• Jed Johnson

Michigan: We Make Stuff!

The state of Michigan is a place in our shared American experience where we imagine things being made. GrowthWorks doesn’t just keep a pulse on where the country is headed, we’re right here where that heart beats. Those things that symbolize what is wholesome and comforting about daily life in Middle America, things like pickup trucks, breakfast cereal, and the Coney dog, well, those things come from Michigan. But don’t let rhetoric of the homey Midwestern heartland or tragic decay of the “Rust Belt” lead you astray, world-changing innovation comes from here too.


Henry Ford’s innovative moving assembly line dramatically reduced production time for an automobile from over 12 hours to 2 ½ hours. The secret was to reduce tasks to their simplest form and assign one task to each worker, increasing efficiency and building up worker expertise. However, the monotony was murder on workers, so Ford shocked the world by doubling pay to $5 a day and thereby raising productivity in a workforce once plagued by high turnover. The Ford Motor Company transformed automobiles from playthings for the wealthy to transportation for the masses and in so doing, transformed American society and culture as well.

Cereal was America’s original health food. While it’s easy to scoff at many of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s ideas, he was onto something with simple, moderate meals instead of the mountains of meat, potatoes, and pastries that his mid-19th century contemporaries preferred. Battle Creek, Michigan was home to America’s premier health resort. In the grand age of “dyspepsia,” it’s pretty remarkable that a vegetarian doctor was creating nut butters and meatless meats for patients. Even his more novel ideas about “hydrotherapy” or baths at different temperatures, wouldn’t be out of place in a Korean spa today (though the only health benefit it claims now is improved circulation). One of the most famous physicians of the time, his vision of “biologic living” blended nature and science, encouraging Americans to bathe and exercise regularly and shift to a diet with less meat and more whole grains. Cereal was supposed to be the bridge to recovery toward a healthier lifestyle.

One benefit Kellogg hadn’t had in mind was the convenience of a ready to eat meal for the ever-increasing number of people employed outside the home as the Second Industrial Revolution shifted us further from our agrarian roots. Our own Chelsea, Michigan saw the creation of America’s first prepared baking mix in 1930. Mabel Holmes was inspired by the single father of her sons’ friend to create a product “so easy that a man could make it”. Mabel not only experimented and created the biscuit mix herself, she went on to run the company after her husband’s death in 1936.

Michigan had plenty of other delicious creations to share with the nation. In 1866, pharmacist James Vernor returned home from the Civil War to discover that a syrup base he had stored in an oak cask had aged into something delicious: Vernor’s Ginger Ale, one of the nation’s oldest soda brands (20 years earlier than Coca Cola!). Not long after, Frederick Sanders became the father of the ice cream soda in 1876, though others claim credit as well. Given Michigan’s global reputation for industry and ingenuity, it’s not surprising that we’re home to the (newly rechristened) Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.


Yet in our lifetimes, Michigan has been better known for its fall from prosperity, with Detroit commonly included among Cleveland, St. Louis, and Cincinnati as former centers of American industry. This image of a failed state has been a metaphor for American decline, prominently featured in countless political speeches. But that’s not the sum of who we are or what our future holds. Michigan is so much more than either its manufacturing history or its recent economic decline, because it has been and still is a center for innovative thinking (not to mention our geostrategic importance and crucial natural resources).

One current example of cutting-edge innovation in Michigan is the partnership with Silicon Valley’s most ambitious project, the driverless car, which utilizes technical and innovative know-how from GM and Ford, while Ann Arbor plays host to a new test-driving environment for driverless vehicles. Michigan’s Research Corridor, made up of the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State, attracts over $2.1 billion in research and development funding and confers over 32,000 graduate and undergraduate degrees each year, both of which outperform the better-known North Carolina Research Triangle and Massachusetts’ Research Corridor. With these facts in mind, it’s a mistake to think that Michigan is not at the forefront of the national and global economy.

Though Kellogg and Ford are household names that have existed in Michigan for the past hundred years, Michigan, and especially Detroit, is having another “it” moment today. Detroit is now celebrated for its tenacity, grit, and innovative thinking all at an affordable cost of living. At a time when the former centers of creativity, like Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley have become unaffordable for creative young professionals, new centers of innovation are rising as people search for more accessible cities that offer exciting urban amenities without material sacrifices. With the opening of Detroit’s first tramline, new sports stadiums, one of the country’s best airports, and a coveted position on New York Times’ 52 Places To Go in 2017, it’s exciting to witness Detroit’s resurgence at a crucial moment in history. Detroit was once a stark example of American glory days long gone, but today Detroit is evolving to represent the best of America’s potential for the future.

Detroit and Southeast Michigan are also on the leading edge of the Creator/Maker Movement, and entrepreneurs have brought the newest trends and ideas in food and other consumer products to their businesses. From bean-to-bar Mindo Chocolate to DROUGHT juices, now the Midwest’s leading organic juice brand, Michigan’s creative and manufacturing prowess has expanded into artisanal food spaces. Craft breweries and distilleries, such as Bell’s and Our Detroit are another area where Michiganders are putting their creative energies and earning an international reputation for quality (by number of breweries per capita we’re #4!) As such, Michigan blends the tradition of big manufacturing and creative thinking with the new movement of creator/makers to form an area rich for 21st century innovation.

GrowthWorks is highly connected to this creator/maker culture in a number of ways, such as our collaboration with Detroit’s Eastern Market and affiliates of FoodLab, an organization that unites over 200 food and restaurant small businesses, including those in the pre-launch phase. FoodLab helps to educate and enable collaboration among all its members, even as they are in competition with one another, which is a perfect illustration of open source innovation.


From artisans to entrepreneurs and small business-owners, creator/makers play a crucial role in what we call the GrowthHub™, which is at the center of all that GrowthWorks does. This collaborative platform leverages a diversity of expertise and experience across the world to develop stronger innovation and growth strategies. This collaboration inspires our commitment to and passion for helping all organizations large and small, non-profit and for-profit, navigate and flourish in a rapidly changing world.

(If you would like to learn more about GrowthHub™, please contact us. We would love to get in touch.)