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1253 Woodward Ave.
Detroit, Michigan 48226

Jeff Aronoff

By Danny Fenster
August 29, 2014

If you’ve moved to, lived in, or worked in Detroit within the past three years, chances are you’re familiar with D:hive. The non-profit’s downtown storefront, on Woodward Ave., has served as a sort of all-encompassing welcome point for anyone looking to live, work, learn about or do business in Detroit.
In that timeframe the organization has built and branded a series of successful but disparate programs that help newcomers and Detroiters alike find housing and employment in the city; connect with events and organizations that offer deeper engagement with the city; tailor tours and unique explorations of the city to their own interests; and even work through and sometimes launch business ideas, connecting individuals with ideas to Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
But D:hive was designed, with funding from the Hudson-Webber Foundation, to last just three years.
"We’re coming to the end of year three," says Executive Director Jeff Aronoff, reclining on the plush leather couch by the storefront window. "We were designed to stop at this point and consider: do we go away, do we remain as we are, or do we go through some kind of evolution."
The decision is firmly in the latter. Details are still being drawn, but with so much success moving in so many different directions, the plan is to spin D:hive’s various functions off into stand-alone programs.
"We’ve spent the first few years keeping these somewhat unrelated programs together," says Aranoff. "If we can break them apart, each one can grow up and develop more on their own."
Aronoff is bashful when talking about his role in the organization. His job, he says, has basically been to "make sure I stay out of the way of really talented people." It has been somewhat of a challenge to keep the brand consistent across so many activities — "the tours and the entrepreneurship programs don’t naturally link up so much," — but otherwise, he says, success has meant "having April (Boyle) and Jeanette (Pierce) do their thing, and having me not screw it up."
April Boyle is the Director of Small Business Initiatives. D:hive’s flagship small business program, known as Build, has been an eight week course in entrepreneurship that has let would be small-business owners work through their plans and see how their ambitions might scale. The Build class—with 350 graduate, about a third of which have gone on to launch their own small businesses in the city (Detroit Vegan Soul, Sister Pie, Spielhouse Toys, to name a few)—will likely be the anchor of the forthcoming Build Institute, the small business spin-off from D:hive.
Build graduates have used the Build Bazaar, a pop-up retail event, as a low risk way of taking the plan in their head to a brick-and-mortar reality. "It’s really been great to let an entrepreneur who’s never really had a full storefront figure out the challenge of inventory for a few months, without them having to commit to buying a full year of inventory or investing their life savings," he says.
The Bazaar has run about once a month, at the storefront and at Eastern Market, but, "once the Build Institute has its own autonomy, that project may be able to happen all over the city, many, many times," Aronoff says. "We also may be able to get a little more geographic diversity in where we actually hold the Build classes" — which to this point have all been held at the downtown storefront.
Jeanette Pierce, Director of Community Relations at D:hive, is the founder of Inside Detroit, initially a pub crawl-focused Detroit tour company that in large part became D:hive’s engagement arm, now being branded as the Detroit Experience Factory. The Detroit Experience Factory will further cluster these functions in its own spin-off, says Aronoff.
"Maybe there’s a way," he muses, "to have a welcome center presence in other neighborhoods, to find people where they’re at rather than have them find the welcome center."
The future, he says, is "not necessarily about inventing new programs from whole cloth...it’s about taking things we’ve started to experiment with and see how they can grow and evolve into things that are bigger."
His part in that future will become radically different, too.
"It was very important to me not to recommend or support a future structure that was designed to retain my own employment," he says.
After graduate school at the University of Michigan and Law School at Wayne State, Aronoff began his career in Detroit as an attorney at Miller Canfield, working in public finance and economic development law. He loved his eight years there, he says, but when Hudson-Webber advisors contacted him while developing the concept for D:hive, and, as "one thing led to another," he became hooked.
"I’ve always loved policy," he says, "trying to take competing interests and get them to work together on some agreed-upon objective." In a lot of ways, it set him up nicely for his work at D:hive. "It was always fascinating to me, getting everyone who wants to get to the same point but can’t get out of each others way, to get there, whether it’s through a policy path, a legal path, or sometimes just through better communications."
"That’s what I did as a lawyer; that’s what I do at D:hive," he says.
There are still some gaps in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, he says. While there is a lot of grant money and foundational support out there for people seeking financial help with new business ideas, there may still be some funding gaps he thinks he could help would-be entrepreneurs fill.
"There’s still a little bit of a funding challenge, and sometimes we want to impose non-market solutions," he says, "like having contests, or giving out grants. But I think, if we took some time, there are actually market solutions that would get entrepreneurs some funding." He is particularly interested in "community capital," the idea of organizing and advising individuals in a given community to fund a new business in their neighborhood, not as a donation but an investment.
"It’s a business idea I’m still working out," he says.
Perhaps in 2015, after the next class of entrepreneurs test the waters at the Build Institute, they will be seeking his services. 

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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Related People

  • Jeanette Pierce
    Jeanette Pierce is the co-founder of and Director of Community Relations for D:hive, a major access point for information, contacts, and connections about things happening the city.
  • April Boyle
    April Boyle is the Director of Small Business Initiatives at D:hive, where small-time entrepreneurs can find the resources they need to get started.

Related Projects

  • D:hive BUILD
    D:hive is a physical store front in Detroit’s central business district that connects people with the tools and resources they need to live, work or engage in the city.

Related Resources

  • Hudson-Webber Foundation
    The basic purpose of the Hudson-Webber Foundation is to improve the vitality and quality of life of the metropolitan Detroit community. The Foundation concentrates its giving primarily within the City of Detroit and has a particular interest in the revitalization of the urban core because this area is a focus for community activity and pride and is of critical importance to the vitality of the entire metropolitan community.