By Sherri Kolade
Who is holding up Detroit?
Thriving Black businesses, that’s who.
They are the pizza shops, boutiques, hair salons, sneaker stores, bakeries and other established businesses that consistently remind others why they are still in a league of their own making as boss entrepreneurs and business mavens.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 18 percent of businesses in the country are minority-owned. The streets of Detroit are decorated with more than 400 Black-owned businesses. Viewed as the economic backbone of the neighborhood, Black businesses serve a larger purpose in the nation’s financial makeup. Employing almost one million people nationwide, Black businesses account for roughly $150 billion in annual gross income.
“Black businesses in the city of Detroit are an employment block, they are hiring Detroiters. Not only that, they are really contributing to the neighborhood and communities where they exist,” Charity Dean, president and CEO of the Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance said previously.
Yet, despite Detroit’s rich entrepreneurial spirit, Black owners are known to be closed out of the dream. Discouraged by barriers in access to capital, lack of exposure and other factors mounted against Black entrepreneurs, starting a business can be a daunting task. Stemming from generations-long practices of keeping Black communities financially agitated, rules and regulations have been in play that make acquiring and keeping Black businesses solvent hard.
“We live in a country where we have systemic and structural racism that continues to impact Black businesses even up until this day,” said Dean. “Black businesses struggle with access to capital. There is no shortage of money, but there is a shortage of access for Black-owned businesses.”
The Detroit Historical Society wants to help turn the tables on that narrative by recognizing the importance of honoring Black businesses through a new initiative, The Hustle, a new, multi-year project at the Detroit Historical Museum. The new project will celebrate the inspiring stories of Detroit’s Black entrepreneurs — linking contemporary business owners to the pioneers who set their course in a series of exhibits and public programming.
The Detroit Historical Society is an independent non-profit organization that manages the Detroit Historical Museum in Midtown and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle.
The Hustle is the Detroit Historical Society’s newest community engagement and exhibition project following in the footsteps of the award-winning Detroit67 project, according to a press release. Incorporating large-scale photography by Detroit photographers, oral histories, museum exhibits and events, public programming, school tours, and a resource summit, this program strives to serve the unsung community members whose contributions are not always recognized through programming, exhibits and events.
Society CEO Elana Rugh said in a press release, “Our mission is to tell Detroit’s stories and why they matter. No story is too big or too small for our museums and we often say our goal is that our visitors will see themselves somewhere in our halls or on our walls. The Hustle will do that in a way that no other project ever has, and we are excited to celebrate these stories in our museum.”
The Hustle is sponsored by The Gilbert Family Foundation, Toyota Motor North America and AAA/The Auto Club Group. Additional funding was generously provided by Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase.
To identify Detroit entrepreneurs that exemplify The Hustle, the Society is crowdsourcing nominations, which can be made at detroithistorical.org, on paper ballots available at the Detroit Historical Museum or at neighborhood community meetings and town halls where The Hustle will be discussed.
Anyone can nominate a Detroit business or business owner by visiting detroithistorical.org/hustle or by dropping a nomination in one of the community ballot boxes located around the city. Nominees must have a business in Detroit or be a Detroiter with a business. Locations of ballot boxes can be found at detroithistorical.org/hustle or by calling or by calling 313.833.4727. Nominations (which opened in late April) will close on Thursday, June 30, with around 500 spaces available.
Rebecca Salminen Witt, chief strategy and marketing officer, told the Michigan Chronicle that the initiative is digging deep and celebrating the grassroots businesses that keep Detroit’s wheels turning, and the nominees will be evaluated by an independent committee.
“These are folks who come from the community – non-profit leaders, neighborhood folks,” she said, adding that from the list of nominees, 36 representatives will be selected to be honored and featured in a gallery series of upcoming exhibits.
“At the end, we will have a resource summit for anyone interested in becoming an entrepreneur,” she said of the winter 2023 event.
One of the nominees is Jason Hall, who founded RiDetroit in 2018, who is known for his entrepreneurial efforts in Detroit.
Known as the co-founder and former president of Slow Roll Detroit, Hall described himself to the Michigan Chronicle as a bike advocate who speaks to crowds about building community through cycling.
“The bike industry has traditionally been a completely white-dominated [space],” Hall said, adding that he is glad to be a part of a growing movement.
“We’re moving into different arenas where it’s mandatory that we have … Black representation,” he said, adding that he is glad to be nominated because of his work. “It feels amazing right now to be nominated, especially for something like entrepreneurship. … When you’re recognized outside of your own sort of scale of success for being an entrepreneur, that’s huge.”
He added that as a Black entrepreneur it’s even more impactful, especially for his fellow nominees who are growing the city into what they want it to be through their businesses in Detroit.
“We grew up in a place, unlike any other place. You can go to a party store in Detroit and you could pay your cell phone bill. You can get candy. You could buy dinner. You can get hair products. So, we learned at a very early age not to be pigeonholed in one thing – that we can do multiple different things,” he said. “So, I think that’s really what part of Detroit’s hustle culture comes from. Our ability here to see the bigger picture; that we can do multiple things and get it done.”
For more information, visit detroithistorical.org.
Staff Writer Megan Kirk contributed to this report.