Category Archives: Recent Projects

Female entrepreneurs find solutions to real-world problems

The Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services initiative helps women with social impact companies develop successful, profit-making businesses that solve real-world problems through
• coaching,
• mentoring,
• capital support, and
• programming.

Around the world, women social entrepreneurs are leading the charge to help eradicate poverty, provide safe water, and provide access to opportunities. Women today are making a major impact by meeting needs and solving problems in these and other areas.

The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council reports that half of women-owned businesses concentrate on health care, social assistance, and professional/scientific/technical services. Compared with men, women are 9% more likely to launch businesses in education and 10% more likely to launch health care companies.

Women’s startups fall in line with consumers demanding that companies support local communities and protect the environment. Banks also are developing new social impact-investing products that aid companies in meeting consumer desires.

Remarkably, women receive less than 2% of venture capital funding. This is due, in part, because investors don’t believe women can make money, said Melissa Bradley, managing director and founder of 1863 Ventures, a nonprofit that works with entrepreneurs. Moreover, banks and other investors often don’t believe social-impact businesses can turn a profit, she said.

Envisioning new dimensions

To address these mindsets, Ford Motor Company Fund is taking a unique approach that helps women social entrepreneurs turn their dreams into reality. Ford Fund established a national network of pitch competitions that combine financial assistance with mentorship, workshops, and other vital support.

“When you’re talking about social entrepreneurship, you’re not just talking about investing in women and businesses, which is very important, you’re also investing in communities, which is a win-win,” said Pamela Alexander, Ford Fund director of Community Development.

In 2017 and 2018, Ford Fund united with Michigan Women Forward to launch Empower Change MI, formerly EmpowerHer. Empower Change MI awarded more than $50,000 in cash, investments, and in-kind professional services to three women-owned social enterprise companies. In 2018, Ford Fund, with 1863 Ventures, kicked off HERImpact DC, giving more than $50,000 in cash and support in Washington, D.C.

Helping underrepresented social entrepreneurs is a shared vision, said Bradley of 1863 Ventures.

“Our belief and Ford’s belief that money is just the beginning and adding the additional support was appealing,” Bradley said. “We have actually been the people they are trying to help.”

The second HERImpact Entrepreneurship Summit is June 27, 2019. The pitch competition is scheduled for September. By the end of 2019, Ford Fund will have held three pitch competitions and awarded more than $150,000 in cash and supplemental support to women-owned social enterprises in Michigan and Washington, D.C.

However, Empower Change MI and HERImpact DC are just the start of a larger Ford Fund strategy to strengthen communities and make people’s lives better.

Read this client’s full story.

Handing out hope

Boy with his "Avengers"-themed hand prosthetic.
This story was originally published on


Inventor Gino Tubaro shows you are never too young to change lives

Atomic Lab founder and inventor Gino Tubaro proves youth isn’t an impenetrable barrier to invention, entrepreneurship or community service.

“From childhood, I started to imagine what I could invent with my ideas,” Tubaro said.

At 12 years of age, the Argentinian invented a device that could recognize the difference between an appliance and fingers and would prevent electrocution by interrupting the current if fingers were touching an electrical outlet. His invention earned him AR$500 pesos and significant recognition from the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations agency that promotes innovation and creativity that benefits all countries.

Encouraged, Tubaro continued inventing. His creations include a wearable device that recognizes letters in written text and translates them into braille in real time.

From prototypes to prosthetics

At 16, Tubaro decided to construct a 3D printer from the spare parts of paper printers. The idea was to use the machine to prototype his inventions and try to create a company. The company would also sell the 3D printers Tubaro built.

“After I had my machine, I wanted to go to forums and talks and showcase my projects,” he said.

With one Facebook message, Tubaro’s plans changed and so did the lives of many.

Argentina resident Ivana Gimenz didn’t have the $10,000 it would cost to buy a prosthesis for her son, Felipe Miranda, who was missing a hand since birth. She messaged Tubaro on Facebook to ask if he could use the printer to construct a prosthetic for Felipe.

“It was a challenge,” said Tubaro, who now is studying electrical engineering. “I am not into medical or biotechnology, but I always love to design things.”

Tubaro based the prototype on a photo of Felipe and the knowledge that he would have limited movement.

“The first one was really, really bad,” Tubaro said. “It broke really easily, and we had to make a lot of improvements.”

After getting direction from medical professionals, Tubaro and his colleagues figured out how to make it. A few months later, Tubaro sent the prosthesis by mail, as the inventors weren’t able to travel the 500 kilometers to deliver the device.

Before long, Tubaro received photos of Felipe using it to hold a fishing pole and perform other valuable activities. Elated, the young inventor uploaded a video of Felipe and his new hand to the internet.

Worldwide recognition

The video was a hit. What’s more, his new company, Atomic Lab, gained notoriety.

In 2015, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) honored Tubaro as one of its Innovators Under 35. In 2017, Tubaro had a private meeting with then-President Barack Obama in Argentina.

“We didn’t know at the time many people would want them,” Tubaro said. “But tens of thousands of people saw the video we uploaded. After, many people wanted the prosthesis. They sent requests through Google forms.”

Alliances amplify efforts

Gino Tubaro has since been able to deliver no-cost prosthetic limbs to children and adults who need them in Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil with the help of partners that include Ford Fund, Disney Mexico, the History Channel and prison inmates.

“We teach people in prison in Argentina how to 3D print and assemble the prosthetics,” Tubaro said. “The project changed people’s mindset, and the numbers of people going back to prison has decreased because they feel better with the work they are doing.”

The History Channel donated $60,000 to the Atomic Lab Limbs project in 2016. The funds went toward supplies, tools, virtual teaching sites and research and development.

For Disney Mexico, Atomic Lab designed 60 brightly colored, superhero-themed prosthetics that movie stars distributed.

“The kids were really excited,” said Tubaro, who taught himself English by watching television. “They started to not only be able to grab things, but they also said they felt like superheroes.”

Social media nets automotive partnership 

A major boost to the nonprofit came after Tubaro tweeted that his nonprofit needed a vehicle to increase distribution. He hoped to work with automobile companies. Ford was the first to respond.

“After going to many other motor companies, the only one we felt cared more about the community than selling the car was Ford,” Tubaro said.

“He shares the same vision of Henry Ford,” said Joe Avila, community development manager of U.S. and Latin America at Ford Motor Company Fund. “He’s committed to making people’s lives better, which is what the Ford Fund is all about.”

Avila met Tubaro in late 2017, when the young inventor returned from speaking at the London School of Economics. There, Tubaro discussed Project #Argentinatón, Atomic Lab’s mission to deliver as many prosthetic limbs as possible to Argentinians in need.

“It was a no-brainer for us to partner with him,” Avila said. “He’s a social entrepreneur.”

Young boy trying on prosthetic,

Atomic Lab employed a donated Ford Ranger and Gino Tubaro’s solar-powered 3D printer to make and deliver prostheses at no cost to clients. Hook-and-loop tape makes the prosthetics adjustable, and plastic keeps the weight light.

“We found a shared vision with Atomic Lab: Improve people’s lives by applying innovation and ingenuity to make accessible for them what they need to achieve it,” said Carlos Galmarini, institutional relations director of Ford Argentina.

Road to success

To start, Ford loaned the nonprofit a fully equipped Ford Ranger for the planned cross-country journey. Ford also provided extensive modifications – “options” – exclusive to the assignment.

“It’s a big pickup,” Tubaro said. “And we created a 3D printer that (essentially) floated at the back of the truck so it would not get any physical interaction while the pickup was on the road.”

Essentially, Avila said, they used the method for stabilizing the printers that the military uses to transport bombs. “If they hit a hole or something, the printer would not move and would not deviate from the printing process.”

That wasn’t their only vehicle modification. They attached a dome, cables and solar panels to the exterior to power the 3D printers.

“It takes five or six hours to print each part for the prostheses. The idea was to print them over the 500 kilometers between each town,” Tubaro said.

They also produced common parts in advance of the journey. Volunteers at Ford’s Pacheco Stamping and Assembly plant in Buenos Aires helped assemble prosthetics for delivery.

Using the Ford Ranger, Ford Fund and Ford Argentina helped Atomic Lab deliver nearly 200 prosthetic limbs around Buenos Aires. In all, Tubaro and his team were able to deliver more than 1,000 prosthetic devices to people in outlying towns. They also reached those in remote areas that even “post mail” cannot reach.

“My favorite part was the delivery,” Avila said. “You go to the house to deliver to young girls, young boys and adults, and it’s very hard to contain emotions because you are making their lives better.”

Avila said Tubaro didn’t just drop off the medical device and leave. “He also answered any questions. He would open the truck and bring the children and explain how everything worked. He would tell the kids what motivated him. He would print a small gift and tell the kids about following their dreams and encourage them to be entrepreneurs and invent things. The kids would be so excited.”

At the end of the journey, Ford donated $40,000 and the Ranger so Tubaro’s vision could grow. Now, Atomic Lab is working to partner with 44 countries to deliver more prostheses to those who find cost a barrier.

Next, Tubaro said, he wants to improve on the product with robotics and artificial intelligence. These technologies could improve the user’s ability to grab and hold objects.

Leading by example

Oftentimes, youth have great ideas but don’t know the next step.

The key is to make strong connections, said Sibrina Collins, executive director of the Marburger STEM Center. Part of Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, the Center holds business pitch competitions for high school kids from faith-based organizations and an annual Shark Tank Entrepreneurship summer camp.

Keith Young, founder of Ecotek Lab, a Michigan-headquartered, science-based research cohort for youth in Detroit, Baltimore and Orlando, sees common traits among young inventors – from their uninhibited creativity to the barriers of entry they face.

“Kids are all looking for the same thing, an opportunity to explore,” Young said.

Young, who advised enterprise systems for Fortune 500 companies as a consultant for Deloitte, started looking at the quality of education his own kids were getting. That’s when he developed Ecotek, what he calls “a YMCA for scientists” to create patentable products in myriad fields, such as material science, citrus greening and life science.

Young said youth who don’t have a STEM Center or organization like Ecotek should look for mentors at maker groups or tech accelerators.

Gino Tubaro, now 23 years old, hopes to be an inspiration to those around him by launching his own mentoring organization.

Gino Tubaro video chatting with a client.

Inventor Gino Tubaro uses video chats to shorten the distance between himself and clients when he cannot visit in person.

Tubaro’s League of Inventors incubator lab would teach kids – ages 6 to 16 – how to 3D print, use a computer numeric control (CNC) machine, code, laser cut, design and more through hands-on projects and workshops.

“It’s his vision that more people like him will do these things around the world,” Ford Fund’s Avila said.

As a result, Ford Fund created and developed the first Ford Fund Entrepreneurship Ambassador Award for Tubaro. The award will include a $25,000 donation to Atomic Lab and a visit to Detroit on June 16, 2019, where the young inventor will be keynote speaker at a special event. He also will be part of a judging panel and engage in the Ford Fellowship program that will bring about 20 entrepreneurs from around the world to Detroit.

“Young people say, ‘He’s young like me, he still has to finish college,’” Avila said. “Gino is able to connect his dream with his passion and his skills. He’s saying, ‘Follow your passion. If you don’t have skills, develop them. Create something, invent something.’”

Zero hunger, zero waste

Wasted food scraps

More than 40 million people are struggling with hunger in the United States. Nearly half of those people are employed.

Food insecurity doesn’t just affect unemployed individuals and those living in low-income communities. That’s a common misconception. It’s an issue for working families — and for the business community overall.

“Even in the wealthiest communities, you still have families struggling to make ends meet,” said Gerry Brisson, director of Gleaners Community Food Bank. “Forty-seven percent of the people who get help from a food bank or food rescue are employed. You’ll find kids getting free and reduced lunch, breakfast, an after-school snack or dinner in every single public or charter school.”

Forgotten Harvest Director Kirk Mayes agreed. “If there are any life transitions going on behind closed doors, even if you live in an affluent community, the first place that instability rears its head is at kitchen tables.”

Among the physical toll hunger takes, there is an extraordinary annual $460 billion economic cost associated with food insecurity resulting from difficulty learning, reduced lifetime earnings, lost productivity and health-care expenses, according to economists The Perryman Group.

Nevertheless, the Environmental Protection Agency reports we don’t eat more than 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S., and we discard more than 37 million tons of food annually.

These staggering statistics encouraged The Kroger Co. to establish Zero Hunger Zero Waste, a program designed to eliminate waste companywide and help eliminate hunger in the 35 states in which it operates by 2025. The plan includes:

  • Creating a $10 million innovation fund;
  • Donating 3 billion balanced meals; and
  • Joining forces with thousands of nonprofits, including Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest, to make it happen.

“The reality is we operate businesses in Michigan, and people are hungry in Michigan. Oakland, Wayne and Macomb are three counties that are among the top most food insecure in the country,” said Rachel Hurst, corporate affairs manager at Kroger.

In October, Kroger partnered with Crain Content Studio, the marketing storytelling arm of Crain’s Detroit Business, to gather experts from government, nonprofits and retail to talk about solving the problems of hunger and food waste.

Roundtable participants Top row, from left: Gerry Brisson, Director, Gleaners Community Food Bank | Melanie Brummeler, Acting Supervisor, Michigan Department of Education Office of Health and Nutrition Services | Doug Busch, Owner, Busch’s Inc. Middle row, from left: Heather Holland, School Nutrition Analyst, Michigan Department of Education | Rachel Hurst, Corporate Affairs Manager, Kroger | Kirk Mayes, Director, Forgotten Harvest Bottom row, from left: Pashon Murray, Co-Founder and Director, Detroit Dirt | James Rigato, Executive Chef and Owner, Mabel Gray; Co-Owner, Doug’s Delight | Lori Yelton, Nutritionist, Michigan Dept. of Agriculture and Rural Development  Photos by Aaron Eckels

Leveraging composting resources

James Rigato, executive chef and owner of Mabel Gray Kitchen and co-owner of Doug’s Delight, both in Hazel Park, regularly witnesses uneaten food. While restaurants try to waste as little food as possible, he said you can’t control what people order.

“We’re a very consumer-driven society,” Rigato said. “Plenty of people over-order because they want to taste everything.”

At the same time, nearly 95 percent of discarded food goes to landfills, which doesn’t just divert it from the hungry but also impacts growers. Scientists contend that landfills release greenhouse gasses from decomposing organic materials, cause groundwater pollution, harmfully impact soil fertility and negatively impact health, explained Pashon Murray, co-founder of Detroit Dirt.

Detroit Dirt works with companies — such as General Motors Co., Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, restaurants and nonprofits — to divert food waste from landfills and create compost for farmers.

“We pick the food waste up. We process it with the Detroit Zoological Society’s herbivore manure, and we make compost,” Murray said. “Hopefully, we’ll see investment for the technology that is needed in order to mass-produce that product. Think of all the jobs that can be created.”

From the perspective of a restaurateur, Rigato said investment in composting infrastructure makes sense.

“If somebody came along and said, James, you have to compost. Here’s your bin. Do not throw that away, or you’ll be fined. I would say ‘Okay, great.’ I pay for dumpster service. So, what’s the difference? That absolutely makes sense.”

Like Kroger, Busch’s Inc. is working to reduce food waste and make it a resource for those in need. The Ann Arbor-based retailer donates to schools, food pantries and food banks. In 2017, Busch’s donated 100,000 gallons of milk and 12,000 cases of food from its 17 locations.

Still, even grocery stores find themselves with edible foods, such as doughnuts and meats, that aren’t eligible for donation.

“We can’t donate anything that has been put out, unfortunately. So, there’s always going to be ‘X’ amount of waste,” said Busch’s Owner Doug Busch. “That’s what makes composting a great option. It could still get recycled into the system.”

Hurst and Busch said it would help if there were alignment between nonprofits as to what is donatable and what is not. Lori Yelton, a nutritionist with the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture and Rural Development, added it’s often about keeping food as safe as you can so if it isn’t used, it can be donated.

School lunch regulations, opportunities

Heather Holland, school nutrition analyst for the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), implemented a task force to examine best practices in food service at the state’s public schools to ultimately eliminate food insecurity in these school communities.

That program, being tested in Madison and Warren Consolidated schools, involves maximizing the use of federal programs, increasing the quality of the food served, feeding food insecure children 365 days a year, making sure the students are eating the food, and then adding programs after school and in the summer so the children can be fed.

The MDE isn’t working alone on feeding hungry children. It is partnering with Gleaners and the Food Bank Council of Michigan and hopes to add more partners.

While getting more fresh fruits and vegetables into school cafeterias is crucial, the purchase of food and receipt of donated food is highly regulated by federal and state governments, explained Melanie Brummeler, acting supervisor at MDE’s Office of Health and Nutrition Services.

These regulations can make purchasing difficult. But Yelton said they improve food quality. She said the state’s Cultivate Michigan — farm-to-school and farm-to-institution — program, started by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food System, makes it possible for schools to purchase local foods or to find places to donate food.

Michigan also participates in the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s and Food and Nutrition Service’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that allows school districts with higher food insecurity to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables as a daytime snack for students.

Waste, however, is not regulated

“Some school districts compost,” Brummeler said. “I’ve heard anecdotal stories where they just have buckets of food, and it goes home to the kitchen manager’s farm to feed to her pigs.”

Holland suggested school districts create a shared table where if a child doesn’t want a school-provided meal, he or she can share it with other students.

School lunches are one thing. Forgotten Harvest’s Mayes, however, expressed frustration with programs designed to feed children in the summer.

“We’re asking … to allow summer lunches to be released so the kids can go home and eat them if they want. But the actual spirit of the conversation that we don’t hear … is our legislators don’t want to allow that care and service to extend to the parents. They just want to keep the soft hearts for the kids, but if this is involving letting a parent get half a sandwich that the kid is not going to eat, then no.”

Consequently, he said, those leftovers end up in the garbage rather than nourishing a hungry parent. Gleaners’ Brisson concurred, adding. “We don’t believe, based on our experience, that you can have a food-secure child in a food-insecure household.”

Making a commitment to food security

In 2017, Kroger’s 122 Michigan stores donated more than 5.2 million pounds of food through local food banks. But the Zero Hunger Zero Waste initiative isn’t just about what Kroger can do within its store walls, Hurst said. “It’s about reaching out to restaurants. It’s reaching out to schools. It’s reaching out to the state. It’s talking about policy.”

Brisson said the consequences of not addressing hunger are enormous, and the cost is significantly bigger than the cost of food. “If employers made a commitment to the food security of their own teams, how would that affect people at work? Who feels better at work hungry? Nobody. It will always be the case,” Brisson said.

“We have food available in our break room every day at every location; because we know if you come to work hungry, you’re harder to work with,” he said. “This isn’t rocket science. We really need to look at the systems in place and evaluate how we can turn those systems into winners. It’s not just the people who need help that win when this problem is solved. Businesses win. Health care wins. Education wins.”

This story was originally published by Crain Content Studio for The Kroger Co. Learn more about the Zero Hunger Zero Waste Campaign at

Learn more about composting by contacting the Department of Environmental Quality or your county’s Michigan State University Extension.

Want your business to do well? Do some good

Credit Aaron Eckels

Improving the financial life of an enterprise extends beyond investing in a particular stock or ensuring a startup gets its creation into the hands of a certain manufacturer so it can become a hit with consumers.

Those are short-term strategies.

Rather, stakeholders — investors, employees, customers, talent acquisition teams, community, supply chain, regulators, and so on — are making it increasingly clear that environmental, social and governance (ESG) dynamics play a significant role in their appraisal of a company.

“ESG demonstrates the kind of company we are, our ethics and our values. It helps us earn and maintain trust and accountability,” said Matt Elliott, Michigan Market president and region executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Elliott recently moderated a panel of metro Detroit business leaders as part of a business event highlighting the benefits of ESG. The event, held at the Waterview Loft at Port Detroit, was sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch and powered by Crain Content Studio.

Elliott said there’s no tradeoff between ESG and business performance because companies seeking long-term sustainability can do well by doing good. Stakeholders are investing in, purchasing from and seeking to work for businesses that respond well to environmental changes, health and safety requirements, harassment in the workplace, diversity among board members and community needs.

“By using ESG, you’re allowed to bring your humanity to management and to the office,” Elliott added. “It’s always about the people, so if you can’t bring your whole self to the office, to the shop or wherever, how are you ever going to bring all of your performance?”

Jackie VanderBrug, managing director of Global Portfolio Solutions at Bank of America and keynote speaker of the event, concurred with Elliott.

“ESG gives a sense of the DNA of a firm. It is a necessity,” VanderBrug said. Stakeholders want to know what a company is doing in terms of energy management (environment), how employers plan to win the war for talent and make employees feel valued (social), and about board diversity and board climate competence (governance).

VanderBrug said positive results derive from constructing a business focused on ESG factors such as:

  • building a highly competent, competitive and diverse workplace;
  • developing environmentally maintainable practices; and
  • socially advancing not only employees and customers but the surrounding community as well.

Take it from the top

Oftentimes, companies put structured ESG strategies in place that don’t resonate with the people, said Betsy Meter, Michigan managing partner and U.S. accounting change leader for KPMG LLP. Instead, successful ESG initiatives work their way from the top executive to the lowest ranking employee.

“You have governance throughout your organization, so it really needs to transcend,” Meter said. “When you don’t have leaders who aren’t authentic, it’s hard for the rest of the organization to really buy into what the mission is. It can be the supporting social issues. It can be whatever that organization is faced with, but if you don’t have it throughout the organization, it can be extremely challenging.”

  • Matt Elliott, Michigan Market president, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
  • Jackie VanderBrug, managing director, Head of Sustainable & Impact Investment Strategy for Bank of America’s Global Wealth & Investment Management Chief Investment Office
  • Betsy Meter, Michigan managing partner and U.S. accounting change leader, KPMG LLP
  • Nancy Moody, vice president of Public Affairs, DTE Energy
  • Frank Venegas, chairman and CEO, Ideal Group
  • Alisha Cieslak, chief legal and risk officer, Gordon Food Service

As a result, boards are surveying employees to understand whether their governance is what they believe it should be and if the corporate culture is as they assume it is.

“Boards hear from management, but they don’t get down to the level of the employees to say, ‘Is that really the existing culture within that organization?’ A lot of times, problems happening at a company are at that mid-management level. And I think boards and organizations are starting to use surveys more powerfully to understand how organizations are really governing themselves.”

KPMG found success in asking its employees their thoughts.

About seven years ago, the audit firm created a campaign to make sure staff felt connected. The Purpose Campaign included asking employees what their purpose was. The incentive for getting at least 10,000 employee submissions was two extra days off work during Christmas season.

“They took it very personally,” Meter said. “We had 40,000 submissions. A lot of people submitted twice. We had teams submit. You always think, ‘what is the purpose of my job and why is that important?’ Until we went through that exercise, I guess I didn’t realize how important it was.

“Purpose is a very individual thing and how you come to work every day and how you serve your community, your clients, the people that work for you and the people you work for is individual. But, actually seeing people articulate it was an amazing experience.”

Meter said it’s critical that organizations take the time to look at individual people and their purpose, to weave that into their culture and make it part of the fabric of the company.

While the campaign covered social and governance initiatives internally, KPMG also researched what it wanted to support externally. Most of those initiatives turned out to focus on early childhood education through talent development.

“We launched a program with Families for Literacy around maybe 12 or 13 years ago, and it became one of our cornerstones,” Meter said. “Obviously, we give to a ton of different organizations in work and schools and in the community, but this is one that’s nationwide. I think we’ve given around 400,000 books to young children in Detroit. We get 40 to 60 volunteers at each one of the schools where we read.”

Families for Literacy is dedicated to improving literacy at early ages in the school system.

“Our people are so passionate about these kids. I’m telling you, it’s one of the best experiences. These kindergartners crawl up in your lap, and they want to read with you,” Meter said.

She added that the social aspect of a business not only benefits the community but gives employees greater purpose.

“I think we should look at millennials,” Meter said. “Social media has been in their world since Day One. As they read every article and they see things posted by their friends, it really is in the fabric of what they believe is important. So as organizations … in the race to get and retain good talent, you have to be providing a real purpose to employees today.”

Do unto others

When the Great Recession forced thousands of people out of their jobs, DTE Energy’s then-COO Gerry Anderson, who is now CEO, inspired staff to craft a strategy benefiting employees and the community alike.

“Gerry implored us to really pull together and buckle down to keep the lights on and the hearths warm for our customers,” said Nancy Moody, vice president of Public Affairs for DTE Energy.

Their goal was to use Continuous Improvement (Lean Six Sigma-style) tools to ensure they could keep prices from rising and help those they served through volunteerism efforts and the DTE Foundation.

“If we could do all this while buckling our belts a little tighter, we wouldn’t have to lay off employees. It worked! We came into 2010 in good shape — with hearts filled with gratitude for the work we accomplished under stressed, lean budgeting. We clearly experienced ‘purpose’ in helping those we served,” Moody said. “Our entire ‘Force for Growth’ strategy began that way.’”

Force for Growth is about people, places, the planet and progress, things the utility’s employee volunteers are excited about. Last year alone, 3,500 DTE employees served 57,681 volunteer hours at more than 567 nonprofits.

“We have found when they are allowed to choose, they have come up with an incredible array of really impactful things,” Moody said. “They can earn dollars for their nonprofits that they support. And I think not just being able to give of their own time and energy but also seeing that financial gifts are granted to the nonprofits for the work that they do motivates them. So, we have about half the employees at DTE now engaged. That’s considered world-class volunteerism, so we’re very proud of it.”

Among the many projects was DTE’s work at the Randolph Career Technical Center school in Detroit, which seeks to provide high school students with the skills needed for the future.

“We rebuilt Randolph, raised the money, changed the curriculum, helped hire the teachers, recruited the students. That’s all skills-based volunteerism,” Moody said.

She said Randolph was a lesson for DTE in that is wasn’t just about employees giving time but about putting in time on things they are passionate about. “Our volunteers were engaged to the ‘Nth’ degree for this,” Moody said.

Adding to job prospects for those in need, DTE has also developed a program for returning citizens, those individuals recently released from prison.

Moody said Johns Hopkins in Maryland has had a similar program in place for more than two decades; statistically, its returning citizens are among its very best employees.

“They have employees now who have been with them for over 20 years. So, the statistics on that were really good,” explained Moody. “Then we just did a lot more benchmarking and we kept finding the same thing over and over again. So, we took it to the State of Michigan.”

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) reports that between 60 percent and 75 percent of ex-offenders are unemployed and many face barriers to attaining licenses necessary for employment. The numbers are more astounding considering nearly one-third of Americans (between 70 million and 100 million) have a criminal record. NIJ studies report that returning citizens have a greater chance of being hired if they can interact with the hiring manager.

Rather than having hiring managers see the box that former offenders check on job applications confirming they have felony convictions, DTE launched a “Move the Box” program that doesn’t make that information available during initial applicant screenings. Because of the program, ex-offender job applicants have a greater chance of getting hired. The program allows them to be screened within DTE’s hiring system without the hiring manager knowing the person has a record.

Taking ESG to the streets

Frank Venegas Jr. started Ideal Group in 1979 from seed money he got from a car he won in a raffle and then sold shortly after. The company is a conglomeration of eight manufacturing companies.

Despite Venegas’ admission that he, like many people, wasn’t familiar with the term ESG, his vision is based on factors that make up ESG. Accordingly, he has created value not only for his family, the company and his staff of 500 but for the community as well.

“(ESG) is really how I grew my business,” said Venegas, the company’s Chairman and CEO.

When he moved his company to Southwest Detroit, there was 40 percent unemployment and tenable gang violence there. He said gang members from four different gangs went from shooting at each other one month to building things together after he met with them, discovered their needs and subsequently hired them. He also hires returning citizens.

“Our gangs were going crazy. It was really the Wild West,” Venegas said. “But if you really scrutinize the local news, you don’t hear about Southwest Detroit (negatively) anymore. And that’s why everybody’s moving to Mexicantown.”

Uniting community action with environmental impact, several years ago, Ideal Group partnered with customer General Motors to cultivate Cadillac Urban Gardens in a vacant lot. So far, 12,000 volunteer hours have gone into planting and caring for more than 2,500 plants there. And the community literally benefits from the fruits of the project.

“We started with one and now have 39 (replica gardens) in the community,” Venegas said. “The incredible thing is that these gardens were started by the people who work for me and not just people that were in top management.”

Reap bonuses, differentiate the brand with ESG

Grand Rapids-based Gordon Food Service knows doing the right thing doesn’t have to cost more.

Although fairly new to metro Detroiters, the family-owned-and-operated company has been headquartered in West Michigan for 120 years and has 175 grocery stores around the U.S. and Canada. The food service distribution company, which has nearly 20,000 employees, puts considerable effort into the social component of ESG by partnering with United Way, Habitat for Humanity and International Justice Mission among others; donating enough food in 2017 to feed 4.6 million people; and traveling to the African Bush region with bags of supplies for the people who live there.

Earlier this year, GFS opened a store on East Jefferson Avenue in Detroit where grocery options are few and food insecurity is high because the company focuses on bringing healthy, affordable local food to the communities it serves, said Alisha Cieslak, chief legal and risk officer at GFS.

“I was a student at Wayne State University Law School, and there was nothing for us. You’d go to Eastern Market or to a local grocer, but there would be a markup on that product. So, you’re paying $4 for an apple,” Cieslak said. “Here you don’t have that sort of price treatment. The Gordon family, generation after generation, believes it’s our job as stewards of the company and with the resources we have to leave the world a little bit better than when we entered into it. We believe very deeply it’s important to connect people with healthy and fresh food options, particularly in under-served, urban areas.”

Because their ideas are heard, Cieslak said GFS employees think about different ways to solve problems in the community with the company’s existing business resources and strategies.

One global problem she mentioned is human trafficking, otherwise known as modern-day slavery. The U.S. State Department estimates that worldwide there are tens of millions of human trafficking victims, comprised of U.S. citizens and immigrants, children and adults.

Aware of the epidemic and that every action counts, Gordon Food Service partnered with Englewood, Colo.-based Truckers Against Trafficking, a national nonprofit that taught GFS’s 3,300 truck drivers to recognize and report instances of human trafficking.

“All we did was play a 20-minute orientation video for our drivers and give them a 3×5 card to keep in the cabin of their trucks,” Cieslak said. “Effectively, the card tells them what number to call if they see something suspicious. We did get calls, but the impact that thousands of drivers on the road every day can make just by being a little bit more alert and aware can be pretty significant on a very important social issue.”

While she said ESG isn’t an edict from top leadership at GFS, she said employees have volunteered at more than 460 organizations, donated more than $703,000, prepared more than 124,000 meals and run, walked or swam more than 7,000 miles for causes they care about.

“What we realized was, if we create an environment where people can express themselves through service and what we call their heart to serve, they’re more engaged with the company and more engaged with each other,” Cieslak said. “I think that’s how you really create employee engagement in those communities and you create better customer experiences for our customers because employees are engaged. And then that’s when your brand starts to really resonate in some of those localized areas.”

This is about the long game, she maintained. Customers and employees will know whether or not the work a company is doing comes “from a good place,” Cieslak said. “If it does, it will pay dividends.”

Companies must benefit their shareholders, their employees, their customers and the communities in which they inhabit, VanderBrug agreed. “Your brand can be enhanced or destroyed from an ESG perspective. Companies that scored higher from an ESG perspective have been outperforming for the last decade.”

About this report

Bank of America Merrill Lynch partnered with Crain Content Studio, the marketing storytelling arm of Crain’s Detroit Business, to discuss how focusing on environmental, social and governance (ESG) can both boosts businesses financial strength and create good in the community. In featured image, Matt Elliott (right), Michigan Market president at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, moderated the September panel discussion at the Port Authority in Detroit. Photo by Aaron Eckels.

For more about how ESG factors can boost your business performance, visit

Thriving on Innovation

Reigning in manufacturing, agriculture, transportation and overall innovation is Pure Michigan.

For the past two years, I’ve had the benefit of project managing stories for Michigan Economic Development Corp. that showcase the innovative, collaborative work being done throughout the state. In doing so, I worked with two marketing companies and several freelance writers.

Michigan has the highest ratio of research spending to venture capital investment in the nation. For every $1 invested in VC in the state, $149 is invested in research.

Home to 66 of the top 100 North American auto suppliers, 16 OEMS and the largest deployment of vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) technology in the country,  Michigan is at the epicenter of mobility.

The state leads the nation in producing 20 different commodities, including blueberries (30 million varieties and 3 million metric tons), cucumbers (for pickling), squash and tart cherries, and it ranks among the country’s biggest producers of apples (16 varieties and 1.8 billion pounds) and dairy products (1.2 billion gallons of milk).

In the process, I learned more than I could have imagine about the powerhouse organizations and amazing talent in the region.

Nearly 140,000 people work in Michigan’s IT and cybersecurity industry. And the state has multiple cyber ranges, where programmers can test and validate cybersecurity threats and responses without damaging their own systems, some of which are open to the private sector.

The top three global furniture leaders — Grand Rapids-based Steelcase Inc., Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc. and Holland-based Haworth Inc. — are in West Michigan, and they shaping the future of furniture design by integrating materials science, virtual reality, and other advanced technologies into innovative products and solutions.

Learn more about why businesses are moving to and remaining in Michigan.

Universities drive innovation in Michigan

Someone putting in a contact lens.

Successful neighborhood investment starts with listening

Detroit continues to justify its moniker as a Comeback City with new restaurants, brand-name retail, residential development and a new hockey arena.

Much of the initial revitalization has been concentrated in the urban core of Midtown and downtown, where people and businesses are concentrated, but it has taken more time for growth to reach the neighborhoods.

While JPMorgan Chase & Co. is investing significantly in those areas — along with investments in TechTown and in Eastern Market — the company also is investing in struggling neighborhoods. Chase invested more than $100 million in Detroit between 2014 and 2017 and now expects to reach $150 million by 2019.

“We’re very focused on developing a robust, small business community, like what’s developing here in the Live6 area,” said John Carter, Michigan Market Leader at JPMorgan Chase, which has been doing business in Detroit for more than 80 years.

Live6, the Livernois–McNichols (Six Mile) corridor in Northwest Detroit, once had thriving residential neighborhoods and shopping districts. But as the economy waned and population loss soared, stores shuttered and jobs disappeared.

Tosha Tabron, Vice President for Global Philanthropy with the firm, said JPMorgan Chase made investments based on conversations that occurred over long periods of time with multiple partners and stakeholders. Now, area businesses are opening and thriving, jobs are being created and homes rehabbed and developed.

Still, she recognized, more work and more conversations are needed.

Beyond the gate

A fence lines Livernois Avenue outside University of Detroit Mercy. “We want, eventually, that there is no boundary, there is no edge between the university as an island and the neighborhood,” said Will Wittig, Dean of University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture. Darrel Ellis for Crain Content Studio

A fence lines Livernois Avenue outside University of Detroit Mercy. “We want, eventually, that there is no boundary, there is no edge between the university as an island and the neighborhood,” said Will Wittig, Dean of University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture.

“Part of creating a great community is having amenities — bars, restaurants, coffee shops — as well as everyday business services like dry cleaners, banks and pharmacies. But the commercial corridor is just one part of the strategy,” said Michael Forsyth, co-director of Live6 Alliance, a nonprofit working to activate vacant spaces and enhance public safety. “It really starts with the people and anything we can do to provide economic opportunities.”

It starts with dreamers like Jevona Watson.

By day, Watson works as an attorney. In whatever downtime she has, and with funding from Motor City Match, the northwest Detroit native is working to open Detroit Sip, a coffee shop on McNichols Road just west of Livernois.

Watson envisions Detroit Sip as a place where students at nearby colleges can study or hang out.

“University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College students could live here for four years and never really venture outside of the gate,” she said.

The gate around Detroit Mercy has been a source of contention for area residents since it was built in the early 1980s. For some, it implied the university was closing itself off from the surrounding community. Will Wittig, dean of the School of Architecture at Detroit Mercy, acknowledged the community and “many” on campus hate the fence, though some parents view it as necessary.

Nevertheless, Wittig said, the university wants its students to be active in the neighborhood.

“We want, eventually, that there is no boundary, there is no edge between the university as an island and the neighborhood as its surrounding context,” he added. “Our dream is to be a true urban university — to be integrated into a thriving neighborhood.”

In 1994, Detroit Mercy founded the Detroit Collaborative Design Center to “create sustainable spaces and communities.” Its neighborhood revitalization strategies beautify vacant spaces, turn auto-centric streets into walkable spaces with bike lanes, and create common areas such as Lollo Park on Puritan Avenue in the Live6 corridor and The Alley Project on Detroit’s Southwest side.

Although Marygrove College recently announced plans to discontinue its undergraduate program, it will continue its graduate teaching program and, administrators hope, also boost interaction with the community.

“It is my dream … to have the vibrant population of people on campus that were there when I was a student at Marygrove (in the 1970s),” said Marygrove President Beth Burns. She pointed to the Charles McGee sculpture gifted last year to the Community Commons, a placemaking space created to unite the community.

Public-private cooperation

Leveraging partnerships is essential, said Michael Smith.

The director of strategic neighborhoods for Invest Detroit said his organization partners with stakeholders involved with community leaders who can guide them to the opportunities and around inevitable obstacles. Invest Detroit is working with JPMorgan Chase and Detroit-based commercial real estate developer The Platform on commercial and residential investment.

The hope is that success in these neighborhoods leads to them being models for future neighborhood development and encourages future investment.

“Unless this work produces results that are sustainable, it won’t be replicable,” said The Platform founder Peter Cummings, known for his development of Orchestra Place in Midtown and for his recent purchase of the Fisher Building in New Center.

Cummings said he sees Detroit as “the great urban lab of America.” One test is in redeveloping the large Fitzgerald neighborhood — bounded by Livernois Avenue and Wyoming Street and Fenkell Avenue and West McNichols Road — which requires rehabbing more than 100 homes and 230 vacant lots in the 10 blocks between Detroit Mercy and Marygrove. Cummings said once residents see money being successfully invested in their neighborhoods, they’re going to want to invest in their own homes.

“We need to work with people like Tosha and John (at JPMorgan Chase) to figure out how we can come up with an affordable, sort of small loan program to help those people, who I think are the real heroes in the city of Detroit. Those people who have hung on and who’ve made their payments and who’ve kept the fabric of community alive.”

Neighborhood needs

Live6, the Livernois–McNichols (Six Mile) corridor in Northwest Detroit, once had thriving residential neighborhoods and shopping districts. But as the economy waned and population loss soared, stores shuttered and jobs disappeared.

Many residents in the Live6 corridor cannot afford to attend Marygrove or Detroit Mercy, both private schools, said resident Raymond Ware.

Ware, who turned his barbershop into Metro Detroit Barber College in 2009, said the area needs more trade and vocational schools to give residents education options.

Detroiters also could use education on how to assess, invest in and develop their own neighborhoods, said Chase Cantrell, founder of Building Community Value, which works with community leaders, entrepreneurs and investors to re-imagine and rehabilitate communities.

“We use the term placemaking, … being able to give people the vision and the understanding that they have power to actually determine their own futures, determine how their communities can look,” Cantrell said. He said community educators would be able to direct people to the resources they need to get through the process.

Cantrell and Smith also agreed it’s important that developers and investors ask residents what they actually want and what role they want to play in the redevelopment of their neighborhoods.

“It starts with listening. When you ask any member of the community — it doesn’t matter if they’re 3 years old or 98 — ‘What’s your dream for the community?’ people have an answer,” Smith said. “It could be education. It could be opening a small business.

“So the goal is to ask and then the goal is to plug them in and connect them to the resources. Build that bridge.”

This story was originally published by Crain Content Studio for JPMorgan Chase & Co.

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