Vittoria Katanski, executive director of the Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest, shares advice for local entrepreneurs, why Detroit is a great city to start a business and new brick-and-mortar spots she’s excited to see open.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Name: Vittoria Katanski
Title: Executive Director
Schools attended and degrees earned: Bachelor of arts degree in political science from Hope College
1. Tell us about the Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest and why you started it.
Hatch Detroit was formed and the contest started in 2011 by our founder Nick Gorga. Nick was returning home from Chicago where he worked for several years and wanted to be a part of the neighborhood impact in Detroit. Nick saw how independent retail transformed his neighborhood in Chicago and wanted to support aspiring entrepreneurs to have the same impact on their community.
2. Why focus on entrepreneurs in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park?
Detroit was always the focus of the contest. Unlike other communities in the region, Detroit has not been offered the same access to resources as our suburban counterparts. Detroiters have an incredibly difficult time securing funding. The contest was started as a way to help bridge that divide, and provide seed funding and exposure to help secure additional funding. Hamtramck and Highland Park are completely surrounded by the city of Detroit and experience the same access issues. As close neighbors, the success of those communities and of Detroit are very much intertwined and dependent on one another.
3. The contest has awarded $50,000 to seven entrepreneurs since 2011. Who are some of those winners and how have they used the money?
Hugh, La Feria, Batch Brewing Company, Sister Pie, Live Cycle Delight, Meta Physica Wellness Center and Baobab Fare have all won the Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest. All the businesses have used the money differently, but most use the funding to help build their space. In addition to the $50,000 grand prize from Comerica Bank, winners also receive a package of pro bono support from our partners, including architectural renderings, legal support and more to help offset other costs associated with opening a business.
4. Do you have a favorite success story?
That is a hard one, because all the stories are unique and aspiring. Beyond the seven winners of the contest, Hatch Detroit works to help the other semi-finalists and finalists open through mentorship, technical assistance, site selection and more. To date, 34 Hatch Detroit alumni businesses have opened, with an additional 11 on the way, so that is a pretty significant number of success stories to choose from! I would say Baobab Fare has one of the more unique stories to date, but the first one that came to mind was the story of La Feria. I will say that the best part of seeing each of the businesses open for me is witnessing the impact on the communities in which they choose to set up shop, and ultimately becoming friends with the business owners.
5. The top 10 semi-finalists are announced in August. How can the community get involved in picking the winner?
The contest was designed on the idea of crowd entrepreneurship — giving the community a chance to help decide the type of independent retail they’d like to see in their neighborhood. Once the top 10 semi-finalists are introduced to the public, people can vote for their favorite businesses to help narrow the 10 semi-finalists to four finalists. Once the four finalists are introduced to the public, people can vote again to help decide who will win $50,000 from Comerica Bank to help open a brick-and-mortar business.
Once this year’s semi-finalists are announced Aug. 9, voting will be available on hatchdetroit.com, Hatch Detroit’s Facebook page, and we will set up in-person voting booths in different neighborhoods throughout the community.
6. For entrepreneurs trying to start a business in Detroit, Hamtramck or Highland Park, do you have any advice for seeking funding (other than applying to the Hatch contest)?
Advice for businesses is on a one-on-one basis, as they all have different needs. Much of our advice concerns location, proximity to future development and encouraging them to develop strong relationships with the local Community Development Center and Downtown Development Authorities.
7. What’s something every entrepreneur should know before opening a brick-and-mortar business?
It’s very hard work, but very rewarding. Our businesses prove to be very successful because they have the passion and determination to make an impact on their community. To them, it’s often not just about the business, but about the community and their customers. You can’t do this without passion.
8. Why should an entrepreneur consider opening a business in Detroit?
Detroit is an amazing city and incredibly loyal. It’s been underserved for several years and has not been taken over by chains. As a result, it is the perfect place for an independent store to have a voice and command an audience based on their product.
9. Do you recommend any local resources or programs for someone who has a business idea and wants to hone it?
Absolutely! We always recommend TechTown and LifeLine business consulting. We also encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to look to the BizGrid Detroit for other resources that suit their particular needs.
10. As Hatch Detroit’s executive director, what’s the most challenging part of your job?
I love my job, and that makes a lot of the challenges less overwhelming! I would say the top challenge is funding. We do so much with limited funding but could do much more. We would love to be able to provide more resources to our growing Alumni Program and bring our Neighborhood Initiative back.
11. What do you enjoy most about your job?
Seeing the impact of our businesses on neighborhoods, and helping the entrepreneurs along the way, regardless of the task!
12. You’re also the director of the annual bike ride through Detroit called Tour de Troit. How do you balance the two jobs?
I have always been able to manage multiple projects at once, but thankfully the work peaks at different times of the year. Both are very interlaced and the goals are similar — to highlight and support Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park’s communities.
13. Who’s been a mentor in your career?
I have been very lucky to hold jobs that have challenged me and provided hard feedback to make me a more committed, organized and precise employee, but I would say my greatest mentor was my father. He was the first entrepreneur I ever knew. The time spent in our family’s neighborhood business shaped my entire personality and passion for this city. He taught me that businesses can be so much more to a community than just a place — that it needs to be a partner.
14. What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
“Don’t walk into a meeting without something to take notes on. You can’t remember everything and you will fail if you don’t pay attention to detail” — Rex Smith, boss at Ross Roy Communications in 1995.
Now on to some fun questions…
15. Favorite place to shop in Detroit?
I love to shop local and shop for food old school: meat from the slaughter house, vegetables in season from my favorite farmers, bread from the bakery, etc. I get flowers from Chris Engel’s Greenhouse and Pot+Box.
16. Favorite local clothing shop?
The Peacock Room and Bird Bee.
17. Favorite Detroit restaurant?
My favorite since I was a child: Motz’s Burgers and Vince’s Italian Restaurant in my old neighborhood.
New favorites: So many great Hatch Detroit alums…all of them!
Baked goods: Chene Modern Bakery, Sister Pie, Brown’s Bun Bakery, Chugga’s Bakery.
18. A forthcoming brick-and-mortar you’re excited to see open?
I am super excited to see Lester Gouvia open Norma G’s on Jefferson! Also our 2017 Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest winner Baobab Fare. We have 11 brick-and-mortar alum businesses opening in the next few months, but these two are the next in line.
19. Favorite place to bike to?
Weirdly work. I love the ability to ride to the office versus drive! Also, through the alleys and to Belle Isle.
20. When you’re not working, where can we find you? Either running, rowing, riding my bike or relaxing in my neighborhood.
Bonus question: Anything else you’d like to share?
I am just incredibly grateful to have a career I love so much.
Each month, we interview executives in Metro Detroit to get their business and career advice. If you know someone who should be featured in SEEN Around the Water Cooler, email email@example.com.
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