Challenge Detroit: Using Design Thinking to Move a City Forward

By Maryem Sáder – Emzingo.

Originally from the Detroit area, social entrepreneur Shelley Danner is immersed in the social innovation landscape in Detroit, and is passionate about design thinking, education and leadership, sustainable cities, food, the arts, and travel.

Shelley DannerIn 2012, she helped launch Challenge Detroit, a nonprofit organization focused on leadership, social impact and revitalization in Detroit. Though Challenge Detroit, she has co-designed and led over 45 community impact projects and developed over 165 next-generation leaders in the city.

E- What was the motivation behind the project?

A growing passion for an impact career led me to leave my corporate job in global management consulting in Washington DC just over five years ago and transition into social entrepreneurship. I was led to move back to my hometown of Detroit, Michigan and saw an opportunity to be part of helping to move the city forward.

To contribute to the efforts of rebuilding Detroit and the region, there was a need to both attract and retain talent who wanted to make a difference. By designing and running an innovative fellowship program model that uses a human-centered design approach to social impact, and through fostering an ecosystem of cross-sector partnerships, we have been able torecruit and empower over 165 early-career professionals to grow as community-minded leaders who live, work, play, give and lead in Detroit.

E- How does Challenge Detroit work?

Challenge Detroit’s mission is to challenge leaders to learn by doing through a year of meaningful employment and intellectual work with area nonprofits designed to positively impact its diverse, culturally vibrant city. Participating individuals join us from our own backyard and across the country to spend one-year living in the community, working for a top regional company, playing culturally and socially, and giving and leading through partnerships with nonprofits to address issues and opportunities facing our community. In five years, Challenge Detroit has supported the creation of over 170 jobs generating more than $8 million in economic value to the local economy. As a small start-up nonprofit launched by a two-women staff in 2012, it is exciting to have made it to a five-year milestone. In the fall of 2016, we were honored to be selected to attend the inaugural South by South Lawn event at the White House for America’s innovators and entrepreneurs who are creating positive change.

E- Can you tell us about your work as Program Director?

As founding program director, I design and oversee our multi-faceted, innovative fellowship program model with a vision to develop community-minded leaders that are invested in Detroit’s future. Each year, I build relationships with 8-10 local nonprofits and engage with all of these nonprofits in designing and executing projects. The heart of Challenge Detroit centers around these 5-week design challenge projects with community partners that result in more than $150,000 in in-kind consulting services for nonprofits annually. The projects tackle complex urban and social needs such as economic development, education, transportation, land use, and more by providing an organization with the multi-disciplinary skills of our fellows.

A sampling of local organizations I have co-designed projects with include the Mayor’s Office, City of Detroit, the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, RecoveryPark, Forgotten Harvest and Coalition on Temporary Shelter. I seek to provide first-hand ways for fellows to learn-by-doing while also making a positive, tangible contribution to the nonprofits served and ultimately our community. Overall, my works allows me to coach and guide leaders and to take action on a strategy that builds and leverages cross-sector and cross-industry partnerships to contribute to community development.Today, Challenge Detroit has successfully reached its five-year milestone, and I have humbly learned so much about myself and about my city.

E- Where do you find inspiration?

I love the excitement of the city, however I also love being in nature and the outdoors. I find that it rejuvenates me so that I can be ready to dive back into my work, provides tranquility for meaningful reflection, and also inspires joy and creativity.

E- To you, what makes a responsible leader?

I believe that a responsible leader is committed to their own journey of self-understanding, growth and wellbeing so that s(he) can better serve others.

E- Any good advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

My advice is to continuously build a community around your endeavor and deepen your relationships. In order to succeed, it takes developing networks, forging partnerships at all levels, and lifting others up along the way.

About Shelley Danner

Shelley holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Business from Miami University in Ohio, and in May 2016, she completed a leadership coaching graduate certificate through the Institute of Transformational Leadership at Georgetown University. She is also an adjunct professor for the Integrated Design MFA at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Learn more about Shelley here.

About Challenge Detroit

Challenge Detroit challenges leaders to learn by doing through a year of meaningful employment and intellectual work with area nonprofits designed to positively impact our diverse, culturally vibrant city. Learn more about Challenge Detroit here.


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