By Travis Marmon
From where he sits in the world of technology these days, hip-hop legend MC Hammer sees a big, untapped, digital future for Detroit.
Hammer should know. The man behind “U Can’t Touch This” and “2 Legit 2 Quit” has become one of the most prominent tech investors in the country over the past two decades, putting money into Pinterest and Square as well as founding his own companies such as the search engine WireDoo and The Hammer Channel. With Mayor Mike Duggan announcing a $148 million tech hub for Corktown earlier this summer, Detroit could become a major Midwest hotspot for technology.
“Detroit is ripe for innovation and ripe for profit,” he said a recently during an urban technology summit at Cass Technical High School. The rapper-turned-tech-mogul was in town for Innovate the Hood: How to Win at the Tech Game. The tech talk was presented by digitalundivided (DID), a group that focuses on developing digital participation and entrepreneurship in urban communities. The main portion of the event was a discussion between DID founder Kathryn Finney and hip-hop legend MC Hammer.
Before Hammer and Finney began their talk, however, there was a series of short presentations by local tech entrepreneurs. Maria Lalonde, the Recruiting and Development Leader for Dan Gilbert’s start-up accelerator Bizdom, explained the nonprofit’s services to a room full of eager techies. Bamboo Detroit co-founder Dave Anderson followed Lalonde, discussing his company’s use as a workspace for local entrepreneurs of all types. Phil Cooley gave a brief explanation of Southwest Detroit’s own Pony Ride incubator, which Finney later said was “one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in the city. It’s a great example of how you can do well [for the community] and make money at the same time.”
Next came the presentations of actual apps and online tools. Syed Amaanullah told the audience about Snapsure, his app that allows users to get instant feedback from friends in the form of an infographic, rather than putting up a photo on Instagram with “#yayornay” and hoping for a quick response.Shelia McBride, founder of the GradeCheck foundation, had perhaps the most relevant presentation to the local community. Her company uses data from multiple sources to help parents and students monitor academic performance and learn exactly what it will take to get the student into the college they want. This was the kind of idea that Innovate the Hood aimed to promote. “I’m less excited about the next Twitter,” said DID’s Marlo Rencher, “than I am about something that can help a single mom get into college.”
After the local presentations, it was time for Hammer to take the stage, and the rap legend captivated the audience with the story of his business success following his very public bankruptcy in 1996. He explained that, during the peak of his music career, he found it problematic that the only ways he could get his videos out to the masses were through MTV and BET. He visited Apple when it was just developing QuickTime and saw the potential of online video. From that point on, he became a frequently seen figure in Silicon Valley. He summed up the theme of the night early on, saying “Don’t let the rules prevent you from being the exception to the rules.”
So can Detroit be the next Silicon Valley? Can the African-American community break down barriers and become relevant members of an industry comprised primarily of a wealthy white elite? In Hammer’s eyes, the answer is yes. And personal wealth isn’t a major factor anymore. “Crowdfunding has made it a level playing field,” Hammer says, pointing to websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, “if you have a good idea.”
Finney further emphasized this point, saying, “If you have the skill, they want to hire you. You don’t need to go to MIT or CalTech.” After the event, she talked about the myriad affordable sources available to learn about technical skills such as coding. When asked how Detroiters can get involved, she said that they need to “realize that tech has no barriers. If you have a phone, you can be in tech. If you have access to a computer, you’re in tech.”
After Finney and Hammer had their initial discussion, they had a question and answer session with the audience. When one audience member asked what we can do to expose young minorities to entrepreneurial opportunities, Hammer answered with conviction. “We need to get away from the same three dreams in our community to get wealthy,” he said. “Those being sports, music and Hollywood… Teaching our kids that they can build the next big app is a realistic dream.”