Detroit's Bizdom U course builds entrepreneurs

Economically ravaged Detroit hardly conjures images of newly minted tech companies. But a fledgling "entrepreneurship boot camp" hopes to help revitalize Detroit and — eventually — other urban areas that have been overly dependent on manufacturing jobs.

Bizdom U is a non-profit, one-year program that trains and funds would-be business people to start businesses in the Motor City. Created by Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert, a Detroit native, it is a bold plan to rejuvenate a crumbling downtown. If successful, it could be expanded to other Midwestern cities.

"Entrepreneurs — not government programs — create businesses, jobs and growth for a city," Gilbert says.

The program's inaugural graduating class last year of four men and three women has produced five new Detroit-area businesses in industries that include mobile marketing, online retailing and a shopping rewards program that supports the local economy. The second wave of 20 students, scheduled to graduate this summer, is expected to create 10 companies this year.

Mason Levey, 21, is the first Bizdom grad to tee up a start-up: a mobile marketing agency called Bablur that creates branding campaigns for fashion-, political- and music-based content. "This program inspires and enables," he says.

Three years ago, Gilbert, who is also owner of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, decided to start a boot camp for entrepreneurs — but only if graduates of the program agreed to grow their start-ups in Detroit.

What is happening in Detroit is unique but not unprecedented. There are several non-profit programs in the U.S. that help entrepreneurs develop tech start-ups, yet none requires that companies be based in a specific area and stay there, as Bizdom does.

Whether that works in a city where employment is hovering near 14% and foreclosures are prevalent is the real challenge, some business professors say.

"With all due respect to Detroit, it was at its peak 100 years ago and has been in decline since," says Rob Adams, who teaches in the MBA program at the University of Texas' McCombs Business School. "The real question is, what are the expectations of this program? The danger is to throw money at a problem and expect immediate results."

Bizdom isn't necessarily betting on traditional academic overachievers to transform Detroit.

"We love Ph.D.s, but a specific kind of Ph.D. — poor, hungry and driven," says Gilbert, a graduate of Michigan State University and Wayne State University Law School.

More than 1,000 people have applied in Bizdom's first two years — though only a fraction make the cut after a laborious battery of background checks and interviews.

Students also are recruited from colleges, high schools, local business-plan competitions and entrepreneurship training fairs.

Those who are admitted attend class three days a week, from 9-to-5, in space leased from Wayne State University. There, they are lectured, tested and given practical business tasks to perform.

Gilbert is considering expanding the program to other cities, starting with Cleveland.

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