Our Superman in Detroit: How a Social Entrepreneur Convinced us That the Motor City Will Rise Again

The zeitgeist of American business tells us that the entrepreneur is our generation's hero. They reject hierarchy. They ride IPOs to riches and glory. They have the Next Big Idea that will change the world.

We went to Detroit looking for a hero, but we found that and more: we also found a survivor.

Sebastian Jackson did not become an entrepreneur because he didn't want a boss, or because he wanted to get rich, or because he had stumbled upon a disruptive technology. He chose his path out of necessity -- because his mother suffered from a mental illness that often left him and his brother to fend for themselves. Sebastian realized earlier than most of us that he didn't need many material things. And anything he didn't need, he sold.

It's that spirit of resilience that led him to start The Social Club Grooming Company, despite having his business plan rejected three times. That spirit of "we're in this together" that led him to make SCGC a multicultural barber shop that could bring men and women together across racial lines -- too often a herculean feat in America.

And it's that spirit of finding much-needed value in things he didn't need that led Sebastian to transform the Social Club from one of the hippest salons in town to one of the most innovative salons in the country by putting to use all the hair that your typical salon throws away.

The journey began when, after Deepwater Horizon ruined the Gulf Coast, Sebastian decided to donate the wasted hair from his salon to an organization that could use it to clean up oil. He later realized that environmental destruction was happening much closer to home -- Detroit has lost over half of its urban canopy -- and that the same hair that cleaned up oil could also act as a powerful fertilizer for trees. Now, each haircut at The Social Club leads to another sapling being planted in a Detroit neighborhood. That's real impact.

Therein lies the gauntlet through which Sebastian must pass: the only way to get to the hair is to build a great business that can scale, serve more clients, and evangelize its message. That's where the MBAs Across America team came in.

Aside from learning more about fertilizer than we ever expected, we worked with Sebastian to flesh out an incentive system that could attract, develop and retain the talent he needs to scale -- starting with a clear mission and values system, and going all the way to a compensation model that keeps stylists motivated while helping the business grow. We did groundwork for a customer database that he could use to turn his loyal clientele into a powerful network of evangelists. We even came up with some quirky ideas for iconic actions to convey the Social Club's message, like hosting a pop-up barbershop in the neighborhood that this year's trees will be planted.

In return, Sebastian showed us the power of the human spirit -- the "sickness," as he calls it -- that drives entrepreneurs like him to write the fourth business plan after the first three fail, to recycle the hair that everyone else throws away, and to do it all in and for a place that has its back against the wall. Because that's what heroes & survivors do.

Nowhere in America is this relentless grit needed more than in Detroit, where many folks are writing a story of a city in ruins that might be left for dead.

But folks like Sebastian are writing a different story about Detroit, one where young visionaries build new systems themselves instead of waiting for traditional institutions to come back. Phil Cooley's Ponyride is reclaiming abandoned buildings and turning them into co-working space for artists, kids, and even former homeless women from Detroit's toughest neighborhoods. Andy Didorosi decided to start The Detroit Bus Company when he realized that the city couldn't provide for Detroiters' public transit needs. The Michigan Alliance of TimeBanks is moving past a currency-centric model of economic life altogether to enable citizens to barter goods and services.

We're no experts, but we think this is the story that is going to stick. It's the one that's going to show the rest of America how to move past our crises and our outdated models and start to re-imagine and rebuild -- and do it all ourselves.

Follow the MBAs Across America journey on Facebook or catch us on the road by sending an email to hello@mbaxamerica.com.