a huge issue with the underlying premises behind some of the entrepreneurial ideas being tossed around here. Let me point you to a video of a failed coffee shop venture where a group of college grads on a mission from God wanted to move to a slum community to open a coffee shop in the Cass Corridor. That's their words, by the way.
Sure, every new business owner didn't get a holy anointing to grind coffee beans, but every white-guy entrepreneur has the same idea: Rent living space in Midtown, link up with some guys Downtown and open a new place in Corktown or TechTown. Or some combination of the above. I've ranted about this over and over again at my old job, and I'll say it again here: Detroit is more than just the MidCorkDown radius where the new creative class is flocking to.
When all the same new businesses congregate in the same area and use the same PR types in the same area to spread the word to all of the major business reporters concentrated in the same area, that sends the false signal to the readership of said publications that the only place where progress is happening is that area. And since all these guys see each other over and over again, that's how they end up with recurring columns and wind up as go-to quotables whenever another entrepreneurial faux-trend piece needs to be wound up before deadline. The cycle continues when flyover journalists from the national publications search Google for something like "Detroit entrepreneurs" and the same white guys come up again and again — which is why all of my non-Detroit friends ask me to take them to Slows whenever they're in town, because apparently there's nowhere else to eat here.
Media criticism aside, the idea that some (not all, mind you) entrepreneurs have about how everything in Detroit can be solved with a think-tank here and a coffee shop/microbrewery/T-shirt maker there is getting beyond ludicrous at this point. The undercurrent of "well, the folks that live here haven't done it, so I'm going to come in and make it better for them" runs through a lot of these proposals as well, and that's a concern.
I think it's nice that whatever Dandelion does, I'm guessing it will inevitably lead to another place where I can get a $4 cup of Guatemalan roast. (But I do like exotic coffee, seriously!) I fail to see what that does in the long run to correct, I don't know, the fact that Detroit schoolkids aren't performing to the standards they should or sky-high car insurance rates. There's an entire culture shift that needs to happen here and that can't happen with craft beer.
Someone's going to read this and post this on Facebook, and there will be lots of "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem"-type comments. Maybe I'll get lucky again and someone at Crain's will write a blog post in response, because how dare I have the audacity to question something "positive" in Detroit. But for now, I'm just going to enjoy this meme while it lasts, because satire is indeed rooted in truth.