For Love Of Detroit
Homecoming event links expats to the city’s revitalization.
For the second year, Detroit expats gathered in the city for a Detroit Homecoming event to experience the positive changes within their hometown — and to see how they can support the revitalization from wherever they live now.
The inaugural event last year set a high bar — since then, more than $240 million of investment and donation activity has either been planned or under way, including $10 million pledged by expat Adam Levinson, an alternative asset fund CEO in Singapore, for youth programs in Detroit.
On Sept. 30, a largely new group of 170 top expats came back to Detroit for the three-day Homecoming.
Perry Teicher, who works on impact investments in New York City, was one of few first-year expats to be invited back again. He said the second Homecoming built upon last year’s energy and was about more than bringing together leaders and activists to discuss Detroit.
“Instead, Homecoming cultivates a community of action,” Teicher said. “It’s wonderful to see the continued growth of networks and individuals committed to inclusive development in Detroit, in conjunction with the exciting activity happening across the city.”
Teicher also planned an evening get-together for the several dozen Jewish expats who visited Detroit and local young Jewish adults. The reception showcased initiatives being organized within the city by those in the Jewish community, and the gathering provided an opportunity to share experiences, memories and new ideas to cultivate a renewed vision of Detroit.
Guests at the Jewish expat reception included former Sen. Carl Levin; journalist Mitch Albom, who spoke about the importance of volunteering and highlighted attendee Treger Strasberg, founder of Humble Design; and multiplatinum singer/songwriter/producer Mike Posner, an expat who sang at the Homecoming dinner and at the Jewish reception.
Entrepreneur Ari Tolwin lives in New York, but grew up in Detroit and is the son of Aish HaTorah Rabbi Alon Tolwin. He was intrigued with opportunities in his hometown and thinks the city has reached a tipping point, from “Hey, there may be some opportunity here” to “We may miss out if we don’t act now,” he said.
“Only Detroit can bring together hundreds of its most successful expats to share their common passion and excitement for our city,” Tolwin said.
“As an entrepreneur, it’s very powerful to have the support of community, and I feel that here in Detroit. There’s a reason every sports team plays better at home — community support matters — and the Jewish and broader communities here in Detroit provide that support to the businesses here.”
Tolwin, who created the beverage company Happy Tree to bring locally sourced maple water to market, submitted his startup to an expat pitch competition that grants funds to expats who open an office or move their business to the city of Detroit.
In the closing few minutes of the Homecoming event, Tolwin learned his company had become one of the winners of the startup competition, winning a $75,000 grant to return to his hometown.
“We are excited to come home to Detroit,” he said. “We are looking for office space now and, by 2017, plan to source our maple water Up North and build a bottling facility in Detroit.”
Before the event, Dennis Bernard of Bernard Financial provided a real estate tour for expats interested in investment activity.
The Homecoming agenda included panels, lectures and entertainment to educate participants about the current state of their hometown.
Speakers included Under Armour founder Kevin Plank and serial entrepreneurs, investors and philanthropists Brad Keywell and Eric Lefkofsky, expats living in Chicago. Former Fortune Publisher Jim Hayes and Crain’s Detroit Publisher Mary Kramer co-chaired the invite-only event.
Dave Eisenberg of Boston, a senior vice president at Acxiom, said, “While I’ve always felt a connection to Detroit and the strong values it represents, it’s been years since I’ve been this close to details of the business transformation and physical renovation under way in our hometown.”
Southfield native Andy Krafsur, now living in Texas, said, “All I know for sure is that I want to remain connected as closely as possible to Detroit. You can count on me to be an advocate for all things Detroit. There is a return of energy in Detroit that may make it the most intriguing city on the planet at this moment. There is a spirit of cooperation and excitement that is rarely seen in modern American life.”
Krafsur, CEO of Spira Footwear, said he really appreciates the unselfish spirit of the young people committed to Detroit’s revitalization. He also noted the cooperative spirit of the governmental leaders in attendance.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder both gave updates about the city.
“When your Republican governor referred to the Democratic mayor of Detroit as his partner, I was euphoric,” Krafsur said. “You rarely see this in our modern-day partisan political discourse. It demonstrates that it is not Republican versus Democrat; it is constructive versus destructive.
“I was also incredibly impressed with the Improve Detroit app the mayor shared with us. I have downloaded it and plan to share it with our local government leaders in El Paso. The idea that you can communicate so directly and expect a response within a couple of days is extraordinary even in the best-run cities in the world.”
After attending the 2014 Homecoming, expat Scott Raskin, now of San Francisco and son of JN columnist Danny Raskin, returned this year intent to offer his expertise to help the city.
The CEO of Mindjet, the largest software purveyor in the innovation industry, donated time and resources within his company to help “crowd source” challenge questions posed by the mayor this year. On the CrowdRise platform, expats donated more than $56,000 to support seven Detroit charities.
The feedback from the expat community showed how the event struck an emotional chord within many visitors.
When Krafsur was 8, he attended the Jewish Community Center sports camp at the old facility on Meyers in Detroit. One day, he went to see the Lions preseason practice at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills. Everyone was pushing to get autographs; he was very small and could not get through. Greg Landry, the Lions’ All-Pro quarterback, saw him struggling. He came over, picked him up and signed his football.
At the Homecoming opening dinner, Krafsur was walking through a crowded passageway and came face to face with Landry once again.
“I was overcome with emotion,” he said. “I had not thought about that moment in many years, but suddenly it all came flooding back.”
These types of memories made this much more than a typical business conference; it was personal for the expats as it sparked memories of their past and opportunities for them to give back to their hometown.
Katherine Rosman, an editor at the New York Times, felt the positive energy in the city from the outset.
“A week later, I am still vibrating from the energy of the city,” she said. “Next trip home with my family, we will be staying in a hotel Downtown rather than in Birmingham, as we usually do. The food in Detroit is great, the architecture is amazing, the people are welcoming, the museums are world-class, the ballparks are close by — sounds like a perfect vacation to me.”
Peter Cummings, who recently bought an apartment in the David Whitney building Downtown, came to the event with his wife, Julie Fisher Cummings, a major philanthropist who serves as co-chair of the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation. Cummings already plans to dedicate more of his time and resources to further develop properties within Detroit.
In an emotional closing to the event, Todd Waldman of New York spoke about how much Detroit meant to his wife, Rachel Jacobs, a native of Huntington Woods who developed the Detroit Nation organization several years ago to build bridges between former Detroiters and their hometown. Jacobs was killed in the tragic train crash in Philadelphia earlier this year.
Waldman spoke about how funds in her memory have been allocated to support entrepreneurs who move to the city with a mission to make a difference in the neighborhoods and community within Detroit.
By JN Contributing Writer Adam Finkel, who played a role in organizing Homecoming and the Jewish expat reception.