Q&A: Keith Zendler on Detroit's Tipping Point
You start a business, make some money, settle down and then…what's next? For Keith Zendler, it was simple: He moved to Detroit.
Wa-Wa-What? What in the world would convince this serial entrepreneur to move to such a widely regarded economic wasteland? Endless potential, baby.
Zendler is the creator of Peoplemovers.com, a newly launched social media platform. Think of it as Facebook for governments, non-profits, foundations, service clubs, block clubs, school districts, churches, mosques, temples and anyone else who needs it.
“Southeast Michigan, like so many other regions in the United States, today faces economic and social challenges that will require an unprecedented level of collaboration among regional governments, nonprofits, business and individuals,” Zendler said.
So, rather than wait, Zendler got busy. He convinced early adopters such as Wayne County, Macomb County, the City of Detroit and some 365 additional organizations and businesses to join him. Now, Peoplemovers.com is ready to leave the beta world behind and go live.
I talked with Zendler this week after his return from the Mackinac Island big-old brouhaha (also known as the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference). Here's what he had to say about Detroit, regional cooperation and more.
Some background: Zendler got his start as an entrepreneur in recycling 20 years ago with two companies, Recyclemax Inc. and Environmental Services of North America.
Q: What is Peoplemovers.com and why is it needed?
A: This is the next generation of social media. It's great that Facebook and Twitter connects you to everyone you ever knew in the world and family members. But there is still a need for a place where leaders, organizations and the people they serve can connect to each other while working for a greater purpose. If you take all of the issues and challenges we've got out there, in one way or another I think it all boils down to having a “healthy” or strong community. That's what's been fractured here in Detroit and around the world, mainly because we've become so isolated from each other over the years. The idea behind Peoplemovers.com is to create a network where leaders and their organizations can connect, engage and work together to impact their communities. That's something you can believe in no matter what your faith or your politics. The key is to give people and organizations a tool that makes connecting and cooperating easy to do.
Q: What does this provide groups like the City of Detroit?
A: For leaders, it allows them to engage, mobilize and tighten up the smaller communities they already have. And they can do it in cooperation with other organizations and other communities. This way, they are all strengthened. When it comes to cities, it means that every neighborhood association, block club, business, non-profit, school, house of worship and every person can be directly connected to city hall AND EACH OTHER. Honestly, we see this as being an absolute game changer because it has the potential to totally demolish the walls and “silos” that have frustrated our efforts so far. This is it. The momentum is there.
Q: How did you end up doing this? What's a guy like you (from Pleasant Ridge) doing in Detroit?
A: I'm originally born in New York, but I've been in this city and working around it for 40 years. I've always been involved in community issues; I was among the first busload of white kids shipped into a black school in Ferndale back in the 1970s when the first desegregation orders were being implemented here. That had a very profound impact on me and I guess the need for different races to come together has been a passion for me ever since. Over the years, I've been very involved on (community) boards and leading grassroots community building efforts in the inner city. On the side, I've also started a couple recycling companies and wanted to save the planet from our trash. Somewhere along the way, I started getting more interested in people and saw that getting us all to work together was the only way we'd ever fix our environmental problems. Six years ago, I moved to the Boston Edison neighborhood and set up shop there. I realized I needed to be in the middle of the city to feel the pain first hand. I needed to deal with taxes, crime and insurance issues so when I talk to the mayor or other leaders here I'm not an outsider. I'm here.
Q: Isn't social media a little overdone? Do we need another?
A: This is something else; it's the idea of using social media to help connect all of these leaders and organizations. There are thousands of groups and leaders out there – you could see it on Mackinac. We talk about working together every year, but when you're on the ground, you can see that we're still wasting too many opportunities and in our “silos”. So we started on this path of developing a social network for people and organizations to work together. It has evolved over past year into being able to help organizations create their own branded network that allows them to keep their own identity. But the magic of it is they can friend, feature and follow each other, share information back and forth. We're really building an online “operating system” that any organization, business or government can use to engage their citizens, their customers, their employees. They can build an online network that's built into their own website and start pulling their community together no matter where they're at in the world . . . this isn't just a Detroit thing anymore.
Q: What do you think this could do for Detroit?
A: We may be from different backgrounds and have had our differences, but I sense that the people of this region are really ready to come together for a bigger purpose. Enough of us are seeing how messed up things get when we don't work together and we're realizing we can't be isolated from each other anymore. Detroit is a prime example of what happens when relationships or “social capital” is decimated. We have the talent, resources and courage to deal with our current crisis, but they're not being effectively engaged. The good thing is we can reverse this. Peoplemovers is a way to use technology to quickly rebuild real relationships in a community and increase social capital so they can do real business and do real positive things in their neighborhoods. We CAN network all of the governments, organizations, businesses and people in our region in a way that allows each of them to vitally contribute to our rebuilding. This is no longer theoretical. I should say that our platform is far from perfect, but that will come with more money, especially as we get advertisers and investors who want to be part of the rebuilding of Detroit and communities everywhere. The key thing now is that we come together quickly. We are in crisis and we are running out of time. At the top leadership level, it appears that the leaders of the “Big Four” (Wayne, Macomb, Oakland and the City of Detroit) are ready to work together. Now I think they need to have just a little more encouragement from other leaders and people at the grass roots level that this is the direction we want to go. We're very close to a positive tipping point in this region.
I leave you with this…some words I stole off of Zendler's personal Peoplemovers page. I like it:
“Sure there are some unique challenges living in an old struggling city, but it's hard for me to imagine life without the great diversity of people who all seem so passionate about making this City of Detroit a wonderful place. I think that's a characteristic of just about everyone in SE Michigan: we have this deep desire to overcome the divisions and mistakes of the past and forge a vibrant new community. Perhaps it's our past blunders that make our region so ready for something incredibly different that will change the world …”