A version of this post originally appeared on the Rocket Community Fund website on October 23, 2020.
In our first Q&A spotlight, we’re introducing James Feagin, the Gilbert Family Foundation’s Director of Economic Mobility. A dedicated Detroiter with a passion for helping small businesses, James has many years of experience in strengthening Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. His background in economic mobility and community development makes him uniquely suited to lead the Entrepreneurship team, whose goal it is to elevate Detroit as a destination for small businesses and high-growth startups by deploying capital and supportive resources.
Gilbert Family Foundation: Tell us a bit about your background before joining the team (specifically, your work with projects+PEOPLE and your work as a strategic consultant for the New Economy Initiative).
James Feagin: My relationship with the New Economy Initiative began in 2014, when I developed the outreach strategy for NEIdeas. That work really helped to accelerate a movement of directly supporting small businesses, and laid the groundwork for some of our other projects, such as Motor City Match and Detroit Demo Day.
I’ve spent the last seven years helping clients work to improve the lives of Detroiters – clients such as the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Ford Motor Company Fund, Wayne State University and the Knight Foundation. Most of our local work has centered on developing Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, cultivating local talent, and supporting job growth and development in neighborhoods. We’ve also leveraged what we’ve learned here to help other cities develop strategies for inclusive growth, including Flint, New Orleans, and Cleveland.
GFF: You’re known for your “no business left behind” outreach strategies. Can you explain what that is?
JF: In terms of supporting neighborhood businesses, we’re a lot more connected than we were 10 years ago in many ways. But that didn’t happen without a lot of work, from a lot of people. To get there, we worked the problem from both ends. In our early projects, we worked to build an information infrastructure, so we could make sure more entrepreneurs were aware of what was available. But we also had to make sure we designed resources and processes that made sense for Detroiters. Increasing awareness doesn’t mean anything to a small business owner if they can’t access and participate, or don’t believe it’s for them. Success for us meant making sure what we built for our clients actually worked for neighborhood entrepreneurs.
So the question is, “Why do that?” Is it the right thing to do? Absolutely, but it’s also just smart economic development. Detroit must participate in the innovation economy. That means attracting startups and attracting talent and capital. But it’s imperative that we also place proper value on our neighborhood businesses and local talent. They’re not only culturally essential to who we are as a city; they’re also part of the economic engine that drives our city.
GFF: Lucky for us, you’ve supported Rocket Mortgage Detroit Demo Day previously. What was that experience like?
JF: To have the chance to come in and help conceptualize Detroit Demo Day and bring it to life was extremely rewarding. The original slogan we came up with was, “One Day, One Stage, One Million Dollars.” It was a bold commitment at the time, to design a platform that would sincerely pull two worlds together and allow for a true celebration of grass roots to high growth. To watch it grow year over year, and perform even better than I’d hoped – with neighborhood businesses being celebrated and funded on the same platform right alongside startups – was truly rewarding. I never could have imagined that a few years later I’d be coming back to lead the vision for the next chapter of the Economic Mobility team. (*Editor’s note: In the fall of 2022, Feagin and the Economic Mobility team launched Venture 313, a new platform to better support entrepreneurs and early stage founders at every step of their journey).
RCF: Why are you excited to join the Gilbert Family Foundation and lead the Economic Mobility team?
JF: Entrepreneurship is about solving problems and creating opportunity, both for those who launch businesses, as well as those who benefit from the products and services they provide. We have a tremendous opportunity in Detroit to not only innovate as we solve problems, but remove the barriers preventing Detroiters from accessing the wealth that comes with being problem-solvers. This role presents a unique opportunity to work with fellow team leaders to leverage the full power of the organization toward a holistic, cross-sector approach to economic opportunity. With so much great work already in progress, I’m able to make an impact on day one, while also thinking long-term about how we are uniquely positioned to fill gaps, make catalytic investments, and scale results.
Also, since I have worked in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and built relationships from the boardroom to the barbershop, I also have a lens on what’s happening outside of our work. This helps in coordinating with philanthropic organizations, government, and other stakeholders to best connect the dots.
GFF: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
JF: My wife and I have 3 children under 8,* so I’m always working somewhere. Fortunately, we all have the entrepreneurial spirit, so we often find ourselves working together to advance one of the family startup ideas. My wife is a serial creative, and I serve as her Chief Helper. My son launched a PPE business during the pandemic selling his own hand sanitizer. My 3-year-old daughter makes chocolate covered strawberries, and I’m working on developing her market. As for my 18-month-old, I’m giving her about 6 months to figure out what she’s going to create.
*As of 2020.