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Willie Brake and Caleb Rutledge didn’t need a nudge. They weren’t following anyone’s advice or looking for a PR boost. They were simply doing what came natural; using their businesses to actively give back to their community.

Devon O'Reilly
Devon O’Reilly

But Caleb and Willie don’t even really like the term “giving back.” In fact, as Caleb explains about the interns and employees from local high schools and colleges who work at his GamesVille USA store, “I honestly view them as helping me out as I might be helping them. It’s always been a two-way street.”

Both these Detroit entrepreneurs have built successful businesses in neighborhoods that few would consider ripe for growth, and they both share the same mindset: Where there are great challenges, there lies great opportunity. The lessons they’ve learned along the way are critical to the success of future entrepreneurs, and ultimately, the city they call home.

The Art of Giving Back

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Beyond business, Willie’s goal has always been to make technology affordable and accessible. Through his “All About Technology” business along Michigan Avenue in Southwest Detroit, he provides used computer sales, maintenance, training, upgrades, and a full line of accessories. Most importantly to him, he employs local youth in various training programs and holds classes that teach people how to use the equipment they have.

He also recently participated in Grow Detroit’s Young Talent, the highly successful summer jobs initiative Mayor Duggan rolled out in the past year.

At his store along the historic Avenue of Fashion along Livernois, Caleb has utilized the same summer jobs program but also runs his own yearlong internship program that provides neighborhood teens with the experience they need to compete in the job market.

He’s proudly seen some of his students go from 15-year-old kids with no experience to store managers. In all, more than 75 teens have come through this initiative and that number will only grow.

Both have dreams of expansion and multiple locations, but both are resolved to continue to have locations in the neighborhoods where they got started. Bridging the technology gap that so many Detroiters face is going to be an ongoing project that they plan on seeing through.

Knowing What You Don’t Know: There Are Resources, So Use Them

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At one point, like so many entrepreneurs, Willie felt he had hit a ceiling. He felt like he was out there on his own and his business just wasn’t connected to the small business community.  He also felt he “was spending too much time working ON my business instead of IN it.” It wasn’t growing how he thought it could and should, and he wondered what others appeared to be doing right that he wasn’t.

A quick meeting with a business consultant helped expose the myriad of opportunities available. It started off with a Launch Detroit bootcamp and then a stint at the Build Institute where he took classes on building a business, talked with mentors, and gained access to resources and connections he still utilizes.

Then came ProsperUS and TechTown, where he met Caleb in the SWOT City program. He credits these organizations and resources with helping him get where he needed to be to grow his business by attracting new customers, diversifying his products and helping him focus on what steps he needed to take to increase his profitability.

Perhaps the most valuable resource these two may have tapped into was each other. They speak often and can always count on each other for advice, support, or just to share the day-to-day stories of the business.

Sitting in Willie’s shop chatting with them, it’s abundantly clear both see their current situations as only the beginning. Their respective businesses would both be considered small business success stories by any measure, but Willie hopes to take advantage of some larger funding opportunities such as the SBA programs and Launch Detroit.

Caleb is working on a mobile gaming truck that can be rented out for parties or brought to schools to provide an incentive for students to boost their attendance or grades.

Here’s some advice they give to up-and-coming businesses owners of all ages:

1. Educate yourself on the resources available. Experiences such as TechTown’s SWOT City program and Launch Detroit bootcamp were invaluable.

2. Embrace the community of people and businesses in your neighborhood and never miss an opportunity to make a new connection, partner or friend.

3. Network as much as you possibly can. One of the Detroit’s biggest advantages is: If you’ve got an idea or product that’s legit, it’s a city where you can get through the door to the c-suite executives and the people who can help make your dream a reality. However, that process starts with a handshake or a hello over a cup of coffee with “someone who knows someone.”

4. Find each other. Entrepreneurs often have to work so hard they seemingly work themselves into isolation. Starting a business is a 24/7 endeavor. But there’s comfort in knowing you’re not alone. There are people who’ve been where you are. You need to find them and learn from them. Success, when it comes, doesn’t usually happen without the support of people you meet along the way. After all, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Want to find out find out about all the resources available to you in the region? In addition to checking out the places mentioned in the article, be sure to join the Startgrid Detroit network at startgrid.com/detroit where you can make connections, ask questions, share ideas, and build your support network.

This is a guest column from Devon O’Reilly, who is the Manager of Entrepreneurship and Detroit Engagement for the Detroit Regional Chamber. Submit your questions/issues/topics you’d like to see covered and answered in future columns and make sure to check out Startgrid.com/Detroit where you can make connections, ask questions, share ideas, and build your support network.

Editor’s Note: Daily Detroit welcomes guest contributions as a platform for furthering the Detroit conversation. If you have one of your own, get in touch.