MACKINAC ISLAND — Big name politicians and business executives generally dominate the agenda at the Mackinac Policy Conference. But this year, a group of small business owners from Detroit traveled to the island to talk about their role in the city’s revitalization.
Setting up shop Thursday afternoon at the Mission Point Resort, they were selling their jewelry, purses, scarves, ties and baked goods. It was an effort to draw attention to small businesses that are based in Detroit.
Rachel Lutz, who owns The Peacock Room boutique in Midtown Detroit, organized the event. Lutz opened her permanent store in 2011 after selling vintage clothing in temporary locations for a year.
“I’m hosting ‘Building Bridges to Small Business’ because I think it’s really important for small business to be a part of the discussion about our state’s economy,” Lutz says. “Getting started as a small business can be pretty hard. A lot of us face issues like not having any capital. I started my business with no capital. But really you just pull together with other small business owners. They help you out.”
With support from Strategic Staffing Solutions, Lutz recruited the other small business owners to join her on the island and tell their stories about what it’s like to run a small business in the city.
Amy Peterson is one of the owners of Rebel Nell. Her company makes jewelry out of graffiti paint that has crumbled and peeled off walls in Detroit.
“I think what’s so cool about having Detroit be part of our brand is that people really are buying a piece of Detroit when they walk away with an item. They’re actually wearing Detroit on their neck,” Peterson says.
Rebel Nell is a company with a social justice mission. The company employs five homeless women and helps them gain jewelry making skills and business management experience.
Peterson says she’s learning along the way too.
“You really are scrapping your way and just treading water and trying to survive and kind of the creature comforts of being a big business, we don’t have,” she says.
One business was represented at both the small business event and the Chamber’s policy conference: Sweet Potato Sensations. Owner Espy Thomas let customers sample some of the 20-some products her northwest Detroit business makes. Thomas was part of a video produced by Whole Foods and shown at the Policy Conference. The Detroit Whole Foods store sells some of Thomas’s products.
“It’s nice to actually have small businesses represented on Mackinac at the Mackinac Island Policy Conference,” Thomas says. “I know for a while things have been done a certain kind way and it’s nice to have even the thought of bringing some new energy and blood into the mix, and just having everyone represented at such a nice event.”
Organizer Lutz marketed the separate, small business event by handing out buttons emblazoned with “Think Small”. They were spotted on dozens of Mackinac Policy Conference name badges … and a few hundred conference attendees made their way over to her function.
Phillip Knight was one of them.
“I’m glad that it’s here on the island. I wish it was at the main venue. That would be a powerful story. This is about small business and this is really where we need to put our emphasis in this state to help small biz grow and develop,” he says.
Having the small business event become part of the big Mackinac Policy Conference in the future isn’t necessarily a goal for these entrepreneurs. But having small businesses as part of Detroit’s revitalization is something they’re definitely trying to sell.