Hour Detroiters: 24 Metro Detroit Leaders Shaping Life in 2020

Meet two dozen movers, makers, and thinkers, and who’ll influence life in — and far beyond — southeast Michigan in the year ahead


uch has been made about Detroit’s economic and cultural revival over the past decade — and rightfully so. The city is pulsing with creative and entrepreneurial energy and an unmistakable undercurrent of Detroit pride. This month, to kick off what we plan to make an annual tribute, we highlight two dozen of the countless movers, makers, and creative thinkers who are fueling the city’s resurgence. Read on to meet this year’s Hour Detroiters.

Market Movers

Greg Schwartz & Josh Luber

StockX partners are reinventing how we buy stuff
Josh Luber (left) and Greg Schwartz // Photograph by Marvin Shaouni

The first time Josh Luber and Greg Schwartz talked with Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert about launching a “stock market of things,” they had no idea how the concept that became StockX would grow.

When the company started, the team consisted of the co-founders and a few other tech pioneers. “Now we employ over 500 people in Detroit,” says Luber, whose original Philadelphia-based sneaker website, campless.com, served as the basis for StockX. Today, the e-commerce platform, which assigns ticker symbols to luxury goods and allows users to bid on them based on their real-time market value, conducts up to 10,000 transactions per day.

Of course, job growth and sales aren’t the only marks of the startup’s progress. Since its official launch in February 2016, StockX, which began primarily as a space for sneakerheads to buy and sell high-end shoes, has expanded to include watches, streetwear, and — most recently — collectibles and trading cards. In June 2019, the company became Detroit’s first “unicorn” — a term the tech world bestows on privately held startups valued at over $1 billion.

Since then, Luber and Schwartz have kept their sights set primarily on the company’s international expansion, using recent investments to upgrade technology and develop product infrastructure to allow the business to evolve from an English language, U.S. dollar currency platform to one that can support localized experiences in a variety of countries, especially Japan and China.

“Today, about 20% to 25% of our business is made up of buyers outside of the U.S.,” Schwartz says. “We think there’s just an incredible opportunity for growth there.”

Part of that expansion has been led by Scott Cutler, who stepped in as StockX CEO last June while Luber stepped down to focus on the company’s innovation arm. Despite the international focus, the company’s leadership maintains that, while the brand’s audience grows geographically, the company itself won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

“The headquarters will always be here,” Luber says. “We want to continue to support the city and make it a place that people want to move to.”

StockX has other plans for growth too, primarily with its popular “IPOs” — initial product offerings. Last October, for example, StockX held an IPO for three new limited-edition Adidas sneakers. StockX debuted the sneakers, and bidders set the price, letting consumers, rather than the brand, dictate the value. In three days, customers placed 10,000 bids. Looking ahead, Luber says, users can expect to see more brand releases like those directly on the site. “No one’s ever released products in this unique way,” he says. “It’s truly revolutionary. It may be somewhat cliché, but it’s kind of like the
future of all eCommerce for certain products.”

Cliché or no, digital shoppers certainly don’t seem to have a problem with it — so long as the price is right. — Jeff Waraniak

Hockey Hero

Steve Yzerman

Red Wings icon Steve Yzerman’s return to Detroit in April was a jolt of good news for
a team that has been short on it in recent years.

Yzerman played his whole career in Detroit, where as captain for two decades, he led the team to Stanley Cup championships in 1997, 1998, and 2002. His hiring as general manager came after an eight-year stint as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he led the team to three conference finals and one Stanley Cup final.

Yzerman has kept a low profile since his return, focusing his efforts on helping rebuild and improve the franchise, which has struggled with a lack of top-tier talent and depth, and has missed the playoffs for three straight years after making the postseason for 25 consecutive seasons. It may take time, but with No. 19 back, could greatness be far behind?  — Chloe Alverson

Clothing Creator 

Tracy Reese

The fashion designer is bringing garment manufacturing to the city
Tracy Reese
Illustration by Kagan McLeod

For years, there’s been talk of Detroit becoming a fashion hub. And while there’s been movement toward making that a reality, it hasn’t quite seemed plausibleuntil now. 

Fashion designer Tracy Reese is partly to thank. The Detroit native, who had worked in New York City since the ’80s, transformed her business last year when she launched a sustainable clothing collection called Hope for Flowers from her hometown. The eco-friendly line was made in collaboration with metro Detroit creatives — including the fashion industry experts at the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center, an apparel manufacturing nonprofit based in the city. 

Reese is now on the board of ISAIC as a vice president, and the Detroit organization will open its first garment production factory this spring. Reese is also launching an artisan studio, which will support ISAIC’s factory by producing embellishments for domestically made goods. “Brands currently producing off-shore will find that Detroit can be a competitive alternative and much more sustainable,” she says.

Reese’s involvement with ISAIC is proving crucial for the local fashion community. “Tracy’s experience, contacts, and commitment to apparel manufacturing in Detroit is a tremendous asset,” says Jennifer Guarino, CEO of ISAIC. Once the factory and studio open, Reese plans to move the production of a percentage of her garments to Detroit — further cementing her dedication to the city. —Emma Klug

Food Activist

Devita Davidson

Devita Davison is on a mission. As executive director of FoodLab Detroit, a nonprofit that works to empower food entrepreneurs, the Detroit native is helping to build a culinary community that champions local ownership, sustainability, and representation for all demographics.

One of the ways she’s doing that is by helping to improve labor practices and pave professional pathways for the staff of Detroit’s restaurants. In 2019, Davison and Food Lab helped to produce a series of panel discussions to help food industry leaders learn from each other to create better work environments, pay better wages — and serve better food.

“I want to build a culinary community where restaurateurs can have a sustainable small business [that allows] them to send their children off to school, sets them up for retirement, and helps them live a decent and full and enriched life,” she says.  — Lakshmi Varanasi

Education Advocate

Jalen Rose

The ex-NBA star has ambitious plans for his leadership academy
Jalen Rose
Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Jalen Rose is widely recognized for his 13-year NBA career and role as a member of the “Fab Five,” the superstar recruits who rose to University of Michigan basketball fame in the early 1990s. These days, Rose is best known as an NBA analyst for ESPN, appearing on shows like First Take and Get Up.

But he’s also been contributing to local philanthropic efforts since the early 2000s. And in 2011, Rose initiated the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a small, tuition-free, public charter high school in northwest Detroit. The academy aims to provide students with both hard and soft skills, and encourages them to continue on to higher education. It has achieved a 93% graduation rate, with nearly 500 JRLA students earning high school degrees since the school’s establishment.

Now, Rose says he’s working to expand the school’s facilities to accommodate the needs of the student body. In recent years, the academy has outgrown its home base on the Vandenberg Elementary School campus, a shuttered Detroit Public Schools elementary school. “The goal of expanding the space goes back to what our goal has been all along — to give students the necessary resources to not only graduate high school but also graduate college,” Rose says. “We aren’t increasing enrollment but more so providing the facility our scholars deserve.” This expansion of the academy will offer a full-size gymnasium and more offices and classroom space.

Rose hopes his advocacy for youth education will help sustain the city’s resurgence. “Being involved with something you care about betters your community and yourself,” he says. “It’s the best way to help our city thrive.”  –C.A.

Change Artist

Ellen Rutt

The muralist is on a mission to protect the planet
Ellen Rutt
Photograph by Emily Steffen

Ellen Rutt is a provocateur. She’s an activist. She’s an artist whose work has taken over the city, with vibrant murals everywhere from Eastern Market to the cult-favorite Parks BBQ in New Center, to downtown Detroit’s most happening alleyway, the Belt.

“I am truly a product of my environment,” Rutt says. “I started painting murals because of the strong culture of public art in Detroit. The direct interaction with a variety of public spaces and communities influences my work, and on a personal level, it grounds me in my sense of belonging and my commitment to the wellbeing of all people who live here.”

Rutt has several projects in the works for 2020, including a group show at San Francisco’s Heron Arts gallery, a two-person show at Pt.2 Gallery in Los Angeles, and collaborations with numerous regional and local coalitions dedicated to fighting climate change.

“Climate change is the most urgent issue we have to address immediately,” she says, and much of her work — in 2019 and planned for the year ahead — revolves around it. Her solo exhibition at the 2019 Detroit Art Week, This Must Be the Place, was a series of paintings that illustrated the complexity of navigating between synthetic and natural environments. She juxtaposed a range of natural materials, like desert sand and Arizona dirt, with man-made environments, including outlines from New York City crosswalks, to help viewers understand that all of these systems are interconnected. “It’s a really exciting time to be alive and a truly beautiful opportunity to change the systems that are founded on greed and oppression to a future that prioritizes environmental justice,”she says. –L.V.

Makeup Maker

Melissa Butler

The Lip Bar owner wants women to spend time where it counts
Melissa Butler
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni

Lip Bar, the Detroit-based cosmetics company and brainchild of former stockbroker Melissa Butler, has never been much for mainstream approaches. Launched in 2012 with an eye toward inclusion and self-expression, the brand’s original collection of rainbow-bright lipstick shades — we’re talking gorgeous classic hues alongside blues, purples, hot pinks, oranges, and even yellows — has since expanded into a full spectrum of vegan, cruelty-free products. It’s now also sold in 450 Target stores nationwide.

Future plans for the brand are looking equally unconventional. In a few years’ time, Butler hopes to sell the business and reinvest in the Detroit community through mentorship programs for would-be entrepreneurs and business owners, along with providing them with access to capital. Her ultimate dream is even further-reaching — she aims to someday pioneer a manufacturing space that would create more jobs in southeast Michigan.

A Detroit native and a Cass Tech alum, Butler earned a bachelor’s in business finance from Florida A&M University before climbing the ranks on Wall Street. She quickly realized that her day job as a licensed stockbroker wasn’t fulfilling and eventually set out on a different trajectory, exploring her interest in cosmetics.

As she began independently researching cosmetic chemistry, Butler started whipping up homemade lipstick in her kitchen. A couple years — and roughly a thousand batches — later, she’d perfected her first line. A subsequent Shark Tank appearance didn’t yield formal financial backing but gave the brand something more meaningful in the long run — exposure and its first fan base.

“They didn’t believe in us, but millions of people who watched the show did,” Butler says.

In 2017, Lip Bar launched on target.com and then moved into brick-and-mortar stores the following year. Also in 2018, Richelieu Dennis, founder of mega-skin-care brand Shea Moisture, became an investor.

The momentum continued to build. In 2019, there was the launch of a beautifully appointed flagship store in Parker’s Alley, behind the Shinola Hotel. Next, the product lineup expanded beyond its namesake lip focus.

Called Fast Face, the latest launch is a six-product, complete makeup routine for all ages and skin tones. It promises a total look in just minutes. Dubbed “makeup for people with stuff to do,” the time-saving kit is an antidote to complicated Instagram tutorials that feature labor-intensive, product-heavy looks more suited to magazines than real life.

Real life is what Butler wants to focus on. “Makeup is fun, but it doesn’t matter,” she says. “We want you to spend that time living.” She’s particularly pleased with the new foundation, which comes in 26 shades and features nurturing skin care ingredients such as olive and coconut oils, plus a built-in brush to make application a breeze.

Next up, Butler hopes to continue to support the “everyday woman” via new product additions, and perhaps open another store. But she’s also perfectly happy in the present moment — heading up a thriving business based on values of inclusivity, transparency, and female empowerment. “My team is all women,” she enthuses, “and I’m super proud of it.”
— Christina Kallery

School Reformer   

Dr. Nikolai Vitti

Detroit Public Schools have finally started notching some victories of late — thanks in no small part to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. In the two years since he assumed the role, five new schools have opened, student enrollment has risen, chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies are down, and literacy and math scores are up.

Still, there’s work to be done. Vitti cites the need to raise teacher salaries, upgrade facilities, and provide more programs that extend outside the classroom as top priorities. But “these challenges cannot be addressed unless the state improves the way in which school districts are funded,” he says. He cites the way a portion of public school funding is generated from local property taxes — thus favoring wealthier communities — as a great source of inequity. —Ashley Winn


Matt Cullen

When you wear as many hats and hold the kinds of jobs Matt Cullen does, every year is a big one. Formerly general manager of economic development at General Motors, Cullen was the architect of the company’s move to the Renaissance Center before joining Dan Gilbert’s family of companies, where he has held key positions for more than a decade. This spring, he added a new position to his resume: CEO of Gilbert’s Bedrock real estate firm.

A company that needs no introduction for most Detroiters, Bedrock has poured more than $5.6 billion in downtown Detroit projects in under a decade. Cullen’s close ties to the company allowed him to slide seamlessly into the role. Already his tenure has seen the announcement of a $300 million innovation center at the Wayne County “fail jail” site and the opening of clothing giant H&M’s first Detroit store. —Avery Naman

Mojo Makers

Adrian Tonon & Rochelle Riley

The duo helps Detroit creatives find their grooves
Adrian Tonon
Photograph by Jacob Lewkow

Few city positions need more context than Adrian Tonon’s and Rochelle Riley’s. As 24-hour economy ambassador and director of arts and culture respectively, a common question for Tonon and Riley is, presumably: What does that even mean?

Last year, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan tapped Tonon (above) and Riley for unique roles intended to support and nurture the city’s creative communities, a constituency that has been central to Detroit’s identity yet marginalized in recent years. “We feel that the creative community is what really gives the city its mojo, but we’ve lost a lot of artists to L.A. or to New York, mostly because there’s not as much opportunity out here as there should be,” Tonon says. “So the focus is retention and attraction of businesses around the creative economy.” For Tonon, in 2020 that will mean working with various event organizers to make sure local talent is performing at major festivals such as MoPop and Movement, and studying best practices among a global network of “night mayors” — people fulfilling similar roles in cities like Berlin and Stockholm. “Detroit will never be New York. Detroit will never be L.A.,” Tonon says. “Do I think that it can have the same energy as some of these other places? Absolutely.”

At press time, Riley’s plans for her role had not yet been announced, but she says she intends to use the arts as a catalyst for neighborhood growth. “My missions are simple: to transform the way the city supports the arts in Detroit, to transform the way people see artists and arts organizations and the world-class talent that we have in Detroit, to make sure that everyone who is an artist can make a living doing what they do, and to make sure that I’m continuing to support the mayor’s initiative to grow the city,” Riley says. The veteran journalist (and nine-time Best of Detroit winner for Best Female Newspaper Columnist by Hour Detroit readers) says she plans to leverage her skill set developed during her years at the Detroit Free Press. “All I did was change subjects. Literally. I’m going to be writing a blog on the website that’s … going to be my column, except it’s just about arts, culture, and entertainment and not about race and politics …. What I did as a columnist was to crusade and to make people pay attention to things. And to try and change things for the better. I’m doing the exact same thing. The most amazing skill set that I think the mayor was counting on was me being a change agent.” –Lyndsay Green

Page Turner

Pamela Good

Beyond Basics’ leader aims to end illiteracy one kid at a time
Pamela Good
Illustration by Kagan McLeod

When she visited a Detroit public school as a coat drive volunteer in 1999, Pamela Good became an eyewitness to the district’s struggles, such as a lack of extracurriculars and library facilities. The experience inspired her to form her nonprofit academic enrichment program, Beyond Basics, in 2002. Through this work, she discovered that a high number of students were unable to read sufficiently. Since then, she’s dedicated much of her energy to eradicating illiteracy. The organization’s Read to Rise programs use the Tattum method, which was developed by literacy advocate Steve Tattum, to teach students in underserved schools to read at or above grade level in about six weeks.

Good says the impact has been phenomenal. “We have helped high school students who may be reading at a third-grade level increase to proficient reading level,” she says. And she intends to multiply that impact. In 2019, Beyond Basics launched its Be the Solution Campaign, a partnership with Detroit public schools that aims to extend the organization’s reach among the 10,000 students in the district who read more than a grade level behind. Beyond Basics intends to achieve that goal by increasing the number of tutors working with Detroit students from 50 to 300 over the next three years. “It’s simple: Our children are our future,” Good says. “Reading connects them to all the possibilities in their lives.” —A.W.

Community Curator

Salvatore Salort-Pons

Salvador Salort-Pons, a Spanish expert on 17th-century European art, began his employment with the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2008, when he was hired as assistant curator for European paintings. Three years later, he moved up to associate curator, before landing his ultimate role as director of the DIA in 2015. Ever since, he has made it his mission to establish the DIA as the cultural epicenter and gathering space for the city of Detroit.

To that end, he’s been working with Midtown’s other cultural organizations to create a town square where people of diverse backgrounds can discuss ideas and find community. He brought the DIA one step closer to that goal last year, when three finalists presented their proposals to redesign the 10-block area around the museum.

Another goal: to increase diversity and inclusion in the DIA’s collection, staff, and audience. Late last year, the DIA drew national attention to the city’s black heritage and culture with its exhibition Detroit Collects: Selections of African American Art from Private Collections. — A.N.

Design Booster

Olga Stella

Design Core’s director nurtures a vital creative field
Olga Stella
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni

“Design is Detroit’s hidden strength,” and that’s what sets it apart from other cities around the world, says Olga Stella, executive director of the 10-year-old organization Design Core Detroit.

This busy Detroiter and mother of two grade-school children has been revealing the city’s “hidden strength” through the organization’s various programs, about which she’s clearly passionate. She strives, she says, to strengthen, grow, and attract design business, and increase the market’s demand for design services.

The Troy native and University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy graduate is especially excited that Detroit is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) City of Design. “With that designation, we started developing strategies — a collective effort — to use design to drive a good life for people in our city and in our region,” she says.

Since Detroit was named a UNESCO City of Design four years ago, Design Core has been helping decision makers and business owners better understand the value of design.

“We’ve developed a teaching tool — like a design guide — to help them,” Stella says. “Now we’re working on a new tool for real estate development that will be released this spring. It will help developers understand all the ways designers can save them time and money and help develop better real estate projects in the city.”

Stella says Detroit’s diversity makes it a unique UNESCO city. “Other international design cities don’t have that diversity,” she says. “That’s our strength, and we’ve doubled down on that message.”

Her goal for 2020 and beyond, she says, is to continue hammering home the idea that designers are creative problem solvers.

“With the way the economy is changing so rapidly, what businesses — whether they’re automotive, medical device or tech — need in the 21st century are trusted advisers who are creative and can navigate the changing world and create solutions,” she says. “Too often we think of artists and designers making pretty things and focusing on aesthetics. What we don’t recognize is that they’re working on how something will work, developing prototypes. And that’s a skill that’s not automated away. Basic human creativity is what Detroit’s economy needs to go forward.”     

Stella and her team plan to be everywhere with that message in the years ahead. “It’s imperative for the business community to hear it and to be able to connect with our members,” she says.   

Through UNESCO, Design Core has relationships with 31 cities around the world. “There’s a lot of exchange between the cities, whether with design competitions, inviting each other to festivals, or meeting at conferences,” Stella says. “We’re in the business of business attraction.”

That concept comes to life most visibly every September, during Design Core’s Detroit Month of Design, which hosts businesses from around the world and showcases everything from studios and neighborhoods to designer lectures.

The celebration puts the spotlight on “different” and then some, Stella says.

“We’ll open our Month of Design call for submissions this February,” she says. “What I can say, so far, for 2020, is that because our Eastern Market After Dark has become such a premier event, we’ve already reserved the sheds. Last year, we drew 20,000 people easily, probably more.”  — Megan Swoyer

Track Star

Roger Penske

The racing legend has a lot on his plate, but that isn’t slowing him down
Roger Penske
Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Even by billionaire and racing juggernaut Roger Penske’s standards, 2019 was a pretty big year. Not only did he burnish his reputation as the winningest owner in IndyCar history with his team’s 18th Indy 500 victory in May and 15th IndyCar Series Championship in September, but the 82-year-old owner of Bloomfield Hills-based Penske Corp. went on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Trump in October.

But perhaps his most remarkable achievement of 2019 was his stunning and much-applauded purchase of Hulman & Co., owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the IndyCar Series, and IMS Productions. When the ink dries on that deal early this year, Penske will be the first owner of the renowned franchise outside the Hulman family since 1945.

While Penske will certainly have his hands full as his team works to shepherd the Indy empire into a new era, he says he has no intention of slowing down in his efforts to support the city he considers home.

“Detroit has come a long way over the last several years and I am excited about where it is heading,” Penske says. “I am proud of the projects that we have been involved in to help the revitalization of the city and I think it is important that we continue to support the community and the people who live and work in Detroit.”—Dan Caccavaro

Family Trustee

Henry Ford III

A milestone addition to the Ford Foundation

When the Ford Foundation elected Henry Ford III to its board of trustees last February, the move was seen as further proof that the charitable institution established by Ford’s great-grandfather, Edsel Ford, in 1936 has gone all-in on its commitment to Detroit’s revival.

Ford, who serves as manager of corporate strategy at Ford Motor Co., became the first member of the Ford family to sit on the foundation’s board since his grandfather, Henry Ford II, resigned as president and trustee in 1976.

The younger Ford’s election followed other moves by the New York-based foundation to renew its commitment to Detroit after decades of estrangement, most notably its $125 million contribution to the 2013 Grand Bargain that shored up municipal pensions and protected the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The foundation also opened a Detroit office in 2017 to promote its local charitable efforts. 

At the time of his election to the board, Ford made it clear he sees his new role as more than just symbolic. “The foundation’s commitment to ending inequality and building a fair and inclusive economy is more critical today than ever before,” he said in a statement. “I am both eager and honored to join my fellow trustees in shepherding the foundation my family created more than 80 years ago.” –D.C.

Food Scene-stealers

James Beard Award Finalists

Sister Pie and Zingerman’s Roadhouse get nods
Sister Pie
Sister Pie photograph by EE Berger

The last time a Detroit establishment was named a winner of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards, Hour Detroit had not yet been founded. It was 1993 and Jimmy Schmidt, then executive chef of the white linen riverfront steakhouse The Rattlesnake Club, took home the title as Best Chef: Midwest. It would be years before another metro Detroiter would receive a nod for the awards.

Each year since 2015, an increasing number of locals have made it to the semifinals, a testament to the development happening in the culinary scene over the past decade. In 2019, a high of nine semifinalists represented the region: Detroit’s Marrow for Best New Restaurant; Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie for Outstanding Baker; Zingerman’s Roadhouse for Outstanding Service; Lena Sareini of Selden Standard for Rising Star Chef of the Year; and five chefs were up for Best Chef: Great Lakes, including James Rigato of Mabel Gray, Norberto Garita of El Barzon, Anthony Lombardo of SheWolf, Genevieve Vang of Bangkok 96, and Kate Williams of Lady of the House. “Detroit was a fly-over city for many years for the Beard Foundation,” Lombardo says. “Now that nine chefs are getting noticed, that’s a pretty big deal.”

The finals round, though, could be an indication that Detroit is headed for award-worthy success. “It felt great to be seen in the culinary world for our dedication to running a bakery that goes beyond cookies and pie,” says Ludwinski, who was named a finalist along with Zingerman’s Roadhouse. “We’re trying to make a positive impact in the food industry by growing a triple-bottom-line mission dedicated to the sustainability and health of people, planet, and profit. We follow humbly in the paths of inspiring local businesses like Zingerman’s and look to them and their achievements as a benchmark.” –L.G.

Hometown Hailer 

Big Sean

The hip-hop star gives a shout out – and gives back
Big Sean
Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Chart-topping hip-hop artist Big Sean never lets his fans forget he’s from the Motor City. Last July, he teased his new album, Don Life, scheduled for release later this year,  with a music video for “Single Again.” Shot and produced in Detroit, the video pans across west side neighborhoods, Spirit Plaza, and the Masonic Temple, and features WDIV-TV anchor Rhonda Walker and Detroit singer and actress Ryan Destiny. “We made it with good energy n all love,” he tweeted the day it was released.

But the rapper’s ties to Detroit extend beyond music. In 2012, he formed the Sean Anderson Foundation with the goal of improving the wellbeing, education, health, and safety of youth in the city. That includes spotlighting pathways for success in the entertainment industry through Mogul Prep — a program that gives Detroit high schoolers a chance to learn from music industry professionals. Last November, Big Sean supported the 7th annual All Star Giveback: Thanksgiving Edition, through which his foundation helped donated Thanksgiving dinner trimmings to more than 5,000 local families.

“Detroit has an unmistakable soul,” he once told The Huffington Post. “It had a lot to do shaping me as a man.” —L.V.

Place Maker

Philip Kafka

A developer who keeps people and history at the fore
Philip Kafka
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni

For real estate developer Philip Kafka to get involved in a new project, it typically has to meet three criteria. A new project must No. 1. Respect the people who currently live there. No. 2. Respect the history of the place. No. 3. Respect the space it currently occupies.

Those principles may differ from those of builders in a lot of other cities, but for Kafka, that’s part of the point.

“It crushes my soul when people borrow ideas from other cities,” Kafka says. “The Model T. The Nation of Islam. Detroit was originally a place where anybody can come with ideas. And if we don’t lean into that, we kill it.”

To get a sense of his place-making concepts, look to his most recent work in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood, on Grand River Avenue between Forest and Warren avenues.

On one side of Grand River stands True North — a community of 10 residential Quonset huts that Kafka and his Detroit-based real estate company, Prince Concepts, began developing in 2013.

Across the street is the revamped 22,000-square-foot industrial space that’s now home to Ochre Bakery, Mediterranean-inspired restaurant Magnet, and advertising agency Lafayette American (among a handful of other businesses, including his own).

At first glance, Kafka’s projects may appear complicated. But there’s an underlying simplicity to all of them. The Quonset huts are designed to enable residents to do more with less in the 620- to 1,700-square-foot spaces. And the small-scale community across the street, which includes a 90-tree park in the center, is similarly designed to encourage visitors to slow down and interact with each other.

“I hope that my work can inspire people to simplify the way they see and think about what is good,” Kafka says. “Economically, from the perspective of a city, they usually want a tax base. They want bodies. But that doesn’t make it a great city. That makes it a better business, but it doesn’t guarantee that it makes it a great place.”

Kafka, a Dallas native, has made his home in a handful of places. After graduating from Northwestern University in Chicago, where he studied philosophy, he spent several years building a billboard company in New York City. In 2015, he sold his company in New York, seeking a place where he could develop something new — and simple. He found it in Detroit.

“I wasn’t making a material impact in New York,” Kafka says. “It was making a material impact on me and how I lived my life, and I wasn’t changing anything. Whatever you do there, it’s going to have to fit in with the narrative that exists there. Detroit has this history of ideas that other places don’t.”

Looking ahead, Kafka has plenty more ideas to execute, including revamping a 7-acre space on the east side of the city in an old engine plant, and potentially a new restaurant concept that serves exclusively raw foods.

And while the simplicity of his projects is often his focus, their uncertainty is what keeps him going.

“You can never know exactly what the effects of your project are going to be,” Kafka says. “That’s what keeps it interesting.” —J.W.

Couture Keeper

Sandy Schreier

The collector’s fashion passion fuels multiple creative projects
Sandy Schreier
Photograph courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Susan Tusa/Detroit Free Press/Zuma Press

In November, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art debuted In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection. The exhibit features 80 items — including couture by designers including Gabrielle Chanel, Christian Dior, and Cristóbal Balenciaga. The looks all come from a 165-piece gift from Schreier, a metro Detroit-based fashion historian who has amassed a collection of more than 15,000 fashion objects.

“It feels incredible,” says Schreier of the exhibit, which runs until May 17. “It’s a lifetime dream.” In Pursuit of Fashion — and the exhibit’s supplementary book — in part, tell the story of Schreier, whose infatuation with couture as an art form began when she started accompanying her father to his executive-level job at Russek’s — a now-closed department store with a Detroit location — when she was 2 1/2 years old. At what she considered to be “the most incredible store,” the young Schreier flipped through magazines, played dress-up with the staff, and started to acquire her first pieces.

This year brings even more opportunity for Schreier, who plans to work on a documentary about her life, more exhibitions, speaking engagements, and a memoir. And while her professional endeavors are taking her to big fashion capitals around the globe, Detroit will remain home for this stylish collector. “The comeback is happening all around me,” she says of the city. “I’m enjoying being here.” –E.K.

Paradigm Shifter

Brad Greenhill

The restaurateur makes fair pay one of his key ingredients
Brad Greenhill
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni

To say 2019 was a big year for restaurateur Brad Greenhill, best known for the trendy Corktown eatery Takoi, would be an understatement. He spent the year delivering revolutionary ideas to Detroit’s food scene with his latest venture, Magnet. The restaurant opened early last fall with a no-tipping policy, opting instead to factor server wages into its menu prices. The idea is to create stable pay for staff whose income otherwise would be largely dependent on the whims of tipping customers. “In my opinion, service-oriented businesses have become overly reliant on the generosity of customers to pay their employees,” he says.  So far, Greenhill says Magnet’s approach to compensating servers is working, and he hopes his lead will inspire other restaurant proprietors to follow.

Greenhill also found time to open The Pantry, a commissary kitchen — one intended to be rented, usually to food trucks and other culinary businesses — and event space in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood. He also started a farm that will begin yielding produce to service Magnet and Takoi in the spring — and he did it all with a newborn. His daughter, Margot, was born in February. Looking back at a year that was dedicated largely to planning, construction, and building for the future, Greenhill says, “2020 will be the year we finally get to share these fully realized — and delicious — visions with the public.” –A.W.

Problem Solver   

Manoj Bhargava

The billionaire entrepreneur and founder of 5-hour Energy — the ubiquitous energy drink — quietly bases most of his operations out of a 10-building corporate park in Farmington Hills. And while Bhargava himself might like to stay under the radar, he has some ambitious plans for addressing global problems. His main mission, his son Shaan says, “is to use the money he’s been able to earn to come up with solutions for the bottom half of the world.” Improving water quality has always been central to that mission.

Last May, Bhargava released the Hans Premium Water Appliance — an at-home purification system that filters tap water so it’s clearer than bottled — and he intends to open a 500,000-square-foot, 200-employee plant to expand production in Lyon Township this year. “All the businesses we start are in the metro Detroit area,” Shaan says, “and we don’t intend to move.” –L.V.

Art Evangelist

Amani Olu

Detroit Art Week co-founder stirs up acclaim for Motor City creatives  
Amani Olu
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni

A typical weekday morning for Amani Olu revolves around his 3-year-old daughter, who is the center of his universe.

“You know the toddler routine — they don’t want to do anything except play games,” Olu says with a laugh. But this dad doesn’t mind. His daughter is, in fact, the reason he moved to Detroit. The 39-year-old owner of Olu & Co. previously lived in Brooklyn and for the past three years has happily resided in the Motor City. “It’s a slower pace,” says Olu, whose apartment is in the West Village area. “It was time to leave New York, for my daughter, to try something different. And her [mother’s] family is from here.” 

Detroit is a good fit for Olu, who spends his days working as a business, public relations, and marketing consultant for various clients that range from restaurants to yoga studios to artists. He’s also co-founder, with Aleiya Lindsey, of Detroit Art Week, a nonprofit that puts art in the spotlight every summer for one activity-filled week.

He also founded IMG SRVR (imgsrvr.net), a visual cloud-sharing platform for creatives, “essentially a Dropbox for images,” he says. “I wanted something intuitive for creatives, for sharing video and audio files.

“Our biggest client in Detroit is Design Core Detroit,” explains Olu, whose office is in the Fisher Building. He also has an office in New York. And he’s worked with the City of Detroit; the David Klein Gallery (in Birmingham and Detroit); Playground Detroit (an art gallery and creative agency); the restaurant Magnet in Detroit; Library Street Collective in Detroit; and others outside of Michigan.   

“There are so many incredible people here working on so many great projects,” Olu says. “The emphasis on art and music is great. It’s a small type of community, so that’s impressive and alluring. I’m always amazed that the talented people here are accessible and so down to earth. It feels like a community.”

Detroit Art Week 2020, which features studio visits, exhibition openings, performances, and more, will run from July 15-19. Looking ahead, Olu says his 10-year attendance goal for the event is to attract 80,000 people to the city to hang out and see art. “We started the program, now in its third year, as a way to serve,” he says. He’s partnering for Detroit Art Week with The Armory Show, a four-day international art fair staged annually in New York City, to exhibit both contemporary and modern works.

“I believe in the artists, the galleries, the collectors in Detroit, and I’ve been all over the world,” he says. “Art being made in Detroit is worthy of international acclaim.” –M.S.