Ivan Cash likes to tell people he landed his first professional job as a result of being arrested.
In 2007 Cash thought Isaiah Thomas, coach of his beloved New York Knicks, was making bad decisions. Cash made T-shirts that read, "Don't hate the player, or the game. Hate the coach," and sold more than 200 outside Madison Square Garden during three games. During the fourth game, he was arrested for selling without a permit.
He contacted the press, and a lawyer reached out to him. Cash sued the city for wrongful arrest, and the city eventually settled. The resulting press resulted in him selling hundreds more shirts online.
"It was the best thing that could have happened and led to my first job in advertising," he said. "The creative director loved the project and thought it was cool."
Cash was the keynote speaker at the DO (something) conference March 28 at Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron in Ypsilanti. His story illustrates the theme of the event, billed as, "The conference for those who (want to, need to, try to, can) do."
The conference, sponsored by the owners of Ypsi-based brand studio DO:BETTER, kicked off with an introduction by MC Yen Azzaro, followed by three speakers. Over 100 people attended the event. A vendor pop-up shop was available during the lunch break, and there were three more talks after lunch, followed by a chance to talk one-on-one with the presenters. The evening concluded with a free beer for participants at Cultivate Coffee and Taphouse, 307 N. River St. in Ypsi.
Organizers hope to make the conference an annual event.
The intersection of day job and side project
Most of the speakers featured during the conference are doing their creative projects on the side and have jobs in other fields. Finding ways to balance both, or even finding synergy between both pursuits, was a repeated theme during the event.
Opening speaker Khalid Ibrahim is an epidemiologist at Michigan State University and a renowned photographer with clients ranging from Amazon and Urban Outfitters to Lake Trust Credit Union. One would think the two fields are about as far apart as possible, but he's found ways to link them.
Ibrahim said some of the skills he uses as an epidemiologist have informed his photography, and vice versa.
"I use analytical problem-solving skills I take from clinical research and apply to photography, and take creative problem-solving and apply that to clinical research," he said. When it comes down to the basics, problem-solving is a skill that is "universal" and can be applied to a wide variety of disciplines, he said.
His two passions ended up inspiring him to travel around Michigan interviewing and photographing home health aides and other caregivers as a way to "humanize home healthcare workers," he said.
Another speaker, Justin Nottke, works in marketing for a clothing company doing digital design. But in his other life, he runs a retro professional wrestling company called Olde Wrestling, which features a cast of 1920s-style characters ranging from flappers to moonshiners.
The process is highly creative and highly collaborative. In addition to the cast of wrestling characters, a live band from Toledo, Ragtime Rick, plays at each show. Nottke said audience members also play along, coming to shows in flapper dresses or seersucker suits. Nottke's parents are event supporters of the show.
"We have a great prop department," Nottke said. "My parents buy and sell antiques for a living, and they really come in handy."
Nottke considers the wrestling show to be "an ongoing art project for the last six years."
Stop making excuses and do what you love
The themes of "stop making excuses" and "find your passion" were woven through all six talks that made up the bulk of the conference.
"I love this idea that you've just gotta do something," said speaker Deana Wojcik, co-owner of Detroit-based The Mushroom Factory. "When you're overcome by inertia or stuck in a period of uncertainty … just do the damn thing, and then come up for air and refine it. You can't reflect and learn unless you do something first. That's the story of how we started The Mushroom Factory."
Wojcik and her partner, Chris Carrier, had completely different lives just a few years ago. Carrier was a software engineer, while Wojcik had built a career as a public school teacher. They left their steady jobs to figure out what they truly wanted to do with their lives, living on the beach in Hawaii and later touring the U.S. and living out of their car.
They felt called to Detroit, where they began growing mushrooms in their home and then selling them to local restaurants. The passion has grown into a full-time job, and the two recently purchased a warehouse that will allow them to scale up to produce 40 or 50 times as many mushrooms as they can grow in their house.
Carrier is using his knowledge of technology to control the climate in the warehouse, while Wojcik will use her background as a teacher to add a series of classes to the business starting in April.
Another speaker, Justin "Bugsy" Sailor, has combined two of his passions: niche communities and building websites.
Sailor grew up in Baraga in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and currently lives in Marquette. He said he loves to be an ambassador for the Upper Peninsula and its unique culture.
As a result, he has started his own websites around two holidays he's created. The first is called Plaidurday, urging others to wear plaid on Oct. 5. He also was the creator of 906 Day, named after the U.P.'s area code and held every Sept. 6. He suggests people celebrate U.P. culture that day by taking a sauna or playing a game of euchre.
Sailor is also a lover of April Fool's jokes, and his fake petition to change Lake Michigan's name to Lake Wisconsin went viral in 2015 when state and national news outlets took it a little too seriously.
Sailor said the petition was submitted to Whitehouse.gov for consideration. He said if the petition had gotten enough signatures to gain the attention of the president, "I might be barred from Michigan forever, but Wisconsin would love me."
"That's how I use the web as a playground," Sailor said. "It's so much more than what you streamed on Hulu last night. I encourage everyone to throw your ideas into the world and fun things will come from them."
Several speakers talked about what success means.
When speaker Erin Patten was in college, she thought success meant a big house, money, and a nice car. She thought she was on track for that kind of success after earning honors in college and landing a job in the fashion industry.
But when her company's human resources department told her it was unacceptable to wear her hair in a "natural" style, she had to decide whether she wanted success on their terms or her own.
She quit that job the next day, and eventually went to Harvard to study public policy. That led to traveling the world and landing in Detroit, where she has since created a successful all-natural health and beauty company called DaO.
She said it's important to love and believe in yourself but also to find mentors and supporters.
"It's important to surround yourself with people who support and love all that you are and all that you do," she said.
Defining or redefining failure is equally important to Cash.
"Everything's an experiment. That's my life philosophy," Cash said. Instead of labeling something that doesn't work out as a "failure," or "doing it wrong," he sees each creative project as an opportunity for curiosity and growth.
Cash said he fails a lot, but that it is a necessary part of the creative process.
"For me to get the wins, I need to try," he said. "If you get into the process of doing, everything else will work out."
Those interested in the 2020 conference can sign up for updates here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.