By: Vicki Sitron, Associate Gift Officer
A partnership in the making
The relationship between Ally Financial and TechTown Detroit has been in the making for more than two years. Picture it (Sophia Petrillo-style): it’s early January 2020 in Detroit. Cold and windy weather, the entire world about to change in two months (unbeknownst to us), lovely company and a delicious salad. Members of the fund development team and Dr. Marlo Rencher, director of tech-based entrepreneurship, sat down to lunch with the then senior director of corporate citizenship at Ally Financial in Detroit, Jacqueline (Jack) Howard. At that time, Jack was recently named one of the Most Powerful Women in Banking by American Banker. I was fortunate to have already met her once before, and Marlo and Jack knew each other socially. We started the conversation with some catch-up and moved into a discussion about our tech-based entrepreneurship programs.
Getting down to business
Before our lunch meeting, the three of us sat down to strategize what we’d be presenting to Jack to hopefully get Ally’s financial support. Their charitable giving website states, “Everyone deserves a path to financial stability, security and growth. We are committed to reducing barriers to economic mobility and fostering financial and social inclusion through our grants and sponsorships.” While I could point to every one of our programs to satisfy this, we believed that Start Studio, TechTown’s idea-stage tech program, would be the right fit for Ally. Not to toot our own horn here, but once Marlo began speaking about the program, its impact, and stories of alums, Jack was intrigued. Why wouldn’t she be? Start Studio is the most inclusive and supportive tech program in Southeast Michigan. Dr. Rencher, a national research leader on inclusivity in tech, has led TechTown’s steady increase in service to women and Black Detroiters in our tech programs between 2018 to 2020 – each of those years doubling the impact from the last. Dr. Rencher’s team of entrepreneurs-in-residence, churn out program alumni who are killing it with their MVPs (minimal viable products) and regularly meet with VCs to get their tech products to market. It is a proven track record of program success, so not surprisingly, Jack recommended we submit a proposal for funding.
Jacqueline (Jack) Howard
Dr. Marlo Rencher
Fast forward to March 2020. A global pandemic was changing our collective lives, our work and our priorities. TechTown’s focus had immediately shifted to the creation of a pool of funds that could be deployed to small business owners in Detroit immediately. On March 18, 2020, we launched the Detroit Small Business Stabilization Fund (DSBSF) and began accepting applications from qualified businesses with ten or fewer employees for grants up to $5,000 – well before the other forms of financial resources that eventually came online. The community needed money immediately, and TechTown had the appropriate infrastructure and nimble culture that allowed us to be first to respond with two rounds of grants to low- to moderate-income residents with household incomes less than 80% of the Area Median Income.
The news spread fast about this fund, and not only did the community and people from all over the country support the fund, but our corporate and foundation partners came through immediately as well. Ally Financial contacted us to let us know that they had shifted the money set aside for community grants into COVID-relief, and granted us $50,000 for the DSBSF. By the time the fund closed, $1.2 million was raised in capital and placed in the hands of 697 small business owners in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park.
Window of opportunity
So, when the grant window opened again early this year, we knew we had to apply. Because the team is always iterating for optimal impact, Start Studio looks much different now than it did when we first applied in 2020. We were excited to share the new features with the Charlotte office that had assumed charitable giving operations. Jack, still in Detroit but elevated to the position of senior director of wealth advisors operations for Ally Invest, was our internal champion and encouraged us to submit again to serve idea-stage Detroiters, especially women and Black founders. I was excited to write and submit this proposal for Start Studio 2022.
Creating an inclusive economy
A little peak here into how the sausage is made: after submitting a grant, there is a lot of waiting. I can only imagine how many proposals they must read before making their decisions, often with a limited pool of funds for the year. But, on the morning that I opened my laptop and saw the email confirming that our proposal was accepted and we would be receiving the full amount we asked for, I was ecstatic! I have been doing this for a while now, and that feeling never gets old. The feeling that our community supports our work and prioritizes its impact is extremely validating. Ally is investing in us to turn out the next generation of tech billionaires (I can dream, can’t I?), and we have to demonstrate to them that we are worthy of their investment and advocacy. I know this team works every day to make that a reality. So, maybe we won’t get billionaires out of this, but we are serving Detroit’s doers and dreamers to build generational wealth and to advance in an inclusive economy. That, and a delicious salad, makes this all worth it.