Expat in Focus: Michele Varian, Co-Founder of DetroitBUILTco.
Thanks for catching up with us. What was it like growing up in Detroit?
I usually refer to having grown up in the city-proper at a time when the city was facing serious challenges as a "heritage". It was unlike anything else that many non-Detroit residents could relate to. For years, people sucked their breath in, horrified to hear that I was actually from the city.
Now, they all coo when they hear I am from Detroit, because it is so cool. Because it was such a challenging environment, it formed my friends into a group of uniquely tenacious, scrappy and resourceful people. We've all stuck together, because we learned early on the importance of a support system. Our friendships run deep, even though many of us haven't lived in Detroit since we graduated from high school.
Which neighborhood in the city are you from?
Indian Village and my parents still live in the house that me and my sisters grew up in.
How did you get interested in home wares, decors, and accessories?
A big part of it was because of having grown up surrounded by the amazing architecture of Detroit, and also having to learn how to restore and build so much of it ourselves. We were DIYers before it was a thing.
You’re a graduate of Detroit’s Cass Technical High School which has produced hundreds of industry-renowned professionals. How does the public education you received at Cass Tech continue to inform your approach to your work?
Firstly, I believe it is incredibly important to support and finance our public school system. Leaving them to fail is abandoning our future and is a failure of the American Dream. Only providing a good education to the children of families that can afford to pay for private schools is ultimately systematic entitlement. The children that need educational resources the most, are provided with the least because of less local tax resources. Rich kids get rich educations and poor kids get poor education.
My friends and I received amazing educations, benefiting from the wealth of the city before we even entered school. Our teachers were some of the best, but as they retired it would have been difficult to attract top notch educators to a city with so few resources. I'm saddened to know how much the Detroit Public Schools have declined. Our mom was a DPS teacher and faced incredible challenges just to get basic supplies for her students. She retired from teaching middle school in 2006.
How do the memories and lessons you have from Cass affect your perspective on society, in general?
More than just Cass, Detroit has informed who me and my friends are. I didn't know how exceptional an experience we had had until weddings, life events and now Crain's Homecoming began reuniting me with people I had lost touch with. The common characteristic that I miss until I'm surrounded by fellow Detroiters is the deep compassion and desire for social justice. I call it "social grit" and those of us from Detroit have it in bucket loads and it feels like home to be surrounded by it.
Going back to talking about Cass, there are so many of us who have stayed in touch even though we're spread across continents. I was in the AP curriculum, but also studied art. Fortunately, Cass had an amazing arts program and we had a teacher, Marion Stephens, who took us to visit schools in NYC. We stayed at the homes of previous graduates, and went to see Tracy Reese’s graduating project at the Parson's Fashion Show. We were very lucky. My fellow Cass Tech graduates designed for Gucci in Italy & London, became doctors, lawyers, judges, CEO's, worked in the White House, toured doing wardrobe for Cher, Michael Jackson & Lady Gaga and so much more. And I'm fortunate enough to be a co-founder of a new digital platform called Guesst.co with my fellow Cass Tech and middle school classmate, Jay Norris (pictured above).
How has Detroit Homecoming allowed for you to re-engage with Detroit and its community of entrepreneurs?
Being introduced to Detroit's small business owners and students has been the most rewarding. I've tapped into networks of designers and micro-manufacturers, some of who's products I now sell in my SoHo shop.
Given your experience of being a resource for Detroit-based entrepreneurs, what is one piece of advice you would give to other expats who are trying to figure out ways to get involved in Detroit after attending Homecoming?
I've always been a bottom-up versus a top-down kind of person. I think it's really important to listen and pay attention to the people with feet on the ground building something from nothing. With success can come a kind of tone deafness to the challenges of those who haven't achieved as much as you have. It's really important to watch and listen, so that you can provide the community with what they really need.