As the special advisor to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and head of the city’s innovation and entrepreneurship department, Jill Ford has made quite a name traveling across 15 countries and by blazing trails at Disney and Motorola in the mobile gaming world. When this Harvard graduate and angel investor is not transforming established corporations through strategy and innovation, she is helping businesses secure funding and other resources to start or grow their business.
What is it like working closely with Mayor Mike Duggan to attract and grow small businesses and startups in the city of Detroit?
It is phenomenal. I really enjoy the opportunity to help our entrepreneurs take their ideas and bring them to life.
What has been one of your most memorable success stories?
There is a combination of many success stories. One of our big ones is Motor City Match, for example. Just this week we had Vice President Joe Biden come in to be a part of our Round 6 Awards ceremony where we were awarding cash grants and technical assistance to entrepreneurs that participated in our programs. It was just an amazing combination of the impact the program has throughout the city of matching entrepreneurs and properties throughout Detroit as well as matching them to the help them take their idea and get their business plans written. Or take their business plan and find the right space for their business. They could also take the space and find an architect for them to write a renovation plan so that they can be prepared to complete the build out for their building. They could also help them find the cash they need to be able complete the opening of their business. Motor City Match has been a phenomenal experience. Watching Motor City Match go from basically having an idea to watching it come to life in many ways has been a startup in and of itself.
What first drew you to technology over other areas of STEM such as math, science, robotics etc? Why the interest in gaming, mobile and social?
I’ve always been attracted to things that could empower me to take things and bring them to life. Even when I go back to my childhood, I think about my interest in engineering. If I could point to one moment that was the starting point for my interest in engineering, it was in one of the school programs that we had where engineers would come and talk to us. There was this one time where they brought motherboards and components for us to put together a little flashing light. The leader gave us all the kits and gave us instructions. We followed the instructions and none of them worked. I was just very curious. I wanted to see if I could figure out how to get my flashing light to flash. So, for the remaining minutes of the class, I just fiddled with it. I took the components out then put them all in together in different orders and just as the leader was walking out to his car, my light was flashing. I remember running down the hall saying “Mister, look! I got it to work.” (laughs) That moment is still so memorable. It made me feel so empowered that I could figure out how to make something happen.
What I love about gaming is that it’s really a convergence industry. In a game, you’re experiencing video, audio and social connectivity. You are experiencing all these different aspects of the multimedia experience. You’re giving users the opportunity to be educated in a way that is fun. When I had the opportunity to do global games usage for Motorola, I was very excited about that. I was especially excited to rethink how we were using games and to think about the different kinds of revenue models that would be helpful as we were coming up the best games for the phones.
What advice do you have for tech entrepreneurs looking to develop or fund apps, games and other mobile content?
Do it! I think that is so important for people to recognize that there is an opportunity to start from where you are with what you have. Execute at the level you can execute on and then build upon it. It gives you the opportunity to have success in layers and to get started without waiting. As far as programs and other things to help you do what you want to do more effectively, there are great opportunities to learn from the people who are already in the business that you want to be in.
If you have the opportunity to work for a company that is similar to the kind of company you want to run in the industry that you want to be in, that is a great opportunity for you to learn and to really understand what it means to not only create the product but to run the business. You can understand what the operations of the business are going to be. There’s an opportunity to learn a lot from them. There is an opportunity to learn from people just by understanding the paths that they took, reading the kinds of speeches that they give and the content they produce. You can create this set of virtual mentors for yourself.
Where can we find you online? On social media?
Everywhere! I’m on Facebook, Twitter and you can search for me online through all the different programs we are running for the city. A good starting point would be to look me up on LinkedIn or to follow me on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @JillFord313.