Jewish energy channeled toward Downtown revival.
Jeff Aronoff describes himself as a Tamarack kid.
And the skills and ideas he learned in camp, he says, will serve him well in his latest adventure.
After seven years of practicing law at Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone PLC, Aronoff has jumped into a big, new challenge. On March 14, he became the first executive director of D:hive, a new organization dedicated to helping people who want to live, work or start a new business in Downtown Detroit.
Aronoff uses a camping analogy to describe the group’s current state.
“Right now, we’re just igniting the kindling,” he says. “You can put out a fire if you try to build it too quickly. We need to build this gradually to generate sustained success.”
As he spoke, Aronoff was standing in the middle of the wide open D:hive welcome center — a large room in the midst of major renovation with fresh orange paint covering the walls. In the heart of Downtown Detroit, the building at 1253 Woodward was formerly the home of Inside Detroit, a 6-year-old nonprofit organization that has merged with D:hive. Inside Detroit offered tours and information to visitors, new residents and businesses.
The front windows of the D:hive currently are covered with a mosaic of Post-It notes. Inside is a hodge-podge of Detroit-based merchandise for sale, a few desks, a rack of literature, brainstorming boards covered with even more Post-It notes and a ceiling-less conference room, which was used as a movie set for a pivotal scene last year in George Clooney’s Ides of March. Now that room is a home for classes to help provide entrepreneurs support and training to start a new business in Detroit.
That’s the current state of the D:hive. However, within weeks, the room will be transformed into a refurbished facility better equipped to serve its new purpose.
The D:hive … A Place To Connect
The new D:hive is more than just a welcome center. Its ambition is far greater. It’s attempting to be a talent attraction and development laboratory to help make Detroit a vibrant, thriving city once again.
Aronoff credits Josh McManus as the visionary behind the D:hive. A Georgia native, McManus was encouraged to come to Detroit by the Hudson-Webber Foundation after receiving national attention for his efforts to lead the transformation of an abandoned neighborhood in Chattanooga, Tenn., into an active, growing arts-oriented community.
McManus’s vision and approach is to focus on the entire set of needs that talented, young entrepreneurs have when trying to start a new business in a city — a place to work, a place to live and, most importantly, strong connections to other bright, young people.
“That’s something the Jewish community has traditionally done well,” says Aronoff. “Building strong connections is part of our heritage.”
McManus’ role was to shape D:hive’s vision. To lead the new organization and keep it sustainable and on track, the Downtown Detroit Partnership and the Hudson-Webber Foundation brought Aronoff on board.
A resident of Huntington Woods with his wife and two young daughters, Aronoff is an avid Detroit booster. And while legal work seems a world apart from his new responsibilities, he says his years at Miller Canfield prepared him well for this. Aronoff specialized in public finance, advising governmental clients on economic development initiatives and public-private collaboration. He has degrees from Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.
He uses a poster board graphic to describe the scope and focus of D:hive.
“If you’re new to Detroit, want to start something new or want to connect in new ways, D:hive is here to provide the tools you need,” says Aronoff.
D:hive activities are grouped into three categories — inform, connect and equip.
The “inform” category includes providing answers to questions about the city; tours to Detroit experiences; a timeline of city events; data that new residents and business owners may need on safety, schools and culture; and real estate information, including listings of available homes and business locations.
In the “connect” category are connections to projects, programs and services; opportunities to volunteer your time and talent; introductions to others you might want to meet; and jobs that match passion with needs.
The “equip” category is what sets the D:hive apart from a traditional urban welcome center. It includes providing space to test ideas and creations; classes to build ideas into a plan; and roundtables to help entrepreneurs grow their existing efforts.
Core to the D:hive’s business development activities are two training initiatives called “Build” and “Grow.”
Building a Community of Entrepreneurs
“Build” provides eight weeks of classes that bring together entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds and skill sets. Classes meet once a week for three-hour sessions. Students also put in three hours of work each week outside of class. The program is based on similar efforts in Chattanooga, Cincinnati and Asheville, N.C. In eight weeks, participants convert their ideas into a plan and are matched with other community resources that may help them further that plan. Eight to 10 individuals are enrolled in each class.
The “Build” startup classes are designed to increase the chances of success for people who have an idea for a program, project or business that they believe will benefit the residents of Detroit. The “Grow” program is geared toward ongoing support.
The concept: To sustain success, entrepreneurs need to be constantly solving problems, connecting with new networks and refining their approach to their work. “Grow” is a monthly roundtable meeting, led by a facilitator, geared to provide a forum for problem-solving and idea sharing, providing insights that drive innovation, shared support and continuous improvement. All sessions are held in confidential settings to encourage dialogue and camaraderie.
Aronoff sees the Build and Grow sessions as a way to build a community or network of support among the many talented young people wanting to build something new in the city. “The talent is here and the opportunities are here,” he says. “What we lack right now is the density of activity that all vibrant cities need. That’s what we’re working on.”
While optimistic about the city’s prospects, he knows that the rebirth will take time. He envisions that the increasing number of participants of the Build and Grow programs will help accelerate the rebirth by helping to get others involved in the programs and the network building.
Asked whether Jewish energy is making a difference in Detroit’s rebuilding efforts, he replied, “Absolutely. You can feel it. And if you think about it, the same principles that make the Jewish Federation work so well are really what the D:hive is all about.”
A grant by the Hudson-Webber Foundation is helping D:hive get started. Other partners include the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, Model D Media, Quicken Loans and Rock Detroit.
A grand opening of the refurbished new facility likely will be held in May.
Updates on D:hive activity are available on the organization’s Facebook page. Interested entrepreneurs can register for Build or Grow classes through the D:hive website — d-hive.org — or request more information at DhiveDetroit@gmail.com or (313) 962-4590.By Allan Nahajewski, Contributing Writer