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Corner Health Center hosts Vogue Night to encourage LGBTQ youth involvement

Many people may know the dance style of "voguing" as something they've seen in a Madonna video or the documentary Paris is Burning. But members of the LGBTQ community know that vogue has deeper roots as a platform for safe sex education in queer communities and communities of color.


To honor that legacy, Ypsilanti's Corner Health Center will host a Vogue Night at Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron St. in Ypsi, from 7-11 p.m. Friday, June 22. The event aims to encourage more LGBTQ youth of color to feel welcome at the health center, which has a mission of helping local youth develop healthy behaviors.


"Vogue started a little before the HIV/AIDS crisis, and was mostly used by queer people of color, primarily black and Latino," says Miles Perry, a Corner Health Center summer intern who is organizing the event. "A Vogue Night was a place where they could gather safely and have a good time without being in fear of persecution."


The tradition also involved a sense of community and belonging, with "house mothers" and "house fathers." Perry says a "house" in this sense is an affinity group of peers, like the houses in the TV show Game of Thrones or the Harry Potter books.


Perry says that tradition was transformed into a space where public health agencies could come in and get participants screened and connected to services to prevent the spread of HIV.


"In the same tradition, we're trying to get more queer people of color into the Corner Health Center," Perry says. "We have a variety of people who come through the doors, and a majority of our patients are (racial) minorities, but we're not seeing the same diversity with queer patients."


As a relative newcomer to Ypsi who was placed at Corner Health Center through a University of Michigan public health program, Perry says he likes the energy in the city. The Rochester, N.Y. native says he's been getting a lot of positive feedback on the event, including being welcomed to put up posters in all the local stores he has visited and having several businesses offer to sponsor prizes for the event. As of the second week in June he was still looking for local businesses to donate food and drink and a volunteer DJ for the event.


Entry to the event is free, and anyone over age 15 is welcome. For more information, visit the Facebook page for the event.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photo courtesy of Miles Perry.

Meeting of the Minds summit examines challenges, opportunities in Michigan's mobility industry

The inaugural year of a new weekend-long tech event in Ann Arbor included a high-profile summit focused on Michigan's mobility leadership and solving community problems through mobility.


Ann Arbor SPARK recently expanded its June Tech Trek and Tech Talk programs to include a Meeting of the Minds Mobility Summit. SPARK partnered with the national organization Meeting of the Minds to create an all-day mobility conference June 14. It was preceded by a day of discussions around investing in the mobility sector on the 13th and followed by Tech Trek, Tech Talk, and a public mobility exhibition called Mobility Row on the 15th.


Komal Doshi, director of mobility programs at SPARK, says the ultimate goal in coming years is to expand what was formerly one day of programming around tech in Ann Arbor to an entire week of programs and networking under the umbrella of A2Tech360.


Meeting of the Minds is a national think tank that sponsors conferences nationwide regarding different aspects of smart cities. The national organization has only done one other conference centered on mobility before, Doshi says. She says Meeting of the Minds chose Ann Arbor for its second mobility summit because Ann Arbor has "such a strong ecosystem, such a strong drive around the mobility industry."


Doshi says much of the summit was focused on positioning Michigan as a leader in the mobility industry.


"We discussed the governor's mobility challenge and the chance for us to strengthen the regional ecosystem," Doshi says. "We also talked about how the focus really needs to be on how we meet users' needs. All around southeast Michigan, disadvantaged people are traveling large distances to make it to work and often have job loss for that reason because they don't have a way to get around, to the economic detriment of our society."


She says mobility is a "deciding factor" in issues ranging from healthcare access to job opportunities and higher education.


"We need to focus on how to use our innovations and grant money ... to (close) these gaps that exist," she says. "The conversations really showcased these gaps and what they mean for the prosperity of the region."


The day started with panels and keynote speeches from both local and national organizations, followed by small-group discussions about gaps and challenges in the mobility industry. In the afternoon, participants took a field trip to tour the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township. Global auto supplier Visteon provided two live demos on ACM's test tracks, one of vehicle-to-vehicle technology and the other on vehicle-to-infrastructure technology.


Additionally, eight other companies did demos in the ACM garages, showing off products ranging from technology that collects data on pavement conditions to controls for lighting infrastructure to cybersecurity for autonomous vehicles.


After the field trip, participants were divided into small roundtable discussions of seven or eight people to dive deeper into solving problems in the field. The conference was followed by a networking reception and SPARK's annual FastTrack awards for high-growth local companies.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photos by Jenn Cornell.

New Washtenaw County program to offer paid tech apprenticeships, emphasizing underrepresented groups

A new $1.5 million pilot program will focus on placing Washtenaw County residents in paid tech apprenticeships, with an emphasis on underrepresented groups like women, people of color, and veterans.


The Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan (WIN) will begin offering Apprenti, a registered apprenticeship program of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA). A $1.5 million grant from the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation will cover training expenses for the first 100 apprentices trained in Washtenaw County over three years.


David Palmer, senior director for strategies and partnerships at WIN, says the partnership and the Washtenaw pilot are in response to a "looming challenge around workforce and talent," especially in the mobility industry and other high-tech fields.


"Apprenticeships are a valuable post-secondary credential," Palmer says.


He says apprenticeships don't replace a bachelor's degree, but rather add to the options for employees looking for ways to gain experience and augment their professional credentials.


Palmer says employers are keenly aware of lost opportunities and profits when they can't fill high-tech jobs. He says creating more density of high-tech talent will help keep those high-tech, well-paying jobs in southeast Michigan.


"Throughout the southeast Michigan region, we need a skilled workforce to make sure we control our destiny as a mobility capital," Palmer says.


The Apprenti program uses a screening tool to identify individuals with talents and skills that could be a good match for high-tech jobs, whether or not the individual has the "right" degree or has attended a prestigious university.


The pilot program will help retrain individuals to gain skills in information technology and the mobility industry, while also helping companies identify talent they might not have found on their own.


Apprenti's successful pilot program in Seattle significantly "leveled the playing field" and created more opportunities for military veterans, women, and people of color, Palmer says. Although white men are also welcome in the program, Apprenti uses targeted campaigns on social and traditional media to recruit for those groups who are far less represented in the tech industry.


"Apprentices who had applied through local hiring streams never heard back," Palmer says. "Now, through Apprenti, they are on these teams at these organizations, and the organizations are admitting, 'We really missed out on talented individuals.'"


Those interested in the program must go through a three- to five-month unpaid bootcamp to fine-tune their skill sets. However, once hired into apprenticeships, participants will have full benefits and make 60 percent of the average entry-level wage, which still works out to about $47,000 per year, Palmer says. At six months, apprentices receive a 10 percent pay bump. After 2,000 hours or about one year on the job, they begin making a market-rate salary.


More information about Apprenti in southeast Michigan is available at


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photo courtesy of WIN.

Expanded A2 Health Hacks event tackles health challenges in the developing world

The A2 Health Hacks hackathon will return for its third year June 22-24 with new partners, a new and bigger space, a new prize, and a new focus on addressing health problems in the developing world.


The hackathon starts on the 22nd with keynote speakers who "tee up interesting problems," according to cofounder Diane Bouis. Teams of participants will also form on the 22nd, and then they'll brainstorm throughout the weekend and pitch their solutions to judges on the 24th.


Bouis says all of her co-founders are interested in health in the developing world. They conceived of the hackathon as a "bridge between the developing world and the developed world," and that was part of the reasoning behind this year's theme: "Making Do: Healthcare in Low Resource Settings."


Bouis says that sometimes the type of solutions created in the developing world and the developed world will be different, but sometimes they have a lot in common. For instance, she says, people think of infant mortality as a problem of developing nations, but right here in Michigan, Detroit has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the nation.


This year, A2 Health Hacks has partnered with the University of Michigan's (U-M) School of Public Health, Innovation, and Social Entrepreneurship as well as the Technology Increasing Knowledge: Technology Optimizing Choice (TIKTOC) program at the U-M Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center.


The collaboration with TIKTOC led to a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, which is sponsoring a special TIKTOC track on the topic of "Transition into Independence for Young People with Disabilities" and an additional cash prize.


Bouis says the track regarding transition into independence, like the hackathon's main challenge, isn't just focused on high-tech solutions.


"It could be a device that helps people with mobility challenges achieve things independently," Bouis says. "The solution could also be an app that helps with time management for somebody that has cognitive or developmental challenges. Or it could be a service or business model."


Attendance was capped at 120 in past years, and, through attrition, between 90 and 100 people were still standing during the final pitch on Sunday. This year, a larger space has been secured so that attendance will now be capped at 150.


The first place winner for the hackathon and the winner in the TIKTOC track will win a full scholarship to the Ann Arbor SPARK fall boot camp, where they'll learn to launch a company based on their prototypes, as well as cash prizes sponsored by Google. The TIKTOC track winner also gets $500 in startup consulting services provided through the grant. Additionally, Google sponsors a third prize of $500 to be used toward advancing a prototype for the third-place team.


Visit the event's website for more information or to register.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photos courtesy of A2 Health Hacks.

New report makes economic case for improving racial equity in Michigan

Most arguments in favor of racial equality appeal to people's sense of social justice, but an economic case can be made as well. That's the focus of The Business Case for Racial Equality in Michigan: A Strategy for Growth, a new report produced by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Ann Arbor-based nonprofit Altarum.


The report found that Michigan could see a $92 billion gain in economic output by 2050 if racial disparities in health, education, incarceration, and employment were addressed and eliminated. For example, reducing health disparities would impact productivity and profitability and reduce excess medical costs.


The new Michigan report is an update to an early 2015 report about Michigan. It was released last week at the Mackinac Policy Conference. Kellogg and Altarum published a nationwide analysis in April as well.


Ani Turner, co-director of sustainable health spending strategies at Altarum, led the research. She says the newest version of the Michigan analysis updates facts and figures and includes more information highlighting effective strategies to improve equity in areas like housing, health, and jobs.


The Perry Early Learning Center in Ypsilanti is mentioned in the report as an example of effective early childhood intervention to improve life outcomes for children of color. While many people have hypothesized that giving children a good early start should create better outcomes over a lifetime, Perry proved the point with a long-term study that followed children in the program, as well as a control group, for decades.


"The virtue of the Perry preschool program and subsequent periodic analyses followed these kids well into middle age and was therefore able to demonstrate that, compared to kids not in the program, the participants had all these kinds of positive life outcomes like greater earnings and less teen pregnancy," Turner says. "It's a very quality intervention."


Methodology for determining the various dollar figures in the report involved using existing models to track the difference between what one would expect to see in a completely equitable society and what conditions currently exist, she says.


"If you're living in an equitable society and you're looking at outcomes like how much someone earns or their health status or the rates at which they're incarcerated, you would not expect to see huge differences by racial or ethnic group," Turner says.
Instead, in Michigan and around the country, gaps are still very large. For example, Turner notes that people of color in Michigan today make a little less than two-thirds what a non-Hispanic white person of the same age would make.


A more equitable society would mean more educational, health, and job opportunities for people of color and increased economic activity, Turner says.


In today's employment environment, employers are looking for workers with greater skills, she says, but Michigan's workforce is aging and will soon retire and draw on Social Security and Medicare. People of color are expected to make up about 40 percent of Michigan's workforce by 2050, so ensuring people of color have training and employment opportunities is crucial to the future of Michigan's economy.


"When we're creating the workforce, and the tax base, of the future, we really need to be bringing up opportunities for populations that have had less opportunity in the past," Turner says. "The productive population of the future, the prime taxpayers of the future, are today's kids, and they're the ones we need to be investing in now."


The full study is available for download here. The report is free, but the website asks visitors to enter a first name and email address so the Kellogg Foundation can track how widely the report is being read.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

New Ann Arbor business takes networking to the next level through personalized connections

You could say networking is the focus of the new business Engage and its signature Connector Program, but founder Brooke Boyle says it's more about helping people figure out "What comes next for me in Ann Arbor?"


Networking is only part of what the recently launched Connector Program does, Boyle says.


"That's the piece that is familiar to people," she says. "But it's really about changing the way we interact with each other, learning how to not just try to relate to the person across from us but discover something new based on our differences."


Boyle personally vets applicants to the program and matches each "connectee" with three "connectors." They get to know each other over coffee or another casual meeting, and then the connector makes three introductions to individuals in the connector's network. Neither connectors nor connectees are charged for the service, but companies can choose to pay to put employees through the Connector Program.


The program is based on a Canadian networking system called the Halifax Model but tweaked for Ann Arbor. It doesn't just connect people to professionals and career-related opportunities but helps those who participate get more involved in their local community when they're off the clock. That might include finding a nonprofit's board to serve on or finding a community band or orchestra they want to play with in their spare time.


While the benefit to connectees is obvious, connectors and the companies they work for also benefit from the program by attracting new talent they might not otherwise encounter as well as helping new employees adjust to life in Ann Arbor.


Boyle says she vets connectors to make sure they really do have time to mentor and help a connectee. Once she matches a connectee with a connector, she strongly recommends that they meet in person within five days, so as not to lose enthusiasm or momentum.


"We want connectors to be honest about whether they have the bandwidth to do this," she says. "With the busy lives we all have, sometimes we'll say yes when maybe we should say no. I want them to actually take a look at their availability and really buy into supporting that person, and if they can't, we will introduce them to another connector."


Engage began a testing phase in August 2017 and it did a soft launch earlier this year. It already has more than 45 local businesses and community leaders serving as connectors. Boyle aims to bring 150 connectors onboard and run 100 connectees through the program in the coming year.


Boyle recently welcomed Ann Arbor SPARK as a funding partner to subsidize putting newcomers through the Connector Program as part of an effort to attract and retain creative talent to the greater Ann Arbor area.


"People have day jobs, but they also have passions that extend beyond that. (The Connector Program) helps them find that local organization they wouldn't have found on their own in their first six months in Ann Arbor," she says. "We're helping them feel 'in the know' about things a townie would say they must know about Ann Arbor."


This piece is part of a series highlighting local business growth in the Ann Arbor area. It is supported by Ann Arbor SPARK.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photo by Katie Alexis Photography.

U-M students road-trip to trade lessons with social entrepreneurs through Ross Open Road program

University of Michigan (U-M) MBA student Christopher Owen says he met "real-life superheroes" while traveling the country to work with small business owners through the Ross Open Road program last month.


"That really touched me on a deep level," he says. "In a matter of four and a half days, we were building genuine relationships. ... They are visionaries in their field, and being a visionary often means being off in front, a voice in the darkness."


Ross Open Road was conceived as an action-based project about social entrepreneurship and small business ownership that would be mutually beneficial to both students and entrepreneurs nationwide. The program is co-sponsored by the Center for Social Impact, the Zell Lurie Institute, Sanger Leadership Center, the Erb Institute, and the Ross MBA Program Office.


Last month, for the program's third year, three teams of four U-M students started in Detroit and went on to visit social impact-oriented small business owners and nonprofits in three other communities. The students shared their classroom learning while also gaining real-world experience from the business owners they worked with.


Team ACAI, made up of Apoorva Kanneganti, Courtney Poopat, Alexis Morath, and Ian Stackhouse-Kaelble, visited the Michigan Good Food Fund and the Us Food Market in Detroit before moving on to Mindshift in Fargo, N.D. and Homes First in Lacey, Wash.


"The opportunity to travel across the country and work with smaller businesses and nonprofits with a social impact mission in communities we hadn't necessarily had exposure to before was something that was exciting and inspiring to all of us," Stackhouse-Kaelble says.


Poopat was especially inspired by Team ACAI's last stop, examining affordable housing with Homes First CEO Trudy Soucoup.


While the MBA students provided the classroom business knowledge that Soucoup didn't have, Soucoup had connections that the students didn't have. She introduced the team to community members, a state representative, a president of a property management company, a certified public accountant, and a lawyer.


"It really opened our eyes to the landscape, learning about the industry and what the nonprofit was doing to create an impact," Poopat says. In turn, the team helped the CEO dig into the feasibility of a proposed new revenue stream.


Team MACK, made up of Christopher Owen, Mark Green, Allison Bernstein, and Kashay Sanders, visited Lil Brilliant Mindz in Detroit before visiting Green Opportunities in Asheville, N.C.; JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pies in Birmingham, Ala.; and Zuni Learning Tree in Conway, Ark.


A third team, called Team THIS, was made up of Stephanie Dolan, Thai Ha-Ngoc, Jinny Han, and Tsering Sherpa. The team visited sites in Detroit; Milwaukee; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Bozeman, Mont.


"Our vision was to contribute to rewriting the national narrative of entrepreneurship that is often seen as white, wealthy, and tech," says Owen. "We wanted to engage the new face of entrepreneurship, minority business owners in particular."


Bernstein says that, as a young black woman, she was nervous about visiting the South with its legacy of slavery. But she says that choice was "very intentional" and that the experience validated her passion for social justice and entrepreneurship.


"We learned so much about the history of this country and the communities entrepreneurs have come from," Bernstein says. "It was quite the life-changing experience to see that incredible genius is equally spread across the country and the world."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photos courtesy of Emily Brourman.

"Catastrophe room" business idea wins $1,500 at Pitch@WCC competition

A business idea for a "catastrophe room," offering the cathartic chance to safely destroy objects before enjoying a relaxing craft or a healthy snack, was a big winner at the May 15 Pitch@WCC competition.


CatasRelief founders Kiara Patterson and Tiffany Avery won two prizes and a total of $1,500 at the competition, sponsored by The Entrepreneurship Center at Washtenaw Community College. The yearly business pitch competition has three categories for startups in different stages of development: "Start," "Build," and "Grow." The founders of CatasRelief won $1,000 in the "Start" category and a $500 audience choice prize.


The runner-up in the "Start" category was Michigan Yu-Gi-Oh Academy, with a $500 prize. The winner in the "Build" category was EnBiologics, taking home a $1,250 prize, and runner-up MyAaliyah won $625. In the "Grow" category, Love at First Try earned the $1,500 top prize, followed by runner-up No More Parties Music Festival, winning $750.


Patterson says she and Avery know a lot of people who are stressed, so they wanted to start a business that would provide relief through healthy coping mechanisms. The two flew to Dallas to try out an "anger room," which allows customers to vent their frustrations by destroying objects. But Patterson and Avery came home thinking they could improve on the idea.


"A lot of destroy rooms are focused on anger, and that's not something we want to promote or even be around," Patterson says. "We want to change anger into positivity or at least into motivation."


They plan to do that by adding restorative and constructive activities to the experience. CatasRelief's simplest package will offer customers a chance to blow off steam by smashing up furniture in a destroy room. But other packages will offer customers a chance to watch a video of their destroy room experience while doing some relaxing crafts in another room. Another package adds on access to healthy snacks and pressed juices.


Patterson says she and Avery originally went to the Entrepreneurship Center and looked into Pitch@WCC just for the business coaching that is part of the lead-up to the competition. They were surprised to take home the top prize in their category, competing against eight other businesses.


Patterson says she learned a lot in a "how to pitch" workshop and found a mandatory coaching session about the "why" of opening a business especially helpful.


"It really got us thinking about our mission and what we're going to do to affect and help people," she says. "Of course we want to make money, but our main concern is being able to help others."


Patterson and Avery are still seeking a location for their business. Patterson says she and Avery plan to use their prize money on marketing materials and building out their website, but in the meantime, anyone interested in following the progress of the business should follow CatasRelief on Instagram.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photos courtesy of The Entrepreneurship Center.

New livestream series spotlighting female pop-culture creators to premiere in Ann Arbor

PopArt!, a new locally produced weekly livestream series focused on female pop-culture creators, will kick off with a free pilot preview screening from 6-8 p.m. June 7 at Duo Security, 130 S. 1st St. in Ann Arbor.


Duo Security's A2 Tech Film Showcase, with a mission of increasing diversity in film, is sponsoring the screening of the program, which is produced by local digital entertainment company Pop-Post. The 35-minute pilot was pre-recorded and filmed at Eastern Market and Vault of Midnight in Detroit, but starting in June all future episodes will stream live weekly on the Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch. The show is hosted by Charley Tucker, general manager of Vault of Midnight Grand Rapids; and Emma Fyffe, a Los Angeles-based actor and producer.


Ann Arborite Kathleen Hiraga started Pop-Post in 2014 to highlight female creators in pop culture but says the company has grown and shifted its focus since then.


"We started out as basically a mobile game studio for casual gaming, but that evolved into really focusing in on being a platform for the mission, which is a place for female content creators to aggregate," Hiraga says.


Hiraga's background includes serving as a staff designer for MTV Networks when she was 20. She says MTV was revolutionary when it started because there was no other aggregation platform for music videos, and she sees a parallel with Pop-Post and PopArt! providing a platform to aggregate the work of female pop-culture creators.


In spring 2016 Pop-Post started producing a seven-minute video talk show with female creators and found it resonated with viewers. That's when Hiraga began talks with Twitch about doing a similar talk show in a longer format with the goal of drawing more female viewers to Twitch, which tends to have a mostly male demographic.


"We'll be hosting some pretty viral guests in gaming, animation, and comics, discussing the latest films, game releases, and everything else in that pop-culture universe in real time," Hiraga says.


In the first segment, Fyffe talks about the animated cult favorite Sailor Moon, while Tucker discusses the history and creative backstory behind the superhero Black Panther prior to the character's recent blockbuster film.


The June 7 premiere will start with a mixer followed by introductions and a showing of the pilot episode. A panel discussion with creators including Hiraga, Tucker, and videographer/cinematographer Priscilla Creswell will follow the screening.


Hiraga says her company's mission is not just about filming a talk show but about creating a culture.


"At the end of the day, that's what we're doing," she says. "We're not a content studio so much as a cultural showcase for content in the pop art idiom for girls."


The screening is free, but RSVPs via EventBrite are requested.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photos courtesy of Pop-Post.

New Ann Arbor company aims to strengthen Michigan's entrepreneurial ecosystem

After five years serving Michigan's entrepreneurial community as associate director of the Michigan Venture Capital Association (MVCA), Emily Heintz is becoming an entrepreneur herself.


Heintz's Ann Arbor-based company, EntryPoint, was established in March with a mission to advance entrepreneurship in Michigan. At the MVCA, Heintz led the development of the organization's annual research report. She hopes to use that same data-driven approach at EntryPoint to help economic development organizations and the startup community develop programs to support Michigan entrepreneurs through public engagement and research.


"I do a lot of analysis on the entrepreneurial community in the Midwest and want to help foundations and economic organizations craft the most meaningful programs and, long term, raise capital and run further programs that work more directly with the entrepreneurial community," she says.


Heintz says her previous work analyzing Michigan's entrepreneurial ecosystem has found many strengths, but also capital and talent gaps. Her work with EntryPoint will address those weak areas.


Heintz has built a network of partners who will assist her through their positions on EntryPoint's advisory board, including representatives of tech firms like Duo Security and numerous local venture capital firms.


"I've worked with most of them 10 years now in various capacities and they are invaluable resources in the type of work I want to put my energy toward," Heintz says. "All these people are really focused toward building a really inclusive entrepreneurial community and ensuring access to capital for entrepreneurs."


She says her initial role will be as a "connector of people and organizations," helping economic development organizations find capital and talent resources. She'll also help connect established companies to startups who can help those established companies "stay on the cutting edge of technology." One of her first projects with EntryPoint will be advising Invest Detroit Ventures on how best to structure the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition it sponsors.


Heintz says startups do have funding options, but there is an especial lack of series A funding in Michigan.


"Companies can scale up to a certain point, but help attracting the capital they need to grow, particularly in Michigan, is critical," she says.


Heintz says a main reason she decided to launch EntryPoint was that she was seeing excitement, momentum, and growth in Michigan's venture capital community.


"We've really built up great infrastructure for companies and investors," she says. "Now is not the time to take the foot off the gas pedal. Michigan needs a data-driven approach, and we need to be very intentional about the way we grow the entrepreneurial community in the Midwest over the next five to 10 years."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

Photo by Leisa Thompson.

New downtown Ypsi makerspace aims for inclusivity, affordability

The owner of TinkerTech, a new makerspace at 216 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsilanti, says he hopes to engage community members who may not fit the usual makerspace user profile.


"One thing I noticed in hobby shops and makerspaces is that they tend to attract a very homogenous group of people, often socially awkward white guys, a group who I consider my people," Michael Ploof says with a laugh.


Ploof says he wants to reach out to a broad cross-section of the community, so TinkerTech's membership will exhibit both demographic and experiential diversity. He intends to build connections with groups ranging from Digital Divas and Girl Develop It to the Parkridge Community Center, and to bring in users who aren't traditional electronics hobbyists.


"I'm pushing to make more connections to technology through music and art," he says. Some of the first workshops and summer camps scheduled at the space focus on unusual topics like building guitar effects pedals, modular synthesizers, and interactive art.


Ploof is sensitive to concerns about Ypsi is being gentrified. He notes that a lot of the recent economic development both downtown and in Depot Town has created "exclusive spaces that cater to one segment."


"I try to be community-minded, and getting people in here from all different parts of the city is a priority," he says. "I want to make sure it's an inclusive space and that it feels applicable and welcoming to everybody."


Ploof's journey to opening his new business wasn't a straight line. After studying biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, Ploof spent some time working at Saline technology firm Quantum Signal and got into electronics as a hobbyist. Later he took a detour in his career path, earning an education degree from Eastern Michigan University so he could teach physics at the high school level.


"I enjoyed teaching, but not in the context of 36 kids in one class," he says.


While teaching a few students in an independent study course and seeing their enthusiasm and motivation, he realized that sort of one-on-one mentoring and teaching was going to make up very little of what he did for a living if he continued as a classroom teacher.


Ploof had been running a small electronics consulting firm on the side. He and some friends had put money aside to purchase a building to run an electronic parts store similar to Radio Shack. When the friends pulled out of the project, he still had funds set aside and decided to go ahead with his electronics store idea on his own, adding an educational component to the plan. From there, the idea for a makerspace was born.


Ploof says TinkerTech is carving out its niche in the local makerspace market by narrowing focus. Some other makerspaces can help members with projects ranging from wood and metal work to fiber arts, but TinkerTech focuses primarily on electronics.


Having a narrow focus means TinkerTech can have high-quality tools for members to use while keeping costs low, about half the price of memberships at other makerspaces in southeast Michigan. Ploof also subsidizes the cost of a membership or class at TinkerTech with the money generated by the consulting work he continues to do from his new space.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Storefront photo by Adarash Mishra. All other photos by Michael Ploof.

Female founders of Ann Arbor tech companies take national pledge for diversity

Several female business owners in southeast Michigan have signed a pledge, joining the national Founders for Change project that aims to increase diversity in the tech industry.


As of early May, several businesses in southeast Michigan with female founders or women on their executive teams have signed the pledge. They include Jottful, Spellbound, Foodstand, the University of Michigan's Desai Accelerator, WHIM-Detroit, TechStak, and Engage.


The pledge, which now has more than 700 signatures, reads: "I believe in a more diverse and inclusive tech industry. I am dedicated to having a diverse team and board, and when I have a choice of investment partners in the future, the diversity of their firms will be an important consideration."


Dawn Verbrigghe, founder of Ann Arbor-based web design and hosting firm Jottful, says she saw an article about the Founders for Change pledge in March and was "immediately drawn to the concept" but was a little reluctant at first to take the pledge.


Jottful is a very new company, having just started in 2017. It has a team of three currently, but is poised for rapid growth in 2018 and 2019, Verbrigghe says.


"Taking the pledge now, for a company our size in a very early stage, is a bigger deal than for some of these very big companies like EventBrite. It's a lot easier for them to take such a pledge," she says. "Funding is hard enough, so I didn't want to reduce the potential number of investment partners. But ultimately I decided I would prefer to have investment partners who are in line with the values the company was founded on."


Verbrigghe says there is already an informal network in the greater Ann Arbor area among women who own tech businesses, and she began talking about the pledge with her group of friends and colleagues who then passed it to other friends. They continue to post pictures of themselves with the signed Founders for Change pledge to the Twitter hashtag #midwestfemalefounders.


Verbrigghe calls the women who signed the pledge "brave" because it's a leap of faith to take a pledge that could potentially reduce a business' number of investment partners.


"In 2016, only 11 percent of venture capital firm partners were women," she says, while only two percent were Latinx and none were black. Additionally, all-female teams receive only 2.2 percent of venture funding.


"Think about it," she says. "If these are the people making funding decisions, it's not a surprise that women and minorities get less funding."


While the #midwestfemalefounders hashtag focuses on women in tech, Verbrigghe says she thinks having women in more positions of power is a good start, and hopes that female founders will be "more aware of the challenges" other minority groups face.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photo courtesy of Dawn Verbrigghe.

New report finds robust Michigan angel investment community investing heavily in IT, life sciences

Nearly 800 angel investors invested more than $41 million in 70 Michigan companies in 2017, according to a comprehensive new report prepared by Ann Arbor SPARK.


The "Michigan Angel Community," a statewide initiative managed by SPARK and supported by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, recently completed its first annual research report about trends in Michigan's angel investment community. Some of the report's findings were presented at a "Michigan Celebrates Angels" event May 3 at the Lansing Center.


"The fact that we could identify nearly 800 (investors) was very encouraging, and I was happy to see that many," says SPARK senior vice president Skip Simms. "I believe there are many more that we probably didn't identify and think that number underrepresents (the number of angel investors in the state), but it kind of indicates there are plenty of opportunities."


Simms says angel investors are often private individuals who are reluctant to provide the information the report was seeking. To counter that, staff not only polled angel investors in the state but also requested investment data from companies that received angel funding in 2017.


The report found that the average investment was $55,000. Information technology companies received the most angel investments of any sector, with 30 companies receiving a total of $15.5 million. In contrast, only 19 life sciences companies received angel funding but they attracted larger investments, totaling $16.6 million.


"The life science industry in the state of Michigan requires more capital, generally speaking, than other types of startup tech companies," Simms says.


Simms says that figure of $55,000 was "well above the national average," according to the Angel Resource Institute Halo Report.


"They looked at 3,500 startup tech companies in the U.S. funded last year by angel groups, and the average nationally was much lower than that," Simms says, noting that it's not just the Ann Arbor area that has a "robust" life science startup community but that life sciences are very strong in Detroit and southwest Michigan as well.


Simms says the general consensus from the angel investors who attended the Lansing Center event was that it should be repeated.


"Nothing like this has been done before, and there was overwhelming appreciation for the event," Skimms says. "The consensus is that this is something we ought to do every year, to recognize and celebrate one of the key components to the success of any startup and to growing a business."


The full Michigan Angel Community report is available on Ann Arbor SPARK's website.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photos courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.

Dexter native returns home to open Michigan office for Silicon Valley company

Carl Arft has happy memories of growing up in Dexter, creating hand-painted figurines at the What's It Shop and eating at the Captain's Table. So he was happy to recommend that his employer, SiTime, open its first North American location outside of Silicon Valley at 2830 Baker Rd., Suite 200, in Dexter.


The new office officially opened May 1 with a staff of four, led by Arft. He says he expects "rapid growth" and that the Michigan location will become "a key contributor to the company’s future success."


SiTime produces microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)-based timing solutions used in products ranging from mobile phones to self-driving vehicles. Arft, the company's senior director of systems engineering, has been working for SiTime since 2006. After going back to Dexter for a family visit in 2015, Arft proposed to SiTime CEO Rajesh Vashist that SiTime open a Michigan office in Arft's hometown.


The greater Ann Arbor area was a good choice, Arft says, because of "the tremendous talent and research" coming out of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Having an office in southeast Michigan also allows SiTime to collaborate more closely with automotive companies that are driving the growth of automated and connected vehicle innovations.


Arft says Dexter offers a great quality of life, a top-ranked school system, and more affordable and varied housing options for employees than Ann Arbor does. He says he thinks Dexter is on the cusp of a big transformation and is excited for SiTime to be part of that.


"Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Dexter almost doubled, making it one of the fastest-growing communities in the state," he says. "Interestingly, the median household income in Dexter is now higher than Ann Arbor. What this says to me is that successful people are choosing to relocate to Dexter in significant numbers."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.

Iconic restaurant makes unusual move – from Ypsi to Ann Arbor

Downtown Ypsilanti's iconic Dalat restaurant has seemed on the brink of closure multiple times in recent years. However, a new generation is now taking over the business and making the unusual move of relocating it from Ypsi to Ann Arbor.


Once legal paperwork is finalized, Son Le, the son of previous owners Lang Bui and Hoanh Le, will be the Vietnamese restaurant's new manager, and his wife, Tran Nguyen, will serve as the new owner. The pair are aiming for an early June opening at a space in the Woodland Plaza shopping center off South Main Street in Ann Arbor.


Original owner Lang Bui opened Dalat at 421 Cross St. in Ypsi, but the restaurant proved so popular that she moved to a larger location at the corner of Michigan Avenue and North Huron Street in 2000.


In 2010, Bui was speaking publicly about the demands of the restaurant and looking forward to passing the restaurant into other hands when she retired. In December 2014, Bui put the building up for sale so she could retire, but said at that time that the next generation in the family-run business had no interest in taking over operations.


However, the restaurant seemed to be doing business as usual through the end of 2017, until an announcement appeared on the restaurant's Facebook page Jan. 4 noting that it was moving to Ann Arbor, with a reopening date unspecified.


Son Le says having a building in an older historic district was difficult and prompted the move. He says most property owners have difficulty understanding construction codes for maintenance and renovations.


"We just don't have enough energy or funds to keep the building in good shape," he says.


Le says his parents retired Nov. 23 and took a trip to southeast Asia, coming back to sign the sales agreement. It took the previous owners much longer than expected to sell the old property at 100 W. Michigan Ave., he says, and the deal wasn't finalized until Jan. 19.


Le says he is hoping to open the restaurant in early June, but the timing will depend on how quickly he and Nguyen can get all the necessary city and county permits.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photo by Patrick Dunn.

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