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FoodLab: Weaving the network for a good food system in Detroit

FoodLab Detroit
FoodLab Detroit -
By Jess Daniel, Founder of FoodLab Detroit

Just last month, FoodLab kicked off our second annual "Growing Your Good Food Business" boot camp with a raucous new cohort of brewers, bakers, food processors and distributors, restaurateurs, and retailers. These 20 entrepreneurs come together weekly in ten interactive sessions where they pick up practical tools to cultivate their financial, community, and environmental bottom lines, grow relationships to sustain their businesses, and become active participants in Detroit’s vibrant and growing good food ecosystem.
 
These last two parts are especially key. They’re a big part of what makes FoodLab special. More than a good food business "incubator," we think of ourselves as network weavers, knitting together a diverse community of entrepreneurs and connecting this community into a broader movement that extends beyond just businesses.
 
Most of us, especially those of us who are entrepreneurs, are familiar with networking. We’ve attended events designed to help us meet potential customers, collaborators, mentors, or resource-providers. We take time to connect because we might eventually benefit from useful information, advice, or new sales opportunities. We think of these connections as social capital that we build over time. In very simplified terms, it’s like financial capital: the more of it you’ve got, the better off you probably are.
 
Like many other organizations in the city, we facilitate networking among entrepreneurs. Our members say that before connecting with FoodLab, they felt alone. This is despite the fact that most of them have already tapped into incubation services and launched their business. They tell us that they’re surprised (and happy!) to find so many others who are struggling to figure out the practical details of running a quality business while also trying to employ neighborhood youth, provide workers with health insurance and a living wage, educate eaters on healthier eating, reduce waste, and/or support local farmers.
 
In my experience, this feeling of disconnectedness has been especially true of older, second-career entrepreneurs, lower-income entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs of color who tend to be more spread out geographically, less comfortable with social media, and less tied into real-life information and friendship networks that tend to connect the younger, whiter “foodie” community. This was something I shared when reading a draft of Kat Hartman’s recent UIX feature on measuring innovation networks. The boot camp is one of those rare spaces in Detroit where these "foodies" (mostly young, mostly white, often new to the city) learn alongside and connect with long-time residents and food activists (mostly older, mostly African American). We make this happen both in the boot camp and other programming through specific, intentional action: working with partners to recruit the right mix of participants, cultivating leaders of color, offering scholarships and childcare, using appropriate language and tools, and paying attention to our modes of communication (e.g. Facebook is not the only way to get the word out).
 
So FoodLab consciously cultivates opportunities for networking across racial, socioeconomic, and other divides, but we want to go one step further. Whereas networking is about helping entrepreneurs grow their individual networks of support and resources (what we might call "me" social capital), network weaving pays attention to the bigger picture, to building relationships that make us stronger overall ("we" social capital).
 
What the heck does this mean? Well, FoodLab businesses are collectively committed to making good food accessible to all Detroiters. We recognize that our success depends on a whole lot of things outside our control as individual businesses. We know we’re more powerful together than the sum of our individual little jam companies and produce trucks, and even if all our businesses thrive, we’d be hard-pressed to address the bigger issues without engaging with our broader ecosystem that includes nonprofits working on food access and nutrition education, farmers, "conventional" food distributors and retailers, media, capital providers, economic development agencies, and policy-makers.
 
As individual entrepreneurs, small and scrappy as we are, it is impossible to meaningfully engage with so many organizations and groups. Some won’t bother to listen to us; some take up too much energy. Yet as a collective, we can intentionally build and maintain key relationships. It’s a concrete example of how we can take things (as Vince Keenan so wonderfully put in a previous feature) from DIY to do-it-together. For instance, the boot camp is designed and run by a volunteer team of FoodLab members and former participants, but over the course of the ten weeks, we involve more than 30 local allies, from area business owners and chefs, to graphic designers and marketing gurus, to food justice activists, to city and state licensing agencies. Recently, we kicked off the Kitchen Connect project in partnership with Eastern Market to connect entrepreneurs with underutilized commercial kitchens in Detroit, many of which exist in churches and community organizations. These are just a few examples of our network weaving activities. These relationships don’t only benefit our membership, but also benefit our partners and the food system as a whole.
 
Funny enough, this broader benefit is what makes our work so difficult. In both the business and nonprofit worlds, we’re accustomed to models that measure success by internal organizational efficiency or the impact of an individual entrepreneur or organization. "How profitable am I? How many clients did I serve?" These measures are important, and they tend to be easy to quantify, but they don’t capture everything. In fact, they rarely capture the things we care about: "Are Detroiters healthier overall? Will our economy be more resilient to economic or environmental shocks? Do residents feel able to participate in creating the communities they want to live in?"
 
The trouble is that measuring the impact of network weaving across organizations becomes quite fuzzy. And yet so many of us in Detroit are gravitating naturally towards this work, whether we’re working with parentsclothing merchantsmakers, or sustainable development stakeholders. And though it can be rough, we’re not crazy and we’re not alone. Experts on social enterprises and effective nonprofits have become more and more clear on the fact that network weaving is an essential component of success. Foundations and funders are becoming more and more interested in how to take a networked approach to their work.
 
Here at FoodLab, we recently kicked off a partnership with an interdisciplinary research team at the University of Michigan who will be working with us on an action research project using network analysis and other organizational methods to look more closely at the emergence and health of our community of businesses and at our network weaving approach. In the end, we’re hoping to find better ways to describe, measure, and support network weaving as an innovative approach to social change in a complex world.
 
To learn more about FoodLab or to get involved, join our listserve or shoot us an email at info@foodlabdetroit.com. If you want to come over to dinner to talk more about network weaving, shoot me an email at jess@foodlabdetroit.com.
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