Amanda Lewan, the co-founder of co-working collective Bamboo, is inspiring innovation across Metro Detroit
By Jaclyn Trop
Photography by Erin Kirkland
In 2013, back when she was a freelance writer, Amanda Lewan faced a challenge that the Covid-19 pandemic has since made universal: the pitfalls of working from home. “I didn’t have the best internet connection,” she says. “I took too many breaks, and it was hard to focus.”
While businesses, retailers, and coffee shops had started to sprout downtown around that time, spots to do freelance work were still few and far between. Lamenting the lack of affordable workspace, Lewan and three friends decided to create their own. They rented 2,000 square feet on Brush Street and spent a $5,000 family loan on paint and IKEA furniture. They named the venture Bamboo Detroit after the plant that is slow to germinate and quick to grow, says Lewan, the company’s CEO and co-founder. “The plant metaphor is akin to startups, which take a few years to sprout into a sustainable company.”
Detroit has earned a reputation over the last decade as an attractive place for anyone with a dollar and a dream of starting a business. Today, entrepreneurs can find support through a number of local incuba-tors, from Venture X Detroit to TechTown. Bamboo, however, was designed specifically to support startups and small businesses within the community. Additionally, more than half of Bamboo’s member businesses are owned by women — who can especially benefit from the ecosystem for the founding and funding of successful businesses, Lewan says. “As women, we naturally have this ‘we can do it all’ attitude, but at some point, you can’t do it all. You need a team and mentors and advisers so that you can operate in a scalable way.”
Motivated by the success of other female-founded business incubators in the city, such as April Boyle’s Build Institute and Devita Davidson’s Foodlab Detroit, Lewan sought to use her talent for bringing people together to help diversify local industry. What began as one woman fretting over the speed of her Internet connection soon grew into a mission to inspire innovation across Metro Detroit. Lewan has been recognized by Crain’s Detroit Business, the City of Detroit, and Corp! magazine, which voted her Best Millennial. Bamboo has also been featured by Forbes as one of the best places to start and scale a company.
Today the coworking collective — which is headquartered in a 20,000-square-foot space in the Julian C. Madison building downtown — has more than 500 members. In February, Bamboo purchased its second location, a 20,000-square-foot site in downtown Royal Oak. Bamboo has had many member success stories, from Duo Security, an Ann Arbor cybersecurity firm which Cisco acquired for $2.35 billion, to ToDoolie, an app developed by Wayne State students that connects users with hourly help for yard work, cleaning, and other tasks.
Bamboo’s brand stands for warmth, inclusion, and affordability, Lewan says. (Monthly fees range from $60 for a virtual membership with a range of perks to $550 for a private office.) “We exist to build community and support our members’ growth,” she says. “I have that nurturing spirit. I want to welcome everyone and see everyone succeed.” Two of Lewan’s co-founders are no longer involved with the company, while the other, Mark Ferlito, is Bamboo’s CFO.
In that vein, the company’s spaces are designed with nooks for brainstorming and communal kitchens with cold brew on tap. Bamboo employs “community managers” who serve as concierges, making introductions between members and connecting them with resources. It’s not unusual, for example, for a software coder to join Bamboo as a freelancer and wind up as the co-founder of a startup in need of coding skills. Likewise, many startups find their first hire, investor, adviser, or board member through Bamboo-hosted events.
“Starting a company is lonely work,” says Christina Fair, founder of virtual event company Fair Ventures, who has found event partners through Bamboo’s network since joining the collective last fall. “Bamboo has given me community, a team of folks in the same phase of life as I am in. We’re all building, creating, learning and failing together.”
When the pandemic shuttered most businesses, Bamboo pivoted to a virtual model, beefing up its online amenities. That includes a monthly “Startup Detroit” event series over Zoom that attracts 50 to 100 people and virtual networking. Its speaker series (live pre-pandemic; virtual now) attracts heavyweights such as Silicon Valley investors from Sequoia Capital, Backstage Capital, and The Hustle Fund.
Bamboo’s offices are once again open for business, but Lewan — who writes literary fiction and novels on the side — expects sustained interest in the company’s virtual services and more demand for coworking space as fewer people commute to corpo-rate offices. “Even during Covid, people are still starting businesses, collaborating, and hiring,” she says. “We’re trying to help replicate the water cooler that’s missing.”