'Young Detroit' founder tells stories of hope and progress

Entrepreneur Margarita Barry founded the blog 'I Am Young Detroit' to highlight small innovative businesses popping up in a city still facing stiff challenges.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters/File
The Michigan Central Train depot sits vacant just west of downtown Detroit. The last train pulled out of the station in 1988. While Detroit's signature auto industry is showing signs of life again, it's also being joined by small entrepreneurs, who tailor 'pop-up' businesses to the specific needs and interests of Detroiters.

Margarita Barry, a 26-year-old Detroit native, was tired of hearing nothing but dismal news coming out of her city.

In response she developed I Am Young Detroit, a blog that profiles changemakers in her hometown. Today, the site has become a popular hub, illustrating the transformation of Detroit from an economic graveyard to a city of innovators.

Barry is a true entrepreneur with three start-ups under her belt: Detroit Design Lab, a web-based company that provides web-design services for small mom & pop businesses; 71 POP, a collaborative pop-up retail shop for emerging artists in Detroit; and Bohomodern, an online shop and brand that carries an eclectic mix of fashion, home decor, art, and more.  

Dowser: Most people think that everyone has left or is leaving Detroit because of the economy, but you're profiling young people who are staying. What compelled you to stay and would you leave at any point?
 Barry: The opportunities that I saw here to live and create affordably are what kept me here. In Detroit I own three businesses that are well-received and growing, I bought a beautiful house for under $10,000 that I'll get to live in and enjoy, and I've been able to meet and connect with hundreds of people who inspire me on a daily basis. Besides that, the community that I have gotten to know and love, they make me feel welcomed, supported, appreciated – what more could I ask for really?

Who's one of the most inspiring young Detroit changemaker that you've encountered? Anyone that just amazed you, knocked your socks off?
Lauren Henrikson really blew me away, she was I Am Young Detroit's second profile. Lauren started the "Free Store," a roving weekend store for Detroit's homeless community that travels throughout the city. Before I even started the blog, I was inspired by her efforts.... I think she was 18 or 19 when she began the venture as a student at Wayne State University, and I read about her on the college website. Right then and there I knew I had to help in some way, so I volunteered to design the Free Store website and have been following her story every since. It's still very grassroots and going strong!
 If you could change the mainstream news coverage of Detroit, how would you do it?
I think I Am Young Detroit has already contributed to changing mainstream news coverage of Detroit. The mainstream media has been looking to us to source material for their stories; to find out what cool things are happening on the ground floor and who's doing it. There was a point – especially back in early 2010 – where the news coverage was just backwards. Since then we've definitely seen more positive coverage. But now we're at a point where the news is either extremely positive or extremely negative. It would be great to see more balance. It's nice to see more local voices in the media, too, what with Huffington Post Detroit and some of the larger news sites creating local pods.

 What were you doing before the site? Have you always been so entrepreneurial?
Before publishing I Am Young Detroit, I worked as a web and graphic designer and sometimes freelance writer. My last "regular" gig was working as a web & social media designer for a small advertising firm. Working there really inspired me, as the firm was owned by a female entrepreneur who's extremely successful in the traditional sense of the word. I've always been doing my own thing, dabbling in entrepreneurship. In my college days I started a multicultural women's magazine and social network called Tint and, before that, experimented with online retail, webzines, and 'zine-making.
You've been doing this blog for over a year now: What's your intent for the coming year? Are you doing any new programs or features that you're excited about for 2012?
I've been publishing I Am Young Detroit (IAYD) on my own for about two years now and to date have featured over 20 profiles of Detroit's young doers, many of which have gone on to receive substantial investments, support, and notoriety. As IAYD moves past its beta incarnation, I hope to publish more frequent and in-depth features and directly connect our readers with additional resources, funding, and growth opportunities.
 If you could be the mayor of the city for a day, what would you do to improve it? Any grand ideas that you'd like to implement?
That's a loaded question. For starters, I'd want to address the major issues that were found in this survey. [The survey results indicate that while 55 percent of young people under the age of 25 would consider moving to Detroit, there are a few factors that need to be addressed first. The most important is the crime factor: 78 percent of respondents said that lower crime would compel them to think about living in the city, along with better neighborhoods and access to better schools for their children.]
 Do you think small businesses, like the pop- up ones you featured on the blog, have a shot at surviving and competing with the big guns? Are you seeing the tide reverse?
That pop-up is my business! And I don't think the goal is to compete with the big guns, because quite frankly we don't really have any big guns. (Detroit doesn't have a Target, H&M, Meijer, or major big box, department, or retail store.) Detroiters appreciate smaller, unique, locally owned businesses, and many of us agree that we could use a lot more of them to create retail density. There's certainly a place in Detroit for the larger retail chains, but what we're not going to do is sit around and wait for them to come.... We're doers so we get out there and create our own where we see the need. The small businesses that are successful in Detroit are the ones that really know their communities and decide to put them first by providing relevant and valuable products and services.

• To read more about Margarita's take on this new "pop-up" industry, go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margarita-barry/detroit-pop-city-a-case-f_b_1115442.html.

This article was originally published at Dowser.org.

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