By Derek Wolfe, Columnist
Published June 4, 2014
It took me a couple days to realize it after it happened, but then it hit me. The Mackinac Policy Conference was held on an island. An island! Duh.
If you think about it, that’s actually rather problematic. Because, if there’s anything that says, “We don’t want the general public anywhere near us,” it’s holding a policy conference on an island — an all too perfect metaphor for the disconnect between the Michigan government and its citizens.
The Mackinac Policy Conference has been held every year since 1981 at the Grand Hotel and is hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber. This year, it ran May 27 through May 30. According to the DRC’s website, the purpose of the conference is to join “business professionals, government leaders, CEOs, entrepreneurs and regional champions to strategically position Michigan as a national economic leader.”
I find this mission statement to be highly misleading. The goal of “strategically position(ing) Michigan as a national economic leader” certainly did not pass the eye test unless socializing, participating in many interviews, and sitting through several keynote presentations counts as policy-making. Perhaps “vacation” would be more appropriate. That being said, I find a gathering like this has the potential to be something spectacular. Just a few changes (read: drastic overhaul) are needed.
There were three main “pillars” to this year’s conference: entrepreneurship, STEM education and impact. Throughout the week, keynote speakers including Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Malcolm Gladwell, Gov. Rick Snyder, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels and Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr presented in line with these topics. The future of Detroit was a major focus. University President Mary Sue Coleman also gave a presentation on innovation as a Mackinac Moment, a Ted-style talk.
The presentations were quite impressive and captivating despite the uncomfortable chairs. However, I couldn’t help but think that it was just several hours of preaching to the choir. For current members of the chamber, the cost of admission runs a cool $2150-$2950 for future members.
My issue is that if you, or the company who paid for you to attend, can afford the obscene price tag, then do you really need to be hearing about entrepreneurship? The attendees are also likely making an impact in one way or another and have already been college educated. Of course, there were state legislators present who could learn about why they should or shouldn’t vote for certain initiatives, but the most important audience was not in attendance: young people. The people who could be involved in entrepreneurships, are at the beginning of their careers and making decisions about their education. Members of the Daily were the youngest attendees by far. We could tell by the number of stares. Or maybe we just had mustard stains on our clothes — no, couldn’t be. I checked.
We were able to spend a couple of minutes with Mayor Duggan, where he told us of a 25 year old man and his girlfriend who moved to Detroit to start an organic food market: “Their vision is to build a national chain of organic markets. He said in Brooklyn or Chicago, we wouldn’t have been able to live and start a company in our mid twenties. We came to Detroit. We bought an old house in West Village for next to nothing we’re fixing up. They rented out a storefront for $350 a month. They’re 25 years old and starting their own organic market. And so, for those who have kind of a rebel’s strike and who want to start early in life, Detroit gives you an opportunity.”
President Coleman also spoke of the success that the University’s Business Engagement Center is having when we sat down with her: “We can interact with so many companies now, annually. Three-hundred fifty small, medium and large. And we have another 200 inquiries every year from other companies.”
The story that Mayor Duggan told is truly amazing and inspirational. What those young people are doing is the definition of entrepreneurship and making an impact. And the businesses involved in the BEC are doing the same. I want to learn more about them.
So where were they? While Duggan and Coleman are representatives of their respective city and University, these entrepreneurs should tell their own stories and let other state politicians and the general public interact and converse with them. The Mackinac Policy Conference did not allow for this happen. While it may have helped attendees network, it certainly did not move the state forward in the way I would’ve hoped.
I believe that moving forward can happen when the exclusivity stops. Next year, hold a conference in Detroit, the most populated city in the state, at a venue like Cobo Hall. Sure, invite the politicians, CEOs and other high-ranking officials. That’s fine. But also invite the public, the might-be business owner and future doctor. Let the 25 year-old market owner have his moment and share his experiences.
During our interview with Mayor Duggan, he spoke highly of the linkage between Chicago businesses and universities. So I joked, saying, “Let’s make Detroit the new Chicago.”
But, he quickly corrected me. “We just want to make it the new Detroit.”
I like that, Mayor Duggan. But, let’s move the state forward as a community. That can start by moving this conference to mainland. It smells too much like horses on Mackinac, anyway.
Derek Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.