GENERATION STARTUP takes us to the front lines of entrepreneurship in America, capturing the struggles and triumphs of six recent college graduates who put everything on the line to build startups in Detroit. Shot over 17 months, it’s an honest, in-the-trenches look at what it takes to launch a startup. Directed by Academy Award winner Cynthia Wade and award-winning filmmaker Cheryl Miller Houser, the film celebrates risk-taking, urban revitalization, and diversity while delivering a vital call-to-action—with entrepreneurship at a record low, the country’s economic future is at stake.
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I’ve never had a traditional career. After college, as my classmates headed to Wall Street and Madison Avenue, I chose instead to work inside New York City homeless shelters. There, I helped established Head Start programs, created job training programs, planned summer adventures, made sure carefully chosen gifts were given to each child during holidays. My budget was microscopic; the needs were enormous. I learned to be tenacious, relentless. I practiced the art of pulling rabbits out of hats, of making something from nothing.
During those years, though, I kept hearing a call. It was an itch, a drive I couldn’t shake. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to make films. I was offered a partial scholarship to Stanford University’s MA program in documentary film. It was a risk. Best-case scenario, it would take me more than a decade to pay off my student loans — and even then, only if I hustled for years.
I hustled. I took every job I could. I was a dishwasher, freelance grant writer, a driver of low-income moms who needed rides to the supermarket. I had a job where, each day, I took the temperature of ham sandwiches for the Board of Health. It took total focus on the end-goal to just keep going, roll with the punches and keep it moving. When finally I got on a film set, I was the hauler of tripods.
Over time I built a production company, a brand, and a body of work. Along the way, I’ve eaten ants and bats, shimmied into abandoned buildings, been chased by a pimp, flown a drone into a toxic mud volcano, caught the wire on an aircraft carrier, lived in an arsenic-filled village in Cambodia, and slept on the couch in the home of dying police officer for weeks – all to tell stories that would otherwise go unmarked and unnoticed by the world.
What the entrepreneurs in GENERATION STARTUP are doing might on the surface look different than what I did during my years in New York homeless shelters. But it stems from the same impulse: to risk something. To create something from nothing. To do.
–Cynthia Wade, co-Director
I was drawn to making GENERATION STARTUP because our young entrepreneurs’ stories spoke to me personally. Several years ago, with great trepidation, I left a well-paying, secure job as head of production at a TV production company to launch my own company. I should have done this much sooner, but it took me several decades to get up the guts. In 2013, the desire to be master of my destiny, to only make programming that engaged me to the core and inspired viewers, finally won out over my fear of failing.
I embarked on making GENERATION STARTUP soon after starting my company, stirred by the idealism, courage and determination of the recent college
graduates who were moving to economically depressed cities across the US to join or launch startups through a program called Venture for America. I wanted to follow several of these young entrepreneurs for an extended period of time to capture the immersive, true experience of what it’s like to build a company. But not in Silicon Valley or New York. In an unexpected place: Detroit, a city built on entrepreneurship and innovation which is making a comeback, largely thanks to those very same factors.
Despite the widely held stereotype of 20-somethings as entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship among 18-34 year olds is at a 24-year low. This has grave implications for our country’s economic future, since young companies generate two-thirds of all new jobs. So here were 20-somethings who were not just taking big risks, they were also bucking the trend of most of their peers, who cite fear of failing as one of the biggest impediments holding them back.
Our subjects were afraid of failing too. They were also full of self-doubt and somewhat clueless when they started out. And they failed time and again. But none of them gave up. They all worked tirelessly, demonstrating tremendous grit and resilience. In the year and a half that we followed most of them, they grew into confident leaders and entrepreneurs. Their extraordinary transformation over a short period of time is a testament to how much we can all learn and grow when we put ourselves in situations outside our comfort zone and stretch ourselves.
The grit, resilience and hustle of our subjects is mirrored in the city of Detroit, which was in bankruptcy when we started filming there in August 2014. While Detroit is still grappling with widespread poverty and other problems, it is rebounding, with employment and population numbers on the rise, largely thanks to the growth of new businesses. This same force is driving the economic rejuvenation of many cities across the US.
Our subjects are living proof that entrepreneurs are made, not born, and come from many different backgrounds. They show that through entrepreneurship and hard work anyone can pave their own way to job fulfillment and personal growth, and in the process strengthen their community.
For me the film isn’t just about entrepreneurship. It’s about the human capacity to step outside our comfort zone, overcome our fear of failure, not follow what others might expect of us, and create our own path forward. I regret that it took me decades to do that, but it’s never too late, and never too soon either, even if you have no idea what you’re doing. As our subjects illustrate, the quickest way to learn is by failing and learning from your mistakes, then going back at it with greater confidence and expertise.
I hope that when audiences see the film, they are inspired to do just that, in all spheres of their lives.
— Cheryl Miller Houser, co-Director