Looking up at several Detroit skyscrapers.

Detroit Rebuilds with Alumnae Help

Things are looking up.

In the eyes of the public, modern Detroit is a shadow of its former booming self. The decline of the domestic auto industry and subsequent closures of steel and machine tool manufacturers left thousands of workers unemployed and prompted a mass exodus from the city limits.

The population decrease left Detroit with fewer than 720,000 residents as of 2010: 60 percent of its peak population. Lower census numbers have led to decreased tax revenues, forcing city officials to make tough decisions about infrastructure maintenance.

On paper, Detroit was well on its way to ruin.

For four Michigan Tech graduates working in the area, however, the city’s reality is considerably brighter than the statistics would suggest. According to Mairi Fogle, Jill Garrity, Laurilee Kroll, and Yeimy Garcia, Detroit may be down, but it is certainly not out.

"It’s a safe, fun, and thriving place.”Yeimy Garcia '99

Working together at the communications agency Team Detroit, these four women paint a picture of hope and potential. Under the radar of the news cameras, they say, members of the Detroit community are banding together and quietly working to build a new, sustainable future for their city.

"Detroiters are humble," said Kroll, a 2009 marketing and finance graduate. "Even though the national media have dogged them, they bite their tongues and stay positive. They are excited to take advantage of new opportunities to lift the city out of its current state."

Strong, stable companies like Team Detroit, which originated as an integrated communications agency for the Ford Motor Company, are key to resuscitating the city’s depressed economy, which has been in an accelerated decline since 2000. In 2010, the per capita income was just $15,062, and 34.5 percent of Detroit residents were living below the poverty line.

In the new Detroit, businesses are focusing on corporate culture and innovation as a way to attract and retain top-level employees. According to Garrity, who has been with Team Detroit since 2010, the company embraces the practice with a “work hard, play hard” philosophy.

Small perks, like in-office massages, manicures, and yoga classes, offer opportunities to decompress during the work week, while company-wide policies ensure employee fulfillment on a global scale. With a relaxed, flexible work environment and a high level of individual autonomy, Team Detroit understands that a strong company starts with satisfied employees. “We have complete ownership of our work, which keeps everyone engaged, and the company also makes sure we step away from work to create a healthy balance,” said Garrity.

Team Detroit is one of many local businesses that are determined to revitalize Detroit’s natural environment, using greener policies designed to fix the city’s image as a post-industrial urban wasteland. Employees are allowed two paid volunteer days each year in a partnership with the Greening of Detroit, a volunteer organization that seeks to improve the city with tree-planting projects, environmental education, urban agriculture, and open-space reclamation. In addition, Kroll was impressed with in-company initiatives like waste reduction, “Green Week,” all-organic cafeteria offerings, and bike rentals. “Detroit businesses are making the push to become more conscious corporate citizens,” she said.

With the concerted efforts of private citizens, nonprofit groups, government officials, and local companies like Team Detroit, the spirit of community is alive and well in Detroit. Volunteer days and school programs aim to improve the quality of life for residents; city officials have implemented programs to clean up the city, boost safety, and increase traffic to the downtown area. “Team Detroit and other businesses really try to support the downtown area by doing things like sponsoring hockey trips, holding parties there, and giving employees memberships to the Detroit Art Institute,” said Garcia. “It’s a safe, fun and thriving place.” 

Even more impressive, says Fogle, is the small-town atmosphere of support and generosity that has arisen among the people who remained after the city’s crash. “A few months ago, we got a company-wide email about a new business opening up downtown, and employees donated their time to help the new owners move in,” she says. “We may be a large city, but we are a true community. Things are looking up for Detroit.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.