Rokkan, Werner Herzog, and American Express OPEN tell the story of a small business owner devoted to bringing his hometown up from rubble and ash by converting abandoned buildings into spaces where other artists and entrepreneurs can thrive.
Through socially provocative storytelling, bring American Express OPEN’s deeply rooted purpose to life: to help small business owners thrive in today’s ever-changing economic landscape.
American Express OPEN is much more than a line of credit cards. It’s a network of products, services and resources aimed at helping small business owners of varying success and maturity to grow and prosper. But the stories of established and successful small businesses paint a picture that is often far removed from the day-to-day reality of the struggle of being an entrepreneur. American Express OPEN could seize the opportunity to connect the brand to a broader range of small business owners by leveraging an empathetic voice and sharing authentic personal stories.
The “American Dream” isn’t what it used to be, and Detroit stands as a stark example of that erosion. Much more than a promise of personal gain, today’s generation of rising small business owners faces the responsibility of being socially conscious in an almost unprecedentedly challenging economic marketplace. For many entrepreneurs, “small business” is much more than a single business entity—it’s a concept or ideal aimed at providing social good. Our goal was to engage people with emotion and purpose, telling a powerful story of tomorrow’s small business owner through the eyes of legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog.
Detroit, a city that’s seen more economic hardship than any other major American city in recent history, filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in December of 2013 with an estimated $18-20 billion in debt. Unable to pay workers or even keep the lights on, many schools, hospitals, and even fire and police stations were shut down, rendering many parts of Detroit uninhabitable. A once-booming hub for industry is now lined with crumbling and abandoned homes and buildings, painting a new skyline of desolation and urban decay.
But in the wake of the city’s mass exodus, a few have refused to leave their dying hometown, clinging to the stubborn hope that Detroit can be resurrected from the ashes.
And that’s a powerful story, whose inspiring tenacity and selflessness had to be shared. To tell it right, we worked with the singular Werner Herzog to create a documentary short film that showcases the story of a creative community dedicated to staging an economic and cultural comeback for Detroit. When everyone’s instinct is to leave the dying city behind, these few stand firm and battle the blight head-on by putting their blood, sweat and tears into a unique brand of urban renewal.
Watch the film:
Meet Phil Cooley, a successful restaurant owner who never expected to become an empowering force in the movement to rebuild the city he loves.
After his family restaurant, Slows Bar B Q, took off, Phil found himself in a unique position to help residents of Detroit in need. He and his wife, Kate, purchased a 30,000 square-foot abandoned warehouse in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood for $100,000—the home for what would become not just their new small business venture, but a thriving creative community: Ponyride.
Ponyride’s vision for a new Detroit starts from the inside out. It’s a study to see how the foreclosure crisis can have a positive impact on Detroit communities. Using an ‘all boats rise with the tide’ mentality, Phil leases out co-working spaces (for pennies on the dollar) where socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs can focus on growing their business, workforce, and the production of their craft, instead of the debilitating pressure of paying rent.
Ponyride offers shared resources, knowledge, and ideas to help others open small businesses and cultivate opportunities created by the strengths and crises of what Detroit has become.
A seemingly simple gesture, the impact goes far beyond cheap rent. Ponyride is helping to rebuild a dying city by cultivating its community’s economic future, one building and small business at a time.
Ponyride houses every type of business you could think of, from metalsmiths and woodworkers, to clothing designers, a hip-hop dance studio, start-ups and even a coffee shop and kitchen.
The exponential economic empowerment that Ponyride provides has given opportunities to the most unlikely of people, including the homeless and ex-convicts. It’s a home and a fresh start for some of the most at-risk and unlikely entrepreneurs and workers in the city.
We interviewed one of Ponyride’s original tenants: Veronika Scott, founder of The Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit dedicated to serving the homeless community. Veronika hires homeless parents from local shelters as full-time seamstresses who make a livable wage to lift them out of poverty. They sew coats that transform into sleeping bags or duffel bags that are given away for free to people living on the streets. They give second chances to those who want it, and warmth to those who need it the most.
Dermond Brown “hit rock bottom” in prison. But while cutting grass at a cemetery during a work release program assignment, he had an epiphany. What kind of legacy did he want to leave? He’d always loved tinkering and building things as a child, even building a go-kart out of a refrigerator motor and a shopping cart. After his release, he wanted to help others. Operating out of Ponyride’s space, he’s the proud owner of his own small business, Corktown Maintenance.
More than 40 individuals and small businesses are Ponyride participants, all of which, in turn, serve and strengthen Detroit communities by sharing their craft and expertise. It’s a seemingly small, but impactful investment in an ideal that’s desperately needed to restore Detroit: hope.
Behind the Scenes:
American Express OPEN
Lead Creative Agency