Opinion: Want to make a big impact on Michigan's economy? Think small

We came. We saw. We brought pinup models. Not everyone can say that about the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Typically, the conference is about big things -- big ideas, big names, and big companies. This year, my colleagues and I thought it would be fun to bring some small ideas, small names, and small companies to the high-profile gathering. We wanted small business to be more than just a talking point at the conference, so we decided to put on a coinciding event on the island that we called "Building Bridges to Small Business."

Four independent Detroit companies set up camp at the Mission Point Resort. I brought trunks of sparkly accessories from my own shop, the Peacock Room, a women's apparel boutique in Midtown. Cyberoptix, a company that has silkscreened nearly 1 million wearables in Eastern Market and is one of the top 10 selling artists on Etsy.com, brought ties and scarves. Sweet Potato Sensations, a second generation Old Redford restaurant and bakery specializing in, you guessed it, sweet potato treats for nearly 28 years, came armed with pies. Rebel Nell, a jewelry company that employs disadvantaged women, four of whom it has helped transition out of living in shelters, brought jewelry made from layers of Detroit graffiti.

And we didn't just bring our businesses; we brought our stories.

So how did pinup models fit into this, you ask? To market our event, we arranged for a small army of them to greet conference attendees arriving at the Mackinac ferry dock. With beaming smiles and donning retro maritime dresses, our models extended each person an invitation along with a sweet potato cookie (if you've ever had a Sweet Potato Sensations cookie, you know they make a very effective bribe). They were charming, disarming, and eager to share the gospel of small business. And people listened.
Over 250 people came to the beautiful Mission Point Resort to celebrate our cause, even though we were a bit off the beaten path for conference goers. And those who couldn't attend wore our "Think Small" buttons on their conference lanyards as a show of support, including Mayor Mike Duggan, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Sen. Gary Peters, and several members of the Detroit City Council.

The importance of small business to Michigan communities

According to a recent study by American Express OPEN, homes in ZIP codes that contained a central district dominated by strong, independent businesses saw their values rise 54.2 percent more on average than those without one. These numbers cannot be ignored as Michigan's real estate market recovers and as we look to lift all Detroit neighborhoods.

Mayor Mike Duggan has already made the connection between small business and vibrant neighborhoods. His Motor City Match program is kicking off this year, pairing vacant storefronts with entrepreneurs who will activate them, making our neighborhoods more vibrant and pumping more tax revenues into our local economy.
A lot of talk I heard on Mackinac revolved around jobs, jobs, jobs. But we must ask ourselves -- who is going to bring these jobs? Instead of focusing on poaching shiny companies from outside of Michigan, we also must look to our own homegrown talent. Small businesses tend to be bound to the communities around them, not the next state that offers them a tax incentive.

There are plenty of companies in Michigan now that, with the right support, can become our next big companies -- even our next global brands. Case in point: Campbell Soup Co. just purchased Garden Fresh Salsa for $231 million. And Campbell's isn't exactly chopped liver -- er, chopped tomatoes.

Where did Garden Fresh start? In the back room of a Ferndale barbeque restaurant, in a five-gallon bucket. Now the company employs over 450 of our neighbors and will be expanding the footprint of a $14.5 billion company right here in Michigan.

It's also no coincidence that the sponsor of "Building Bridges to Small Business" was Cynthia Pasky of Strategic Staffing Solutions, a Detroit company that started 25 years ago with a handful of employees and now generates nearly $300 million in annual revenue across the globe.

At the conclusion of the Mackinac Policy Conference, Gov. Rick Snyder, Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah, and conference chair Mark Davidoff announced the Chamber's to-do list. I know that the Detroit Regional Chamber understands the critical role that small businesses play in our economy, because Mr. Davidoff vowed to "support the revitalization of Detroit neighborhoods ... through the promotion of entrepreneurship" as a top priority. He cited the importance of closing the opportunity gap that many Detroiters face. In particular, women and people of color find higher education and conventional job opportunities beyond our reach. Rising tuition rates, glass ceilings and wage gaps sometimes limit our potential. By promoting paths to entrepreneurship, we open doors otherwise closed or narrowed to some of us in the traditional job market.

With big organizations supporting small business, our partnerships, like the ones that made Building Bridges to Small Business possible, can result in something greater than the sum of our parts. Together we will lay the foundation for southeast Michigan's future.

Rachel Lutz is the owner of the Peacock Room, a women's clothing boutique in Midtown's Park Shelton.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.