Blog: Emma Wendt

Emma Wendt has a passion for coaching and connecting people, especially those who want to make a positive impact on the world.  This makes her new role at Ann Arbor SPARK, as their entrepreneurial services connector, a natural fit.

Emma moved to Ann Arbor from San Francisco in the summer of 2011 with her significant other who started medical school.  Since then, she's spent much of her time building up a new network -- both professional and personal -- to help make this place feel like home. 

In addition to building community, Emma also obsesses about getting around without a car, eating local food, energy efficiency, and elegant presentations.  Emma now serves as vice chair at the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition and occasionally volunteers at SELMA Cafe, 826michigan, and Common Cycle.

Before coming to Michigan, Emma lived in the Bay Area for the past five years -- first for grad school at Stanford, where she received a joint MBA/MS in environment and resources, and then to work on renewable energy at Pacific Gas and Electric, the main utility in Northern California.  Previously, Emma was at the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C., developing their corporate social responsibility programs.

She's been to 22 countries, including to Bahrain to represent a youth organization at a UN meeting, and to Guatemala to pick coffee cherries. Emma holds a BA in environmental science and public policy from Harvard.

Emma grew up in Nova Scotia, which is why you'll find the occasional extra 'u' in her writing. She was hoping for some real snow this winter, but appreciates Michigan taking it easy on her in her first year.

You can read more about Emma's experiences in Michigan in a blog she co-authors, Plus1 to A2.  

Emma Wendt - Most Recent Posts:

Why Smaller Towns Make for Bigger Communities

One of the great things about being in a smaller city is that I feel much more connected with my community. In my first six months in Ann Arbor, I've chatted over a beer with my mayor and local city councilor; was elected to the board of a non-profit; and raised a greenhouse at a farm where I buy my salad. 

None of that happened in my five years in the Bay Area.  I moved from San Francisco last August, with my significant other (SO) who started medical school. He grew up and went to undergrad in Ann Arbor, but I'd never set foot here until we drove into town, straight from California.  So far, I've been excited to be here and call Ann Arbor my new home.

Believe me, I miss a lot about the Bay Area -- dramatic scenery, delicious year-round food, wide-spread public transportation, excitement right outside my doorstep, and a solid group of friends. 

It's taken time for me to adjust, and I'm still working on that process.  In my posts this week, I'll write about how I'm navigating my transition through the lens of networking, food, transportation, urban planning, the environment, and entrepreneurship.

A lot of new things have opened up for me in this Midwestern college town.  Since the population is smaller, I now spend time with a wider variety of people, and I'm compelled to be more involved.  But if you're new here, how do you actually make those connections happen?

Show that you want to be here, and want to be here for the long haul. 
Luckily, I have an edge.  Explaining that I have "ties to Michigan" through my SO, and that we'll be here for four years -- and hopefully longer -- seems to reassure people I've met, especially potential employers.

Even if you don't have those all-important "ties to Michigan," and you or your partner are here "just" for school or a job, at the very least express that you like the place.  For inspiration, check out the Pure Michigan tourism site, or consider converting to the religion of Michigan football.

It's easy to fall into the trap of talking nostalgically about what you love and miss about your previous residence.  But now that you're here, take the time to enjoy it.  Your new neighbours will likely repay the kindness.

Tell everyone what you're looking for.
In a small town, people talk.  Use this to your advantage to find a job, friends, or hobbies. The more people you meet who are watching out for your needs, the more referrals you'll get that can lead you to your goal.  Finding -- and eventually becoming -- that connector makes this process easier.

Over the first ~four months of being here, I met about 165 new people (more than one every day!). While that was exhausting and probably overkill, it likely took several different connections to get me to my current job at Ann Arbor SPARK.

I'm now working more on building a personal network, and I've met friends and acquaintances who are happy to introduce me to new people and events.

Be patient.
In bigger cities, where I've lived almost all my adult life, I've found it easier to make friends quickly. I've been surrounded by a larger number of young people, who tend to be more transient and who are also seeking new connections.  In Ann Arbor, I often find myself in meetings where I'm the youngest person by two decades.  And since more people have roots here, the process of community-building takes longer.

True to stereotype, I've generally found Midwesterners to be very nice and generous.  But it does take work to get beyond the initial polite conversation and become integrated into a community.  If you want to create a rich life here, it's definitely worth the effort.

How to Get Your Stomach Through a Michigan Winter

The avocados did it.  They were on sale for 89 cents each at my local food co-op, and were begging to be in my salad.  But they were from Mexico.  I bought them anyway.

I've never done a 100% 100-mile diet -- I like bananas and chocolate too much -- but I try to eat local whenever I can.  Pulling carrots from my family's garden was a familiar summer activity as a kid, but I didn't get diligent about choosing where my food comes from until I moved to San Francisco.

With a weekly community supported agriculture (CSA) veggie box delivered a few doors down; an enormous food co-op that clearly labels what's from California; a community that talks extensively about food justice; and a climate that pumps out strawberries in the summer, citrus in the winter, and everything in between; it's hard in not to buy ingredients grown in your proverbial backyard.  And my actual backyard did have an avocado tree. 

Why, though, was it so heartbreaking to me when I admitted this winter that I couldn't keep my mostly local diet?

Being intentional about where your food comes from matters.  For me, I want to strengthen my community and reduce the environmental impact of shipping ingredients to me. Some say that the type of food you eat matters more than where it comes from, or that a Londoner is better off eating lamb from New Zealand than from the UK.

Others want to improve their health, support Michigan's agricultural sector and specifically smaller farms, search for superior taste, and increase self-sufficiency.

Luckily, even with our long, dreary winters, Michiganders can still enjoy a plethora of local food year-round.  In Ann Arbor, Brines Farm offers a four-season CSA, or you can choose a frozen version from Locavorious.  Our Kerrytown Farmers Market runs year-round, where you can still grab a variety of root vegetables, hearty greens, apples, eggs, and sauerkraut.

Organizations like SELMA Cafe have been working hard to support our local food economy. All the profits from SELMA's amazing Friday morning breakfasts, where I've eaten, washed dishes, set tables, and made friends, go to a revolving loan fund for farmers to build hoop houses.  This gives us more fresh veggies even at this time of the year, and provides farmers much-needed additional income. And the Tilian Farm Development Center offers land to new, young farmers to help them start thriving, sustainable businesses. 

Some restaurants, like Silvio's Organic Pizza and Jolly Pumpkin showcase local ingredients, and Real Time Farms, an Ann Arbor startup, helps you learn about where those ingredients come from -- an easier and less obnoxious version of Portlandia's approach.

Some of the best ways to take advantage of Michigan's produce are to understand what's in season, and to store what you've gathered in the summer.  For help with this, you can turn to Preserving Traditions, or classes at the HourSchool.  Made too much, or looking for more variety?  Trade home-cooked meals through Real Good Food, a new startup based locally, already with over 150 members in Ann Arbor.

Even though I was a bit lax on my food selection this winter, I know I can improve next year. I'll be here early enough to can more produce (since we moved in in August, I only unpacked my kitchen in time for real pickles), and experience helps, too.  I now know that I can use celeriac instead of celery, and I need to get to the farmers market before 10:30 a.m. to find anything green.  I'm still going to cook with olive oil, grains, and some fruit that grows in far-off lands, but I can gradually change my eating habits to better represent Michigan year-round.

My original reason for eating local was environmental, but now I'm more motivated by building my food community.  Unlike in California, I've actually visited several of the farms I buy from, and many of the people from the organizations above are friends.

Have you tried to buy more local food?  Why does it matter to you?  What's been challenging, and what tips can you share?

How an ABC (Anything But a Car) Philosophy Makes for a Closer Community

It may seem blasphemous to encourage people to get out of their cars with the Motor City at my back door. But there are lots of reasons to try it: saving money; reducing pollution; increasing energy security; improving your physical and mental health; and LeBron James does it.  I'll focus on one more in this post: strengthening community.

I've never owned a car, and never want to.  My personal motivations are mostly environmental and stubbornness, but the side benefits of going car-free have been significant.  Since I'm generally confined to getting myself around on bike, foot, or public transportation, I've always (since becoming a grownup) lived a short distance from school or work.  Zipcar helps out on the rare occasions where I've needed my own vehicle.

The time savings alone should be a strong motivator to bring your home and work closer together.  For a 25-minute driving commute (the U.S. average in 2009), that's about 200 hours wasted every year.  Here's a more thorough argument of why it's worth it to switch homes or jobs.

More importantly, though, since I spend more of my time in generally the same place, I can more easily build a community here.  While on foot and bike, I regularly have unexpected encounters with friends and colleagues.  It's these interactions that help me build better friendships, and have more of pulse on the local scene. 

It's not just me.  According to the National Association of Realtors' 2011 Community Preference Survey, Americans are looking to live in walkable communities, with a mix of amenities nearby. 

Housing crunch
But if you aren't quite ready to buy, finding grown-up housing near downtown is hard, since the rental market is dominated by students.  My significant other and I recently signed a lease for a new place beginning in August.  Starting our search in January was even a bit late, since students (who know where they want to be in a year) are allowed to sign leases  for the following fall starting November 14. 

If you don't want to trip over Solo cups on the way out the door, yet still want to be able to walk to a restaurant, coffee shop, or grocery store, the neighbourhoods you'd realistically want to live in are fairly restricted.  Once you've mapped out where you'd like to be, PadMapper and Zillow are invaluable visual mashups of Craigslist and other housing posts. To make sure you're close enough to what you need, look up your walkability score.

For those who are either quick to the draw or very patient, you might be able to win the apartment hunt game.  But this doesn't address the underlying problem that there's just not enough centrally located housing available in Ann Arbor.

Why should you care, if you already own the roof over your head and want to stay there?  A city without an attractive rental market in or near a vibrant downtown core is going to have trouble retaining and bringing in the bright, talented young people you need to support our local economy.  A more dense population also supports a better public transportation system, which in turn reduces traffic for everyone.

If you want to take advantage of the community benefits of living near where you work and play, but aren't ready yet to switch jobs or homes, here's where you can start:

Support housing options near downtown cores.

In just over a year, we'll see the opening of Village Green -- a 155-unit apartment building intended for young professionals.  When developers propose projects like this, learn about what they can offer you -- like less traffic downtown, since more people can walk there instead of drive.  If good projects face opposition, speak up for them. 

Ask for better infrastructure for biking, walking, and public transportation

Connectivity can be just as important as distance, especially when you're not in a car.  Safe sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes make the trip more feasible, particularly for bikers who aren't comfortable with taking the lane, or for families with kids.  These features can be better for drivers, too, since good roadway design can improve visibility and predictability of others using the road.  And investments in walking and biking infrastructure are significantly less expensive than highways.

The Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition (WBWC), where I serve as vice chair, is working hard to make these developments happen.  The WBWC helped pass Ann Arbor's new crosswalk ordinance, which requires drivers stop for pedestrians standing at the curb and within a crosswalk.  The policy change met some opposition, but with improvements in crosswalk design, education, and time, we expect more wide-spread support. 

Ann Arbor already has a decent start, but it still has a long way to go before we can become a Portland or... Minneapolis.  The quality of roads is atrocious, and some intersections or areas are inaccessible or frightening for pedestrians or cyclist.  Drivers need to be aware and respectful of cyclists and pedestrians (I've been honked at several times here, and never in California), but bikers and walkers also need to behave predictably and politely.

We have our work cut out for us, and WBWC is always looking for more volunteers and support.

For distances beyond a reasonable walk or ride, public transportation is key.  While we do have a great bus system, service is relatively infrequent outside of commute hours, and most routes don't run late at night. Improvements require funding, so support good transportation policies and projects by contacting your local, state, or federal representative.

Commute and run more errands on two wheels or two feet.
Try joining the increasing number of Americans who are walking and biking.  If you're new to this, try starting with just one car-less trip a week.  It might not take any extra time, considering you'll never have to search for a parking space. 

There are tons of resources on commuting by bike, including tips from the League of American Bicyclists, and a local guide on how to ride in winter.

Ann Arbor's getDowntown program supports bringing people to the core of our city without their cars.  They also offer heavily discounted go!passes -- which provide unlimited rides on the bus system, among other benefits -- for downtown business.  Ask your employer to sign up if they haven't already. 

Gears a little rusty?  The folks at Common Cycle can help get your bike back in shape -- and all their services are free.  Join them every Wednesday night in the winter at the Outdoor Adventure Rental Center, and every Sunday at the Kerrytown Farmers Market throughout the rest of the year.  They're very welcoming, so you won't be judged if you come in with a beater bike, or if you don't know your bottom bracket from your headset.

Even though I can get around without a car the vast majority of the time, I've still had to compromise.  While I have the luxury of walking, biking, or busing to work, my SO has to drive a few days a week to school in Detroit.  I'm a bit timid about riding at night in the winter (mostly due to the ice and potholes, not the cold), and there are a few errands I can't do within the downtown core.  Hopefully, as we improve our policies, infrastructure, and community support in Ann Arbor, those times where I get in a car will become fewer and fewer.  

Why Southeast Michigan Should be Packing in the Start-Ups

Silicon Valley doesn't have a monopoly on entrepreneurship.

Ironically, I'm more immersed in the startup community here -- which is small but vibrant -- than I ever was in the Bay Area.  This past December, I started working at Ann Arbor SPARK, an economic development organization.  I meet with local entrepreneurs, coach them on their business ideas, and connect them with resources at SPARK and elsewhere.

Southeast Michigan is an unexpectedly great place to start a company.  Housing and office space are cheap.  UofM and other institutions churn out lots of ideas and talent every year. If you can give those students a reason to stay after graduation, you'll likely find much more loyalty in your employees -- both because there aren't competitors like Zynga and Pinterest poaching them, and because I've noticed loyalty is a fairly strong Midwestern value. 

For the tear-jerking appeal of why you should live and do business here, check out this Pure Michigan ad.

Entrepreneurship is also an important part of rebuilding our economy.  We can't expect to be employed by a Big Three auto company and retire there after 30 years with a stable pension.  Many will turn to creating their own opportunities.  Ex-Pfizer employees, for example, have started several companies here. 

Entrepreneurship isn't going to save us on its own, but it's an important part of the puzzle. One of the reasons I love working with startups here is that there's more at stake. Building companies from scratch is partly about bringing a cool idea to market, but it's also about fundamentally reshaping our community.

This is especially true in Detroit, where the need for revitalization is far more dire.  The city has seen significant entrepreneurial activity, including through Dan Gilbert's Detroit Venture Partners and his drool-inducing renovation of the Madison Theatre building (which I got a sneak peek of in November as part of LiveWorkDetroit); or through events like Detroit Startup Weekend.

Every successful startup needs a support system.  That's alive and well here, perhaps partly because the community is small and tight-knit.  If you're looking for space for your new business in Ann Arbor, check out Tech Brewery, or SPARK's incubator space.  For freelancers, the Workantile Exchange is a good option.  I'm a fan of collaborative spaces that promote design thinking, so I'd highly recommend a shared work space if you're still small enough.

Want help with your investor pitch?  Try the New Enterprise Forum for presentation coaching. Michigan's Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC) and the Great Lakes Entrepreneur Quest can help with your business plan or provide other services.  UofM students can take advantage of a number of resources, including through MPowered and space at TechArb.  If you just want to meet like-minded people, check out a2geeks or Beer:30.  The region runs a number of competitions to reward promising new businesses, like Accelerate Michigan, and the Clean Energy Venture Challenge, where I mentored a team developing an app to find electric vehicle charging stations. 

Please comment below to fill in the many organizations and programs I missed!

One of our biggest gaps is investment dollars.  There are a number of venture capital firms in Michigan, but definitely not at the density or scale as Silicon Valley.

At SPARK, we help fill in that funding gap for early stage companies.  Grants, microloans, and investments are available to startups with high growth potential in the high-tech space.  Building a company you think would be a good fit?  Fill out a Business Idea Submission Form, or apply for a microloan.

We're also facing a shortage of tech talent, which is why SPARK is piloting the Shifting Code program to (re)train coders. At the Annual Collaboration for Entrepreneurship last month, it seemed like every other person was looking for a technical co-founder.

Besides teaching new skills, though, we need to ensure that our community as a whole is supportive of new businesses.  Even if you aren't an entrepreneur or an investor, you can still help out:

1.    Connect with newcomers

While Ann Arbor is generally a friendly Midwestern town, it can take time to get connected here.  Make sure those who are new to town or new to the startup scene can find you.  Better yet, seek them out, and fold them into your networks.  

2.    Create spaces for entrepreneurs to live, work and play

As I mentioned in my previous post, walkable communities are thriving communities.  They attract the young people we need to sustain our entrepreneurial endeavours.  Check out this in-depth video on a lively downtown by local urban planner Kirk Westphal.

3.    Reward failure

An economy historically based on large, risk-averse companies doesn't generally breed innovation.  Startups need to try, fail, learn, and repeat to succeed.  If we reward entrepreneurs for failing and learning, they'll keep trying.  A Portland ad school used over 100,000 pushpins to remind students to fail harder.

4.    Invest
If you have money and believe in new ideas, try investing some of it in Michigan.  Our entrepreneurs are hungry for that capital, you're competing with fewer other VCs or angels, and startup costs are generally lower than on the coasts. 

Funding is important, but investing in our community means more than just money.  It's also the time we take to connect with and support each other.

Are you another newcomer to Ann Arbor or a similar place?  If you've been here for many years, how have you found interacting with those just moving to town?  Please share your stories on what's worked, and where you still need to grow.