A Day In The Life Justin Cook, COO of Pro:UpBy Benjamin Seidman on April 23rd, 2015 /
Detroit is a fascinating city which many professionals live in due to the wealth of growth opportunities, fresh starts, and swiftly emerging infrastructural resources. The day of a Detroit entrepreneur is far from normal without the abundance of resources that exist in a New York or a San Francisco. So, I followed around a native Detroiter to see what his experience is like as a Detroit Entrepreneur. For this first time I followed around Justin Cook, COO of Pro:Up.
Justin Cook, who hails from the East Side of Detroit, wakes up everyday at approximately 7:00 a.m. and proceeds to check his e-mails to start his morning routine. Afterwards, Cook reviews his calendar and his “slack” or to-do list, to put his engagements into perspective and prioritize. On this overcast Wednesday morning, Cook is scheduled to meet with the Detroit Sign Shop, where he will soon become VP of Business Development. However, the brakes on his younger sister’s vehicle are not working so Cook is tasked with rectifying this situation to help his sister get to school. Like many Detroiters, family comes first in a city of sharks and minnows.
“Roll with punches because in Detroit you’re going to get hit,” Cook advises.
I meet Cook in the lobby of TechTown where Cook and the Pro:Up team, comprised of Justine Sheu, Gerry Roston, and Myles Morgan, call home. We sit in Junction 440, a section of TechTown serving as a co-working space with a Google-esque techy flare. Justin has lots on his mind. There’s the Greenlight Business Competition and an upcoming Innovators in Education Conference, one of the biggest events of its kind in the state of Michigan. There’s an innovative automotive meeting in a conference room nearby. Cook also tells me of two key individuals who expressed great interest in bringing his own Pro:Up tools to their schools once it’s fully developed. This is a normal day for Justin. One minute Cook is fixing brakes and the next he is working as a scrappy entrepreneur.
At the end of the day, TechTown is Cook’s office and home.
“Each co-working space is like its own nation. But everybody helps everybody in Detroit. What you need to do requires more than what you have on your own. I don’t have to worry about someone stealing my ideas as opposed to other cities,” says Cook as he boots up his rinky-dink laptop.
We move to an upstairs workspace where the Pro:Up tool has been sketched, designed, re-designed, and, well, you get the point. So, what is Pro:Up? To understand Pro:Up, you must first understand Evolve Lifestyle Group, a social venture committed to improving outcomes for high school students by making learning meaningful, relevant, and creating universal tools for personal and professional growth. Pro:Up is a web and mobile application that connects high school youth to educational and career opportunities such as summer programs, internships, and jobs based on their interests and skills.
“We’re reimagining the way education is done. We envision a future in which education is highly personalized, meaningful, and accessible to all. That’s the vision behind Pro:Up, which acts as a universal personal and professional development tool,” said Justin.
Taking a step back to Pro:Up’s inception, it began as just an idea. Cook invited Myles Morgan, now the VP of Business Development, to 14 East Café where he pitched a few of his buddies on what was a youth mentoring group with a fashion angle attached to it. Cook has rapport with his mentees because his style and nature is similar and more relatable for those who those look up to him, which helped inspire this idea. Meanwhile, Myles and Justine were working on a mentor-matching software. As college advisors, their caseloads were overwhelming and they wanted a way to make their job more efficient.
Cook and Myles are longtime childhood friends and as soon as he met Justine, the two clicked just as easily. Fast forwarding, the Launch Program at TechTown lasted 10 weeks and Pro:Up was awarded $2500 dollars each to validate or invalidate their business.
“We got a crazy reception from everyone that was at the final expo. We got some much love. We got the social innovation award,” Cook said.
Post launch, TechTown informed Pro:Up that they would be bringing them on as incubation clients along with four others. TechTown provided advice and guided Pro:Up in the right direction by facilitating relationships and other key activities. Pro:Up now aims to have the first version of the in select schools to be used as alpha testers. In the state of Michigan, Pro:Up is entering the market at a critical point in time. Since his re-election last November, Governor Rock Snyder has put an emphasis on education and career-readiness.
“We’ve got IT, healthcare, and other skilled industries here so Snyder wants to get people ready for the jobs that are already here and that are on their way,” as Cook puts it. “This wasn’t always the focus but it sure is now.”
Cook believes that Detroiters and Michiganders alike have learned from their lessons and are focused on rebuilding the right way. He says, “You are not about to come here (Detroit) and invest in only Downtown and Midtown. People will point that out real quick. And you can’t bring jobs here and forget about people who need those jobs.”
Cook is from one of the toughest neighborhoods on the East Side of Detroit. But all the he has been through only serves to his advantage as an entrepreneur. He is a resourceful person who thinks big and that anything is possible because he knows how far he has come.
Later in the afternoon, we drive over to Russell Industrial Center, a once abandoned 2.2 million sq. ft. factory turned into spaces for artists, events, trade, and more. Quenton White, a Pre-Law Senior at Wayne State University, has gathered a small group of entrepreneurs into a barren cement studio, built to be an automotive factory nearly 100 years earlier, to lay the foundation for ExtraPUSH. The initiative is a Detroit-Based project created with the goal of giving citizens and their respective communities an extra PUSH to help make a positive impact and reach their goals, according to their description on Rockethub.
They want to connect Ambassadors, Innovators and Mentors (AIM) in the Detroit area, with one goal in mind – PUSH each other to launch or accelerate a business idea or social project. It’s a bold mission but White, a Firefighter candidate for the Detroit Fire Department Training Center, is determined to convert the empty space into a business incubator and networking group domain.
“The city of Detroit is filled with creative, energetic and ambitious young people looking for a creative outlet. These young people often become lost to the temptations of city living and poor socioeconomic circumstances. We want to show them that there are alternative routes to success that do not involve crime and violence,” White says. White has support from the U.S Department of State, Wayne State University, and several other local organizations.
At the end of the day, Cook is a Detroiter through and through. It can be hard for Detroiters to think beyond the blight or crime that surrounds them. Those that can see that change is possible are the types of thinkers and entrepreneurs that will shape Detroit’s future for the better.
“People have businesses they want to start but they might not have the resources to make it work. It’s hard, so we lean on each other,” says Cook. “That’s amazing actually.”