Editor’s note: This piece was contributed by Ivy Hughes, a Lansing, Mich.- based journalist. Read more about her on our contributors page. -KG
Five years ago my husband and I moved from Colorado to Michigan — by choice — for a job in the mortgage industry. We knew we were taking a huge risk, but at the time we had no idea we were venturing into a storm of opportunity we would have missed had we stayed in an economically thriving state.
Michigan is the underdog the media loves and the public, for varying reasons, hates. But how can a state most distinguished by its unemployment rate change course if its residents accuse new people, such as my husband and myself, and new ideas, of unforgivable naivety? Nearly every time I tell someone about my decision to swap states, they say, with unparalleled indignation and hopelessness: “Why would you ever move to Michigan?”
Moving to a state written off by everyone, including its residents, is wearing. My excitement about the move quickly dissipated and I feel into a rut of complaint and disaffection. But then I saw what many Michiganders no longer have the capacity or the desire to acknowledge: a tremendous undercurrent of energy. Outside of government, outside of the state’s old and dying entitlement structures lies a phenomenal strength in innovation and entrepreneurship.
During the last five years three technology incubators opened within five miles of my house; one of the most advanced superconducting cyclotron facilities in the world invested $550 million in Michigan State University (MSU); and Lansing became home to the world’s first building project to achieve double platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designation. That’s to say nothing of the region’s existing successes, none of which are tied to the auto industry. Neogen, a publicly traded company that develops food safety and animal products, that produces more than $50 million in goods in Lansing every year, continues to add employees and increase both its regional and international presence. Liquid Web, a web hosting provider started years ago by a 17-year-old entrepreneur, made Inc. magazine’s 5,000 fastest growing companies in 2007 and recently opened a 90,000 square foot cloud computing center in Delta Township.
Lansing residents are well aware of these larger successes, but hundreds of small business owners from varying industries are fervently kicking down Michigan’s dilapidated wall of self-pity with successes of their own. Not one of these entrepreneurial endeavors is tied to the auto industry. Every single one of them is wrapped tightly in determination and held together by a sense of responsibility to create something cataclysmically transformative for Michigan. All of these ventures were started by entrepreneurs who saw potential in nothingness.
Some tag this energy Young Smart Global, a loose moniker that’s provided a networking resource for some of Lansing’s most innovative thinkers, but it’s more than a label, it’s a movement.
In less than a year, this movement has helped launch the Hatch, which provides enterprising MSU students incubation space and access to established local talent. Three Hatch graduates recently launched Spartanicity, a company that delivers food, books and other goods to dorm rooms. These same entrepreneurs also created Spartan Solutions, a non-profit offering $1,000 tuition scholarships and $500 books scholarships to college and university students throughout the state. This energy has also created mentorship programs, connecting students to local entrepreneurs and their networks, an invaluable resource for those looking to launch after graduation.
Because the students are connecting with entrepreneurs, they’re graduating and starting businesses HERE instead of in Colorado, California or New York and in turn, these young entrepreneurs are revitalizing the old ones, shooting a cocktail of desire, rejuvenation and hunger into successful veins unconsciously nearing collapse. They’re changing minds.
I was excited to move to Michigan, but that feeling quickly drained. Not because the mortgage industry collapsed — we were surprising calm when it happened — but because the people here made me feel as if I’d moved to the last place on earth, the one scorpions flick their tails upon.
At first we failed. We started and abandoned business ventures that didn’t work. After having a thriving career in Colorado, I worked as a waitress at a sports bar where I played the roll of old, objectified hag (I was in my early 20s). My husband was unemployed for several months. We failed again and again and so has Michigan. But it’s not that we have failed; it’s what we’ve done with those failures. I own a company and have more opportunities, I believe, than I would have had in Colorado. There’s less of a market to penetrate and in an environment where journalism jobs are as contagious as polio, I’m a successful working freelance journalist. My husband has created a niche within his own industry that he likely wouldn’t have been able to create in Colorado.
We created these opportunities ourselves and other young, enterprising people are doing the same.
Yeah, failure sucks. Michigan winters suck. Coming from Colorado, the lack of sunshine here is debilitating. It’s challenging, but so is life.
My question to Michigan natives is, “If you hate this state so much, why don’t you leave? And if you stay, why wait for a door to open when you have the opportunity to build the house?”