OPPORTUNITY IS BUILT HERE.
April Boyle, Founder of Build Institute, has a big job ahead of her. Sipping a coffee in Avalon’s window and reflecting on the recent sea change in Detroit’s business fortunes, she sees a neighborhood business sized hole that still needs to be filled.
“In the state of Michigan and in Detroit, most of our economic development opportunities were focused on technology and large-scale companies. If you look at the demographics of that sector, it’s primarily white male. If you look at the demographics of Detroit, it’s eighty percent African American, so, as a city and state, we were leaving amazing, wonderful talent on the table.”
While the downtown core and select zones were benefitting from the traditional economic development techniques, Detroit’s sprawling neighborhoods and communities were still languishing. Clearly, something had to be done to bring businesses back to those that needed it most. A realization that led April to found Build Institute in 2012.
“Build Institute is an idea activator, and small business accelerator focused on equity, inclusion, diversity, and access to opportunity. Essentially, it’s the place where people with an idea can go to explore and nurture that idea. To discover how they can bring it to the next level.”
The goal to provide access to opportunity is one that April, a Detroit native, holds dear. Growing up as the daughter of a teenage mother and a Vietnam veteran father, her less than stable childhood gave her an unprecedented connection with the city and its people as she bounced from neighborhood to neighborhood.
“I feel that because of all the exposure I’ve had to different cultures growing up — really getting to know people deeply — it fostered my love for culture and community. And showed me the need for diversity, equality and social justice in the city. As a white female, regardless of whether I came from a background of disadvantage, I am still part of that privileged majority. I have different rights and access to things that other people don’t. And I’m very conscious and aware of that.”
April’s unique perspective of advantage within disadvantage not only informs Build Institute’s day-to-day activities, it also drives the organization’s ultimate ambition:
“Essentially, we’re really trying to build wealth and ownership in our neighborhoods. We believe that small business and microenterprise are the backbones of our economy. It helps create jobs, fill the empty storefronts and revitalize the commercial corridors… hence revitalizing neighborhoods. Keeping money in the community allows people to build legacy wealth for their families.”
However, money isn’t everything. As Detroit once learned the hard way, local business is the beating heart of a community. It’s something that Build Institute, and those who take advantage of its services, take seriously.
“The folks that come to our classes are not just doing this for the money. Yes, it’s important to have a viable business model and make money, but it’s so much more than that. We believe that business can be a force for good and a force for change. The people that attend our classes want to fill a gap in a product or service. They want to be a gathering space; a place where people can hang out and make connections. That’s where communities are built. Where random collisions happen, and ideas are brought to life.”
This ingrained belief in the importance of community investing and impact investing has gone far beyond simply helping others on the path to entrepreneurship at the Build Institute. April has walked that very road herself. Together, she and husband, Brian Boyle, Publisher of Model D Magazine, have personally taken up a socially aware stake in Detroit’s local business landscape.
“We saw that the Gold Cash Gold building on Michigan Avenue was going up for sale. It used to be a pawnshop, and another pawnshop was looking to purchase it. We just didn’t think it would be a good business for the community. So a handful of friends got together and purchased the building. We didn’t know what we would do with it at the time, but we knew that we could turn it into something that would be more beneficial to the community than a pawnshop.”
Following in the footsteps of businesses like Avalon and its groundbreaking community focus, the Gold Cash Gold building — now housing six apartments and a restaurant of the same name — has become something of a community driver and incubator in its own right.
“The restaurant has a social mission of paying a living wage, sharing ownership, using local produce, hiring local and serving a low-waste nose-to-tail menu. It’s a business that’s as much about serving the community as it is serving really good food. It’s a mission that we encourage through Build Institute. Inspiring people to get engaged. Inspiring them to become investors and owners in the types of businesses that they want in their community.”
April sees those newly-minted small business leaders as the tip of the spear, driving the resurgence of Detroit and the rebirth of the American dream for people around the world.
“Detroit is on the cusp right now. I really see us becoming a model for the rest of the world. Given the largest municipal bankruptcy in our country... Given the majority people of color community... We could really help solve some systemic challenges and be the world leader inequitable, inclusive entrepreneurship.”
When it comes to socially aware entrepreneurship in Detroit, Avalon was a pioneer. One of the first to step into the void with the goal of helping rebuild a storied city, one coffee and one shared moment at a time. And thanks to people like April Boyle and organizations like Build Institute, Avalon certainly won’t be the last.