By Rochelle Riley
Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Three years after filing for and 10 months after emerging from bankruptcy, Detroit is now the epicenter of an explosion of small businesses and start-ups across southeast Michigan. An influx of new entrepreneurs is joining longtime residents seizing opportunities of which they’ve long dreamed.
Detroit Free Press
Leah and Zachary Holston lived different, separate lives.
They had previous marriages. They were devoted to their day jobs. They had growing children.
But when they met and married three years ago, the Farmington Hills couple looked toward new lives, longtime dreams of entrepreneurship and ways to embrace their passions as careers. So they stopped chasing their dreams and began living them.
They have found a new groove.
Zachary Holston, a 43-year-old soap company CEO who always wanted to run a martial arts school, opened one in January. Called H2O, it now anchors an Oak Park strip mall. And Leah Holston, a 44-year-old engineer by degree who works for an auto supplier, always wanted to run her own clothing store. Beginning Sunday, she’ll be doing just that, opening a new boutique, H2OMG, in the rear of her husband’s school. The shop features clothes for curvy women (with a few things in those other sizes, she said). But she wants you to read H2OMG as H2-OMG, as in Oh, my God.
“This is a rebirth for both of us,” she said. “All of our children either have been in college or are going. Our youngest is leaving for college this summer. We figured this is our time. He’s always had a dream of opening up the school, and I always dreamed of opening up a boutique. We have the space, so we said, ‘Let’s try it and see what it does.'”
They are not alone.
Three years after filing for and 10 months after emerging from bankruptcy, Detroit is now the epicenter of an explosion of small businesses and start-ups across southeast Michigan. An influx of new entrepreneurs is joining longtime residents seizing opportunities of which they’ve long dreamed.
“From the Paradise Valley project to all we’re seeing in community development efforts, Detroit is a hotbed for entrepreneurial efforts,” said Steve Arwood, CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “It’s part of the comeback efforts, re-energizing Detroit for everybody.”
Michael Rogers, spokesman for the Small Business Association of Michigan, said his board members are seeing increases across southeast Michigan, thanks to people “attracted to the opportunities, the social buzz and the entrepreneurial energy.”
The association’s annual report card, which measures the direction and momentum of growth in entrepreneurial change, ranked Michigan 12th out of the 50 states this year, up from 44th a decade ago.
And Kenneth Harris, president of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, said that growth is pronounced among black entrepreneurs in Wayne and Oakland Counties.
“We are witnessing this tremendous expansion of the entrepreneurial spirit in the black community,” he said, adding that African-American women “represent the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurship, regardless of race, gender, color or creed, in the country.”
There are more than 32,000 black-owned businesses in Detroit and more than 10,000 in Oakland County, and the numbers are growing. Harris said. And these businesses are doing more than trying to make money; they are trying to stabilize communities and offer needed help.
“Although we offer a commodity, good, product or service, we also have a community emphasis and intent behind it,” he said. “That’s what so powerful about the entrepreneurial explosion.
That resonates with Zachary Holston, who said his school is about more than learning how to fight.
A Detroit native who graduated from Benedictine High School and took some classes at Wayne State University, Holston is CEO of the Sterling Heights-based Kath Khemicals LLC, which makes hand soap for 70% of the McDonald’s restaurants nationwide.
“I love teaching,” he said. “I love seeing young people learn and grow. The goal is not learning how to fight but actually becoming a better person. We’re very big on integrity, honesty and helping people along their walk. Some of our students, young men, have come from troubled pasts. They didn’t have a positive male role model in their lives. We have students who have been in the system with legal issues. Helping them work through that and teaching them to channel that energy into something positive, that’s our goal.”
H2O offers classes every day except Friday and has 55 young students taking anti-bullying, kickboxing, Zumba and jujitsu courses.
“For a long time, my day job was it,” he said. “It’s a family-owned business, and I took over as CEO four years ago. But now, I’ll have a foot in each world. My day job is what allows me to do this and give back.”
Leah Holston, a Detroit native who graduated from Cass Technical High School and received an industrial engineering degree from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, has spent the past few months stocking the store with unique finds and offerings from a partner, “a young lady here old enough to be my mom who does unique pieces for me as well. She is jamming.”
“We’re catering to the over-30 age group,” she said. “We do have smaller clothes, but not in all the designs. Our focus is definitely on the curvy woman.”
She also is helping to grow entrepreneurship herself. She is leasing space to Pretty Things LLC, a small accessories company.
“We’ve always had a dream,” Leah Holston said, “and this was the time to put our dream on paper, and then put it into action.”