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Detroit Hackers Want To Bring ‘Third Essential’ To Evolving City

There once was a time when everything Detroit needed to lead American industry could be found inside a car factory and a music studio. Ford was born in Detroit in 1903, attracting General Motors, Chrysler and more, filling America’s nascent highway system with millions of gas-guzzling, economy driving cars and trucks, the steel and rubber blood of countless businesses. Detroit was christened Motor City.

In 1959 singer-entrepreneur Barry Gordy launched Motown Records Corporation, short for its home in Motor City, charting a new course for Rock and Roll, and with the likes of Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder helping create an entirely new genre: soul.

Since those heydays though Detroit has fallen on rough times. Innovative car companies around the world successfully challenged the Big Three auto manufacturers, and as often happens with music, the trends moved elsewhere. While the Detroit area’s gross domestic product has been slowly increasing since 2009, what remains of Motor City’s once-great achievements are the bones of an industry looking for a new body and an artistic yearning in the people to make music again.

The problem is, today’s factories are frequently virtual, today’s music studios are bedrooms wired with the internet and professional-grade microphones, and Detroit is largely disconnected. A recent survey found that 40% of Detroiters don’t have access to broadband internet. In the era of Covid-19, and working from home, that frequently means they don’t have jobs either. To solve that problem dozens of Detroit natives virtually joined forces with entrepreneurs from around the world at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Hackathon to rethink the gap between those disconnected and the seemingly endless opportunities afforded online.

After all, Detroit’s motto, Resurget Cineribus, means it will rise from the ashes.

“We not only have the diversity of culture, we have the diversity of skillsets and mindsets for different industries as well,” says Alice Ogadinma, 25, who took a break from her day job selling cars to try her hands at founding a company that could help resurrect Detroit. “Everyone who comes here can relate in some way. We’re able to be so versatile and flexible and resilient, because we have been exposed to so much.”

This weekend Forbes Under 30 listmakers joined Detroit locals for the Forbes Under 30 Detroit Hackathon, Accelerating Change, in partnership with the City of Detroit, Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans and Major League Hacking. One group initially conceived “Third Necessity,” (as in food, shelter, internet) as a buy-one-give-one model, where customers donate a product to someone in need when they bought a product.

By partnering with the Detroit branch of the non-profit Human-I-T, which not only provides refurbished smart phones and computers, but all-important customer service, the Third Necessity team estimates they can bring internet to all 104,000 people in Detroit without service for about $34 million the first year, and less each year after that. The public-private partnership Human-I-T estimates that 27,000 of those without internet are students, further restraining Detroit’s future.

By forming partnerships with local churches, non-profits like Forgotten Harvest, which serves food to a similar demographic as Third Necessity, and other local organizations they hope to identify specific addresses that need to be served. To raise the initial capital for the endeavor Third Necessity would approach Detroit’s existing ISPs—including  AT&T, XFinity and Spectrum—for an investment that would eventually result in new customers that had previously never been served, with additional crowdfunding from individuals who bought extra service for Detroit locals in-need when they bought their own service.

But on Sunday afternoon Ogadinma and Martin met with Slow Ventures cofounder Kevin Colleran to bounce around ideas. The early Facebook employee recommended breaking down the internet service packages into categories, ranging from the cheapest to serve, people without internet who recently had internet, but for some reason let it lapse, to the most expensive to serve, those who never had internet, and don’t even know basic functions of computers.

Colleran also recommended that they consider launching Third Necessity as a specialty brand for existing providers, much how Costco’s generic Kirkland brand is frequently made by the same name-brand companies they appear to be knocking off. He called the model a “white label re-seller of Internet Service Providers.”

Third Essential co-creator Austin Martin says his family spent generations “working to uplift Detroit,” in fields as diverse as education, automotive, social services, government and more. Now that he lives in San Francisco he wanted to give back to his ancestral home. “I felt compelled to participate in this project because I feel that internet access is one of the most important modern resources that creates equity in opportunity for people,” he says.

The early-stage project was part of a larger effort seeking to bridge the digital divide. Other teams working over the weekend built out a sustainable model for an open-source digital library; to gamify the process of learning about how to use the internet and other digital resources; and to reimagine how an internet-enabled Detroit populace could experience improved healthcare benefits.

This was the third weekend in a row that Forbes co-hosted hackathons focused on Detroit, developed in partnership with Major League Hacking, based in New York. Two weeks ago participants explored how Detroit’s diverse supply chains could be augmented. Last week, they looked at small business problems in Detroit. Unlike more traditional hackathons, no award money was initially offered. Rather the focus was on finding people who genuinely cared about Detroit to conceive ways they could help make it better.

However, now that the ideas gone through such intense workshopping. they will not be left to fend entirely for themselves . Today, event sponsor Rocket Mortgage and the City of Detroit announced the Connect 313 Fund to make direct investments into Detroit-based projects that increase access to technology, internet and digital literacy resources. “The muscle of the local partners is real,” says Forbes chief content officer, Randall Lane.

Key to the Third Essential team’s vision for the future, is that once they nail down how to connect telecommunications companies to Detroit’s unconnected, similar grass roots strategies could be employed to serve the uninsured and unbanked. Eventually, this and other efforts conceived at the three-week event could then be expanded to other locations. “A good idea for Detroit is also a replicable good idea for many municipalities,” says Lane. “Our partners in Detroit have convened local stakeholders to ensure that the right people in the right areas can run with any aspect, big or small, of what was developed.”

Team Members: Alice Ogadinma, Change Agent, Rock Connections; Austin Martin, Cofounder, Rhymes with Reason; Mladen Jovanovic, Cofounder, BindiMaps; Rory Spence, Associate Manager, Rocket Mortgage.

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