FoodLab Detroit Draws on Networking, Skills to Foster Growth, Change

Corp! Magazine
Thursday, Jan 8, 2015

When Devita Davison, her Brooklyn, N.Y., home destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, returned to her roots in Michigan, she took a chance and accepted a co-director’s position at what was essentially a startup, even though FoodLab Detroit is a nonprofit organization.

Davison had come back to Detroit to regroup and had every intention of returning to her old life in New York. But what impressed her was not only the commitment of FoodLab founder Jess Daniel, but the fact that very little time and money was wasted in managing an organizational structure. FoodLab was “very lean, nimble, flexible.”

FoodLab, essentially a group of locally owned food businesses that share resources, spoke her language of idealism mixed with business pragmatism, and she was sold.

In many ways, it was a continuation of what Davison was doing in Brooklyn, which had a jump on Detroit by a few years in fostering grassroots entrepreneurialism in local food.

“We like to think that we are part of a larger good-food movement,” Davison said. Indeed, she said, it’s part of a larger movement to create opportunity for “traditionally marginalized” communities, including African Americans, Southeast Asians, veterans and women.

“The mission of the organization is to create systemic change. We’re not talking about, ‘Oh, we want to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.’ We want to do that. Of course we do. But we also know if we really want to create change and an economy that is equitable, fair and just for all, we’re going to have to … ask, ‘What are the systemic challenges that prevent them from starting, growing, and maintaining a business? That’s how you create change, when you create change in a system.”

The most obvious challenge to these communities is access to capital. But, said Davison, back up and ask why this access is practically nonexistent. It’s because they’re first-time business owners who lack a credit history. Couple that with the fact that the failure rate in the food business is high, no matter what your ethnicity or economic background. As a result, banks are reluctant to finance anybody.

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