Starting from the Ground Up.
Detroit has been getting national attention lately, and the reviews are good: The New York Times publishes headlines like Detroit: The Most Exciting City in America? and Detroit Was Crumbling. Here’s How It’s Reviving.
But as the city acquires a new narrative, the story stays the same for many Detroiters: 39.4 percent of residents are living either at or below the poverty level. Nicole Farmer, owner of LifeLine Business Consulting, knows that story all too well.
“I was born with a welfare number. I still know my welfare number,” says the 38-year-old mother of two. She was raised by her grandmother, who, while insisting Nicole would be successful, had issues of her own. “I always called her Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde,” Farmer says, “because you never knew what you were going to walk into.”
“I’m six or seven years old, and I’m helping her with the taxes, cleaning the house top to bottom and paying the bills; I was staining hardwood floors and changing electrical sockets at ten years old. If I got a C on my report card, I would have to stand in a corner and kneel on rice for half the day. If I didn’t wash the dishes, she’d dump all of them on my bed at five in the morning. She took me to Las Vegas for my tenth birthday, and she did all of these wonderful things, yet she really wasn’t well.”
It reached a breaking point when Farmer was 13. Her grandmother called the State of Michigan and asked for her to be removed. A social worker appeared at her door, took Farmer and her two bags, and sent her to a group home. She got pregnant and had a child at 14. She dealt with abusive relationships. She was in and out of homelessness.
“Many days The Salvation Army fed my family and paid my bills, so I understand what Detroiters go through every day. ‘Am I going to pay this energy bill or am I going to eat?’ ‘Am I going to take three buses to work or am I going to stay home and take care of my son who is sick?’ You lose hope. You just try to survive.”
It was the kindness of fellow Detroiters — “the heart of Detroit,” Farmer says — that empowered her to wake up every morning and do it all again: Her son’s teacher who stayed with him at school until 7 pm so she wouldn’t lose her job, or the co-worker who let her live at her deceased mother’s home for six months, rent-free. At an age when many peoples’ lives are just beginning, Farmer couldn’t see how she could make it to 30, much less 25.
But when Farmer was 26, her perspective on the future began to change with her then-husband’s dream of owning a candy shop. She got a lease and attended free business coaching classes. Though the instructors discouraged her, Farmer didn’t listen. To advertise the grand opening, she told her then-husband to imagine they were politicians on the campaign trail.
“I remember being pregnant and we walked the entire neighborhood. It took us three, four days, handing out flyers, knocking on doors,” she says. “Come opening day, the line was all the way down the block. I thought that was the most hilarious thing.”
Though open for only a year, the candy store made a mark on the community. They employed neighborhood kids, bought scooters for them to make deliveries. They gave the children confidence and taught them money management. Perhaps not unlike what Farmer’s grandmother did with her, albeit in a more nurturing way.
“The dope dealers couldn’t come in. Anybody who was just hanging around, doing whatever, they could not come in. It was a safe place for the children — for once we were actually honoring and supporting our children.”
Farmer’s then-husband eventually went back to his job as a mechanic at Tuffy Auto Service. After a few months, the owners of the franchise approached Farmer with an offer. “They said they saw something in me — they said I could own Tuffy’s. I thought of every excuse not to: I’m not educated, I have a GED. I’m black, I’m 26, I’ve got these children. I cannot do this. But they kept asking me over and over again to purchase this building, and I’m like, ‘I don’t have any money, why are you saying I can have this?’”
They ultimately wore Farmer down, and despite being turned away from a meeting because she brought her six-week-old son (her mother-in-law was dying of cancer and Farmer was the sole caregiver), she did it: Farmer became the first African American woman in the United States to own a Tuffy Auto Center, running a multi-million dollar franchise for five years and gaining what she calls, "the equivalent to a master’s degree in finance".
She might not have known it at the time, but all of her experiences — her entire life story, in fact — were forging a path for her to start the organization she founded almost nine years ago. LifeLine Business Consulting teaches Detroiters how to start their own businesses.
“I wanted people to realize their excuses don’t mean anything. If they can identify with my story, now they don’t have a reason not to live the life they want,” she says.
LifeLine offers classes, workshops, and one-on-one coaching, assisting clients even after they’ve finished the program because once you’re a client, you’re a client for life. In 2016, Farmer launched a non-profit under the LifeLine brand called Grand Innovation, which helps those who don’t have money for classes. There’s also a program for returning citizens, and Farmer says it has benefited 78 formerly incarcerated men.
She takes a holistic approach to entrepreneurship: Farmer and her team hope to unlock passions, shift mindsets, and heal clients emotionally. This fall, she’s bringing in a consciousness coach to help clients talk about their past and understand what is preventing them from realizing their potential.
“We’re looking at the whole human being in front of us,” she says. “We’re not just getting people through an eight-week course and then getting the next batch in.”
You might recognize some of the brands that have been birthed through LifeLine: Live Cycle Delight, which has two yoga studios in Detroit, and Ellis Island Tea, which has appeared on MSNBC, is sold at Sam’s Club, and whose owner appeared in last year’s Forbes 30 Under 30.
Farmer’s story might seem like a fairytale, but she knows her success starts with meeting Detroiters where they are — churches, schools, The Salvation Army in communities across the city.
“To me, it’s common sense. But my grandma would tell me that common sense isn’t so common anymore,” she says. “As we’re having these cute little town hall meetings, we have not involved the community in the discussion of what’s going to help them. They don’t have a clue that anyone’s talking about how to make their lives better. No one came to talk to them.
“Barack Obama won the election with black people voting like never before — lines out of the booths for miles. How did he do that? He sent ambassadors to every single African-American church throughout the United States, and they were reading letters every Sunday asking for votes. That’s how he won.”
And that, she says, is how Detroit might become one great city, with one great story, for everyone.
“Listen and understand,” she says. “Let’s present ourselves in a humble manner and ask five simple words: How can I help you?”