IT industry innovators help transform Detroit into a tech talent hub

 In News Article

Southeast Michigan is cracking the code for developing a tech-savvy workforce.

On another workforce development front, Ted’s Choose Michigan campaign shines a spotlight on the state’s abundant job opportunities, low cost of living, outdoor recreation and rising creative culture, with a focus on retaining and attracting millennial-generation talent in the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (collectively known as STEAM) realms.

Initially targeting Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Madison, Wisconsin – as well as in-state college towns – the campaign is encouraging millennials to “Choose Michigan” as a place to work and play.

“The overarching goal of our talent initiatives is to build a 21st-century workforce in Michigan,” said Stephanie Beckhorn, Ted’s acting director. “With a working-age population that is projected to decline by 7 percent between 2020 and 2030 – the steepest decline of any state during that decade – it’s imperative that Michigan address its workforce challenges and find solutions that bridge the talent gap.”

‘The spirit of Detroit’

Reed could serve as a Choose Michigan poster child.

The San Diego native was working at Microsoft in Seattle after graduating in 2012 from New York’s Columbia University. Then in 2015 – after only visiting the city on occasion – she moved to Detroit to launch Kollecto, an app that matches people to artwork that fits their taste and budget.

Although Reed said physical location isn’t always overridingly important to her and her millennial peers – “I can work from anywhere where there’s a laptop,” she said – Detroit did offer distinct advantages over cities whose tech scenes sport bigger reputations. Among them were a sustainable cost of living and a closer-knit tech community.

“Because of that, you’re able to make more connections in a different way,” she said. “Really, Detroit was a city that allowed me to officially launch my first business. I’m really excited about the spirit of Detroit.”

Detroit also offers more institutional support for budding entrepreneurs in comparison with Silicon Valley, where private investors or entities are the primary providers of startup capital, Reed said. She cited as an example the Innovation Fund Macomb Community College, Powered by JPMorgan Chase & Co., a $2.7 million effort to stimulate economic development and job growth among promising Detroit-area entrepreneurs and next-stage companies with high-growth potential. There’s also Detroit Demo Day, a Quicken Loans-led initiative that awards interest-free loans to startups in or willing to relocate to Detroit.

Reed began developing the idea for Kollecto while at Microsoft, where she was a Windows product manager. She left Microsoft after three years to focus on the app’s startup and began blogging about building a tech business as a nontechnical person.

Like many in the industry, Reed doesn’t have a computer engineering background. She studied comparative ethnic studies at Columbia, where she “learned how to think critically” – a highly valued attribute in the tech field.

In 2015, her blogging earned her an invitation to give a TEDx talk in Detroit, where she discussed how to launch a tech startup without knowing how to write computer code.

“After I gave that talk, people began contacting me for advice,” Reed recalled. “I realized I might have another business on my hands.”

That business – Apps Without Codes – received a boost last fall when Reed won $20,000 in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Inclusive Innovation Challenge, a $1 million global competition to promote the use of technology to drive economic opportunity for workers.

Building an entrepreneurial mindset

Now, Apps Without Codes offers free introductory workshops and a fee-based two-month boot camp in which participants develop their own app and plans to launch it. Participants from 14 countries have taken part in the online boot camps.

“I see a lot of the workforce development we do as training entrepreneurs,” Reed said. If Apps Without Codes program participants don’t immediately wind up launching their own business, they at least develop an entrepreneurial mindset that makes them more valuable to employers, she said.

Reed said that she not only regularly provides informal mentoring to Detroit-area residents, but that she also represents the success that black women can have in the tech industry. A January USA Today article identified black women as the nation’s fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs.

“I actually know a lot of the women in that article and can relate to their stories,” Reed said. “The only difference is I intentionally chose not to be in Silicon Valley.”

For its part, Grand Circus has set the goal of having each of its graduating classes reflect the community from which they hail, including women and people of color, Bazzy said.

Grand Circus was one of the nation’s first tech training institutes of its kind when it opened in 2013 with the goal of developing technical talent among Detroit-area residents. It launched its Grand Rapids location in 2017. Since its creation, Grand Circus has seen more than 1,500 of its graduates placed at 300 companies around the state.

“We knew that tech talent and recruitment was one of Michigan’s biggest challenges,” Bazzy said. “We are actively working to solve a shortage of talent by quickly and affordably preparing Michiganders to fill high-end careers that employers need, right now.”

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