Generation Startup Highlights Detroit this WeekendBy Amanda Lewan on October 4th, 2016 /
This weekend Generation Startup will premier at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The documentary follows around six college graduates who moved to Detroit entrepreneurs to work on a startup company in the city.
Generation Startup is directed by Academy Award winner Cynthia Wade and award-winning filmmaker Cheryl Miller Houser. The film aims to celebrate risk taking, urban revitalization, and to inspire others to follow their own entrepreneurial paths. The entrepreneurs highlighted are Venture for America fellows, a program that draws talent to come and work on startups in cities that are often overlooked. You can catch more details on the screening here.
Below Producer and Co-director Cheryl Miller Houser shares more on the story and the making of the film.
Why did you choose to tell the narrative of starting up? And why did you choose Detroit?
For a long time I’ve been fascinated by startups. Startups are on the front lines of innovation, and many of them are transforming our society and disrupting and evolving entire industries. I also greatly admire anyone who has the courage to take risks, who isn’t deterred by the fear of failing, which holds most of us back. I was drawn to following recent college graduates who had the courage to move so far outside their comfort zone so young, especially since the years right after college are already full of such uncertainty as people are figuring out who they are and what their place in the world is.
I embarked on this film about six months after launching my own production company, which had taken me decades to get up the courage to do. I finally got up the courage to walk away from a secure, well paid job because I was fed up making programming I didn’t always love, and was determined to become master of my own destiny and only tell stories that I was excited about, that would inspire me and hopefully inspire viewers. I was extremely inspired by what Venture for America and its young entrepreneurs were doing. My son, who had just graduated from college with an English degree, was a VFA fellow working for a startup in Providence overseeing a lot of their marketing. He was in way over his head, but was learning and growing a lot by being given so much responsibility in a void. I knew following a group of Venture for America fellows in one of their cities would yield a compelling, inspiring film regardless of whether their companies succeeded or failed because in the end, it would be a moving coming of age story about young people who were stretching.
Venture for America was in 15 cities when I raised the funding to make this film, so my co-director Cynthia Wade and I had to choose which city to film in. While there are exciting entrepreneurial initiatives going on in many cities around the country, we were both drawn to Detroit for many reasons. Detroit is a city built on entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity, and is seeing a renaissance thanks to those same qualities. Detroit truly does “hustle harder,” and that entrepreneurial spirit is palpable there. Also the most important qualities one needs to be an entrepreneur are grit and resilience, and Detroit has lots of both. Detroit is also a beautiful city visually, so it provided a stunning visual palate for the film. Unlike many other documentaries made about Detroit recently, we captured the beauty and rebuilding in Detroit, not just the decay porn that other films have dwelled on.
What was one of the most surprising o interesting things you learned about entrepreneurship along the way?
Since I had just launched my own company soon before embarking on this film, I identified so strongly with all the characters in the film. I was surprised to learn how much more entrepreneurs are made rather than born. I watched our young entrepreneurs start out clueless, flounder, pivot, struggle to perfect their product or figure out their business plan or raise money. And while they struggled at first, they figured it out as they went and grew into leaders and builders. But they weren’t born that way. It was through the act of doing, through the act of failing and learning from their failures, that they became entrepreneurs. I felt the same way in making this film. I didn’t always know what I was doing every step of the way, or didn’t really know how things would turn out, but I became more confident each time I tackled new challenges and realized I was capable of figuring things out. Given how much uncertainty there is when you are an entrepreneur, you just have to roll with whatever comes your way and keep growing all the time from it. That is also why it’s so much fun, and never boring.
What do you hope others take away from the story Generation Startup?
I hope that after seeing this film people will be inspired to move outside their comfort zone and take risks in their lives. Realistically, most viewers aren’t going to leave the theater and start companies, but I hope everyone will think about ways they can be a bit less safe, a bit less conventional in both their professional and personal lives. That is how we grow and stretch and evolve as people. I also hope that people from outside of Detroit realize what a beautiful and amazing city Detroit is, and what spirit it has.
I definitely hope that GENERATION STARTUP will inspire women and minorities to explore the startup world where the gender and racial gaps are huge, and also encourage people who are hiring in tech and startups to diversify their teams. Through Dextina Booker, who grew up in poverty and graduated from MIT with a degree in mechanical engineering, we portray first-hand the experience of what it feels like to be a minority in a mostly white male world. At a time when only 2% of female African Americans are engineers, Dextina is a trailblazer who is “playing the game to change it” as she says. And Kate Catlin, who works at Detroit Labs, is on a mission to bring more women into tech. They are both incredibly inspiring female role models.
I also hope that educators and parents will leave this film with a more open mind about how they guide their students and children. Our society tells kids from a very young age that they should take the safe, secure path. Kids should be encouraged to think big, to explore a range of interests and discover their strengths and interests. Our country was built on entrepreneurship and innovation. Millennials are the least entrepreneurial generation in decades; we are at a 25 year low in terms of entrepreneurship among 18-34 year olds. This has grave consequences for the future since young companies generate two thirds of all new jobs. So, while I don’t expect most people who see the movie will launch companies, I do hope that everyone who sees it recognizes the value of encouraging young people to take risks, to think big, not to just take the secure path.
We see all creators sending work into the marketplace as entrepreneurs too. Do you have any advice to those entrepreneurs who are filmmakers / writers / creatives?
My advice to filmmakers / writers / creatives is: don’t let people tell you no, or that you can’t do it, or that you shouldn’t try because it’s too hard or because the odds are against you. I believe that if you are talented and work really hard, anything is possible. That said, writing and filmmaking are both an art and a craft. So study the art and the craft and apply yourself with focus to really master them. Also I recommend finding mentors and a community to help encourage and support you, since we all need help and support when we do anything that is difficult or outside the conventional path.