Paul Riser is a key player at TechTown Detroit and a staunch promoter of the city in which he grew up. Venture Michigan had a chance to pose a few questions to Riser, getting a glimpse into the busy life of this family man, businessman and mentor, among other roles.
Where did you grow up?
Detroit’s University District
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I enjoy spending time with my family as I realize how valuable time with my kids and wife really is. I also love to mentor and share my experiences with youth every chance I get. The conversations, life experiences and perspectives on my personal and professional journey I hope can positively impact a few and provide some level of inspiration that makes even a small difference. When time allows, traveling to unique destinations is something that I am trying to do more and more of – taking time and the opportunity to see the world and the amazing people and things it has to offer.
What are your favorite things about Detroit?
My favorite things about the city of Detroit are the rich history, the people and the growing possibilities that the city presents, especially as it relates to innovation, entrepreneurship and real estate/economic development.
Who are your hero(s)?
First and personally, my parents for their personal contributions and the many, many sacrifices they made for me. My dad is often referred to as “the most prolific arranger of hit songs of all time” due to his 50+ years in the music industry that began during the very early days of Motown here in Detroit. Some of his biggest hits as an arranger are: “My Girl” (The Temptations), “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” (The Temptations), for which he won a Grammy Award, both versions of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (Marvin Gaye) (Gladys Knight & The Pips), “My Cherie Amour” (Stevie Wonder), both versions of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Diana Ross) (Marvin Gaye & Tammy Terrell), “Tears of A Clown” (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles), the soundtrack of Car Wash (Rolls Royce) and “What Becomes of The Broken Hearted” (Jimmy Ruffin) — to name a few. I state this about my father, not as much because of his musical gift and contributions to the world, but because of the spirit in which he has always led in his work. His perpetual desire and willingness to ensure the people he worked with were satisfied, successful and recognized. It’s never been about him.
Professionally, I would have to say Dr. Darnell Kaigler, a native Detroiter and world-renowned dentist, oral maxillofacial surgeon, prosthodontist and researcher focused on revolutionizing the way dentistry is practiced. Dr. Kaigler has served as a professional and personal mentor of mine for well over a decade where he has shown a level of commitment to my personal success that I would have only expected from a biological father. Truly a man of integrity, commitment and hard-work, and one that believes in “doing the right things, for the right reasons.”
Describe your typical day as managing director of TechTown Detroit:
Within my role as managing director for Tech-Based Entrepreneurship at TechTown Detroit, I lead the business unit titled “LABS.” With a great support team, I lead the development and growth of early-stage, tech-based startup companies as well as a number of programs, activities and events in Greater Detroit that ultimately help catalyze economic development for the state of Michigan. The types of companies and innovators the LABS team works with range from alternative energy, advanced manufacturing and mobile and web-based applications to healthcare solutions, edTech, finTech and more.
I manage a small, but fabulous team and collectively we assist tech entrepreneurs in a myriad of ways, such as helping them to establish goals and milestones for their business, ensuring innovators validate their business model and value proposition in the market, identifying and curating appropriate strategic resources (often via regional partners and service providers) to help them launch and grow their business, helping them navigate the process of intellectual property protection, preparing companies to ensure they are “investment-ready” as well connecting them to key sources of funding, such as various grants, angel investors, venture capital firms and much more. The vast majority of our services, programs and events are at no cost to the entrepreneurs and innovators because of the awesome financial support we receive from state, federal, philanthropic and private sector partners.
What are the most exciting thing(s) you’ve experienced since you began your career with TechTown Detroit?
I was hired at TechTown Detroit by a great and passionate leader by the name of Leslie Smith (now with EpiMemphis, growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Memphis) and at that time we discussed the longer-term importance to the city and region to take some time to evaluate what the true needs of our city were from a tech-based entrepreneurship perspective. Subsequently, answering the question of if we could be the organization to fill that identified “void” in the market thereby minimizing any duplication of efforts while providing accretive services that the innovation community would truly value.
Over the past 18 months, TechTown’s ability to lead and help foster collaborative innovation in healthcare has fast emerged as the “void” I believe we have an opportunity to address in greater Detroit. An unbelievable density of assets, companies, universities, service providers, investors and SMEs (subject matter experts) are in this area, and when you juxtapose these characteristics with the fact that healthcare organizations face unprecedented challenges to improve quality, reduce harm, improve access, increase efficiency, eliminate waste and lower costs ... innovation is becoming a major focus once again.
The healthcare industry is on the brink of massive change and TechTown Detroit has been intricate in bringing together healthcare stakeholders from Southeast Michigan and Southwest Canada to help break down barriers in healthcare via deep collaboration and channeled innovation. This has been ultra-exciting because, with the support of my current CEO (Ned Staebler) and our governing board, I’ve been able to be entrepreneurial within an organization chartered to serve entrepreneurs. The flexibility and encouragement that’s offered to our staff to try new programs, activities and ways to continuously differentiate our offerings is one of many aspects that make this role so appealing.
What you see in the future for Detroit/Southeast Michigan in terms of growth?
With respect to growth and vitality, I think the journey and evolution of our region over the next 5-10 years is going to be nothing short of amazing. Unprecedented investment in our entrepreneurial ecosystem’s future, awesome talent from various parts of the state and country that’s making Detroit (both business and personal) “home,” emerging sectors that build upon the manufacturing, engineering and automotive strengths of our region, a burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem that continues to welcome new entrants and opportunities, an increasing level of state and national investors, some of the country’s leading research universities continued investment and production of intellectual property, ongoing redevelopment of infrastructure and real estate assets both within our downtown/midtown core as well as in neighborhoods across the city and upgraded regional transit mechanisms will all be critical components.
What I particularly see as the biggest two challenges for our city is the need for intentional and equitable inclusion of constituents of all genders, ethnicities and backgrounds — from grass-roots initiatives to where funding sources reach to the decision-making and leadership positions throughout all sectors of our economy. Additionally, the renewal of a leading-edge educational system that allows children to receive the quality education they deserve and need to not only compete, but also excel, will be paramount. My work at TechTown Detroit affords me the perspective that maintains my confidence and optimism in Detroit’s revitalization, particularly as I notice the many cultures around the country that also look to our city for its innovation, leadership and resiliency. An example of this: over the past 3 to 4 months I have hosted more than half a dozen delegations and international business groups from every corner of the globe and they all state that “we are watching Detroit and we want to adopt the strategies and ideas that you are using to reinvent your city … we want to bring these practices and ideas into what we are working to build back home.” In my opinion, Detroit’s future presents a major success story for the broader urban renaissance movement.
Did you have a mentor who helped direct your career?
I’ve learned the importance over time of not having a single mentor, but of having mentors for the various “seasons” and aspects of my life, including but not limited to a spiritual mentor, entrepreneurial and business mentors in media, technology, non-profit business, real estate development, as well financial management mentors and pure life coaches. Even peer mentors have been and continue to be instrumental sources of inspiration and “friendly competition” that drive me to seek more and to be accountable in life. The power of mentorship is absolutely key and having someone or multiple individuals who have transitioned and experienced stages of life that you haven't seen provide vital elements that you can learn from, hopefully reducing the number of costly mistakes that you have make on your own.
I’ve absolutely been a benefactor of great mentors throughout my life and as I evolve, I continue to seek out and connect with mentors who can help my journey of life. Just as entrepreneurs and innovators are pressed upon to develop a “roadmap” for their company’s success, I realized long ago that we all have to figure out where we want to be in life and the pathway to get there. One way is looking at other people who have done things the right way in life and to learn from those practices.
What is the one piece of business advice you received that really made a difference in your career?
One key piece of advice that I have received that I hold on to is, “You can go fast alone, but you can go far with others and faith.” I took this to mean a couple of key things: one, ensure you have a vertical relationship (your faith) first and foremost that guides and shapes you as a person and also seek to build meaningful horizontal relationships with friends and business partners that must be chosen wisely. Secondly, fairly early in my life I was fortunate enough to learn the power of strong networks and the benefit of building genuine relationships where both parties get to know, like and trust the other person. This takes intentionality and hard work, but the personal and professional benefits far outweigh the requirements, sacrifice and pathway to get there. Many, if not all, of the most important achievements that I have been able to realize have derived from meaningful relationships and my network.
Which area business leader(s) do you most admire, and why?
Difficult question here! Simply because I admire so many business leaders in our area, in so many different aspects. One that I have gotten to know personally over the years and have a deep level respect for as a businessman and as a person is Mr. John Rakolta, CEO of Walbridge Aldinger. He has relentlessly urged metro Detroiters to engage one another to discuss race relations. I’ve witnessed John stand up to the “status quo” on numerous occasions, irrespective of the political or business affiliations of his audience. Additionally, John has opened his own home to hundreds of regional leaders in a series of informal dinner meetings dubbed as “Conversations on Race” in partnership with New Detroit Coalition. These discussions have provided a safe, no fault environment that permitted participants to share personal reflections that cross racial lines as a first step in addressing issues of racial inequity throughout Southeast Michigan. Race relations and the importance of addressing the issues is all too often “swept under the rug” and addressed as a “to do item.” I think John, in addition to taking his family-owned construction business to amazing heights — including employing over 1,000 people and conducting more than $1B in revenue annually — is someone who genuinely cares about addressing key issues where race is a barrier in a city and region that has a deep history of complexities beyond that of many others.
Last book you read (or book you are currently reading):
“Wealth Management, Merging Faith with Finance” by Ellis Liddell (recently read) and “Leveraging Real Estate: Home Study Course” by Herbert J. Strather (currently reading)