Spotlight: Detroit

Janet Tyler, cofounder and co-CEO, Airfoil, discusses how an influx of entrepreneurs and hard work helped the city fight back from bankruptcy.

Spotlight: Detroit

Detroit became the largest US city in history to file for bankruptcy in July 2013 but, 12 months later, its emerging technology, startup, and creative scene is breathing new life into the city.

"There is something happening here," says Janet Tyler, cofounder and co-CEO of Airfoil. "I am more hopeful than I have been in the past seven years. If you asked me one year ago about the future of the city, I would not have been as optimistic as I am now."

Since the 1950s, the city has experienced industrial decline and the population has dropped by 1.1 million. While the city’s story of urban blight and abandoned buildings has been well documented, the lure of cheap rent for large spaces and disused buildings has attracted entrepreneurs and creatives who are able to launch boot-strap businesses and live for less.

Fast Facts

1. Best place for a power lunch, according to Tyler: Detroit Athletic Club.

2. In 1896, Henry Ford began building cars using the moving assembly line. About 60 years later, former autoworker Berry Gordy Jr. founded the now iconic Motown Records with $800.

3. According to the 2012 US Census Bureau, 38% of the city’s population live below the poverty level.

4. The US’ first carbonated drink, Vernors Ginger Ale, was created by drug store owner James Vernor in 1866.

5. Detroit’s Eastern Market, known for fruit, vegetables, and flowers, is the largest historic market district in the US. The market relocated to its current location in 1891. The 43-acre space attracts approximately 45,000 visitors every Saturday.

6. Detroit ranks first in the nation in potato chip consumption per capita.

There has also been an increase in venture capital investment in the city, with Dan Gilbert, founder of Rock Ventures, playing an important role in developing the downtown area. Tyler says the "hipster phenomenon" has also come to Detroit’s downtown and midtown areas, which now have a vibrant food scene.

"People [in Midtown] once did not have access to fresh groceries. Now, there are stores such as Whole Foods."

Resilience and the ability to "roll up our sleeves and work hard" characterize Detroiters, explains Tyler, who was born and raised in the city. It was these traditions that led her and business partner Lisa Vallee-Smith to launch Airfoil 14 years ago to service technology brands in the Michigan area.

The agency weathered the dotcom collapse by staying small and focusing on clients, which included Microsoft.

"We were two women in a male-dominated industry," she recalls. "We were doing something cool and unheard of."

A major boon for Detroit’s recovering automotive manufacturing industry has been the integration of tech and cars – something Airfoil, which also has an office in Silicon Valley, has been able to take advantage of.

Being home to the headquarters of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, among the world’s biggest advertisers, makes the city a "marketing powerhouse" that enjoys a strong pool of talent, says Tyler. However, the PR industry is not shielded from the "talent shuffle" that is happening across the country, she adds. 

Tyler, who lived in Silicon Valley herself for a number of years, says doing business in Detroit is "not easy" and there is still a great deal of poverty. However, she believes the city has outgrown its negative perceptions.

"I wish the dialogue would change around Detroit," she adds, "and people would understand the resilience of what is happening here." 

Reach Out

Local PRSA chapter
Contact: Nancy Skidmore
1824 Greig Ave., Madison Heights, MI 48071
(248) 545-6499

Detroit Regional Chamber
1 Woodward Ave., Suite 1900, Detroit, MI 48232
(313) 964-4000

Detroit Public Library
5201 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202

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