10 February 2015


Original Story: detroitnews.com

As he followed the indictment and trial of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, longtime event promoter Jim Griffin knew the city needed something to improve its image.

"The idea that Detroit is going to need something to promote its comeback came to me," he said.

On the rebound from a hard-hitting recession and the largest municipal bankruptcy in history, Detroit is experiencing a revival of sorts, with much of the buzz coming from both long-established and newly emerging businesses and entrepreneurs who are making a living here.

So why not celebrate it, says Griffin.

"Everybody knows Detroit has been to the brink and back," said the trade show organizer. "We've got a lot for the rest of the world to see. Detroit is open for business."

Together with his partner Lori Farlow, Griffin has put together the Thumbs Up Detroit Conference and Expo, a three-day showcase of "all the great reasons to visit, meet, live, work, play and invest in Detroit."

The conference will be held March 12 and feature speeches and break out sessions with some of the city's leading business voices. The expo takes place March 13 and 14 and will provide a chance for businesses to show off their products and ideas while networking and meeting others.

It's all about connection, says Griffin.

"We've got these existing businesses. They've been sticking it out through all Detroit's been through," he said. "And then we've got all these new businesses and new ideas. We've got to keep that bridge between old and new."

Griffin is seeking businesses for the expo. He's got 200 booths to fill and they are already about 70 percent full.

One of the keynote speakers at the conference will be Josh Linkner, the author, speaker and entrepreneur behind Detroit Venture Partners and ePrize. He says his speech will focus on how Detroit was founded on innovation and entrepreneurship and why it's a good place to be now.

"There is wonderful talent in this region. The cost basis is low. It's easier to stand out here than in Silicon Valley," said Linkner. "Millennials want to feel like they are a part of something bigger and in Detroit, you can really leave your fingerprints on an American city." Students from a top Michigan college agree.

The conference won't be just for business people and investors. In the spirit of cultivating talent, Griffin has made sure a variety of artists will be there to share their work as well.

One of those artists, Donna Jackson of DMJ Studios has taken the lead on a project that will expand to include community members in Detroit.

The "Door of Opportunity" exhibit will feature at least 70 doors painted by a variety of Metro Detroit artists. They will be displayed together to showcase a collective interpretation of what opportunity can look like, said Jackson.

"You open the door to another space," said Jackson, who was inspired by the art of Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project and others. "Sometimes you don't know what room you are walking into, but you can find yourself in these great places."

And the same spirit of collaboration that runs through Detroit's artist community will be featured the exposition, she said.

"All the different things that are happening here, that means there are more things to inspire you to create," Jackson said.

Jay Wilber is also hoping to create a new reality for Detroit. The retired General Motors Co executive is now the president of Goodwill's Green Works, where he gives a second chance to recyclable materials and former felons.

"They are really looking for a new path forward in their lives," said Wilber, also a featured speaker at the conference. "Anybody who comes through our door we treat with dignity and respect."

Wilber says of the 100 positions at the recycling facility, where the main customer is DTE Energy, about 60 percent are filled by people who have come out of the corrections system.

"Without jobs for those people and without the appropriate training that leads to jobs, you're just going to have people going back into the prison system," he said.

Wilber says he wanted to be a part of the Thumbs Up Detroit conference because he sees the same drive for change and success in many businesses across the city.

"It brings together all the disciplines of the city and says 'we're all looking for the same thing,' " said Wilber. "It turns hope into reality."

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