by Christie Baer
I started thinking about how the physical arrangement of space evokes feelings six years ago. I was new to the University of Michigan’s Center on Finance, Law & Policy, and had recently started working with professors from Ross, Law, and Stamps to set up the first pilot semester of the Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project (DNEP). Two faculty members and I had converged at the University’s Detroit Center as we prepared for a full day of interviewing Detroit small business owners. We would be selecting four businesses to be DNEP’s first clients. Stamps professor and DNEP co-founder Hannah Smotrich entered the room, scanned the furniture and the three of us, and immediately said, “We need to move these tables around. This is way too intimidating.”
I looked at the U-shaped table. “It is?” I asked, surprised.
“Yes,” she answered, already moving tables to create a small, tight square. “There will be four of us and only one of them. This looks like a boardroom.”
Ah. I had spent the last six years of my life in courtrooms around Georgia, as a practicing trial attorney. My perspective on what intimidating looks like was probably a little skewed.
Professor Smotrich finished moving the tables, and repositioned the chairs. I saw what she meant. Now it just looked like the set for a meeting, rather than a high-stakes job interview. It did not go as far as saying “Welcome” — but it was better.
Opened in December 2019, the +Impact Studio collaborative space is designed to facilitate design thinking and interdisciplinary work to take on complex societal problems. The first thing you notice is that the studio is beautiful. The second thing you notice is the commercial-size printer to the left. “What’s that for?” I asked, and Loren pointed out the posters hanging around the room, the work product from a previous +Impact Studio project known as Plucky Comics, showcasing Black Queer historical figures.
Four pods are divided by moveable, 6’ high whiteboards that can be rearranged as needed. There’s a living room up front with a TV monitor that can be used for Zoom meetings, vibrant colors on the upholstery, and a sprawling L-shaped desk behind that. As you move through the pods, you see what else the printer is used for — blank empathy maps, asset mapping exercises, and ideation frameworks. Oh, and sticky notes. There are bright-colored sticky notes everywhere.
A former mentor once told me, “What you will never really know is how it feels for other people to be in your presence.” Maya Angelou was more pointed, in a quote that hangs framed on the wall of the +Impact Studio, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
As you take in the artwork, the colors, the organization of furniture, and the technology throughout, being in the +Impact Studio feels… exciting! You get the sense that the resources and space have been arranged for you to solve complex problems. You feel like you can do hard things. It was the perfect space for our first time offering the summer internship program in-person and full-time.
For rising juniors and seniors who want to develop professional experience while positively impacting their local community, DNEP’s +Impact Studio for Local Business is a summer internship program in which multidisciplinary teams build expertise while implementing projects with measurable impact for a portfolio of (mostly) minority owned businesses. Unlike consulting projects that focus on recommendations, DNEP +ISLB gives the opportunity to manage the execution and implementation of specific and strategic projects. In addition to learning new technical skills, students learn key communication and consulting skills that are transferable to any industry.
DNEP +ISLB was initiated during COVID by Ross faculty member Chris Mueller to provide critical support for businesses during the pandemic shutdown. The outcomes of that first summer led to the creation of dozens of tools for small businesses and a renewal of funding from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. Prof. Mueller now serves as DNEP +ISLB’s faculty director. In summer 2022, 17 interns from Ross, Ford, Stamps, and Information worked full-time, under the instruction of Mueller and Stamps faculty Jill Greene. DNEP program manager Aaron Jackson and I (both entrepreneurs and former attorneys) rounded out the rest of the leadership team, providing students with coaching about client management, Detroit, and cultural competency.
DNEP +ISLB is all about implementation. We provided an eight-week, intense capacity boost to help business owners get over a key business hurdle. Over eight weeks, students helped clients: attract new customers through brand identity implementation; automate marketing systems to retain business’ best customers; optimize point of sale systems and fix e-ecommerce integrations; and launch new products by operationalizing manufacturing, packaging, and fulfillment.
The +Impact Studio space allowed us to work faster and more efficiently because it was set up for collaboration. Students from the brand identity team, for instance, needed to walk 10 steps across the hall to confer with the packaging team. Every white board was full. And because it did not look like a classroom, interns felt like they were going to work, not to class.
We had a terrific experience working at the +Impact Studio, and with the Business + Impact team. Thanks for being our partner for three years on DNEP +ISLB. We’ll be back!
Christie Ayotte Baer is the assistant director of the University of Michigan’s Center on Finance, Law & Policy.