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Mobility in the Motor City: My Summer at the City of Detroit Office of the Mayor

By: Nikhil Patel 16 Aug 2018

Entering HBS I knew what my fundamental professional ambition was: leading profoundly positive change in society by working at the cross section of engineering and technology, business, and government. I was able to experience such a role during my summer at the City of Detroit Office of the Mayor. Specifically, I served as a policy associate for Detroit’s Chief of Mobility Innovation, Mark De La Vergne. One of my section-mates was also on the same team this summer; it was fantastic working with her daily and debating the merits of various ideas out loud. 

Though I’ve experienced working in various settings and on many diverse projects throughout my career, I found my work at the Mayor’s office to be by far the most fulfilling. I completed two tangible deliverables that will directly impact and improve how people live their daily lives. First, I wrote and helped implement the City of Detroit’s dockless bike and scooter policy. On the last day of my internship, Bird (a leading dockless scooter start-up) entered Detroit with 100 dockless scooters and they’ve currently ramped up to nearly 300. Other dockless mobility companies are expected to enter the market soon. Check out the Memorandum of Interpretation the City published with the policy elements I crafted. Second, I laid the groundwork for the City of Detroit, an identified community partner, and an automotive Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), to launch a car sharing pilot program for low-income or limited-resource individuals. As Detroit’s Motor City moniker suggests, city residents are still highly dependent on cars for transportation. But the combination of exorbitantly high car insurance rates and depressingly low median income often makes access to vehicles or ridesharing mobility options inaccessible. The pilot program aims to address this issue by giving individuals participating in workforce development programs access to a more affordable car sharing transit option – helping people get to and from job interviews and medical testing required for employment. 

My motivation for pursuing this Social Enterprise Summer Fellowship was primarily personal. After immigrating to Detroit, my father started his American journey by working full-time at Ford as an engineer. Since arriving in the U.S., my mother has held multiple jobs, ranging from managing a convenience store to building automotive parts at an assembly plant. While I was in high school, the confluence of the 2007 financial crisis and my father's heart attack pushed the family into financial distress. Our home was foreclosed, and our meals were funded by food stamps. At the time, it felt as though my family was among the hardest hit. But as I’ve grown older and gained more real-world wisdom, I’ve realized my family was much more fortunate than many others in the Detroit area. My mother worked two jobs to make ends meet and there was never a moment when I didn’t have all the resources I needed to do well in school. Ever since this experience, I’ve been motivated to take actions and pursue opportunities that would validate my parents' work ethic, sacrifice, and perseverance by improving other peoples’ lives – as they did for me. So, Detroit, the city that gave my family economic opportunity and where my father would also later work as a Project Manager for the Public Lighting Authority, was also the city I wanted to return to and test whether working in government would be a worthwhile path to pursue. 

Here are four things I’ve learned from my experience:

  1. To be truly fulfilled, I personally need to be in a leadership role where I have the autonomy to make or directly inform the final decision. It’s not just enough to be “in the room where it happened”, but rather to have the ear of the person making it happen or to be that person him/herself. Until I’m able to earn such a role, working in the private sector or at a quasi-public corporation may be the ideal way to gain valuable and requisite leadership and problem-solving experience. 
  2. When you’re working on problems and issues affecting how people live their lives, it’s a lot easier to get up early for work or burn the midnight oil, compared to closing on another deal or completing a competitive landscape analysis. 
  3. Working in government is most rewarding when many relevant stakeholders (business, government entities, non-profits, etc.) are moving the same direction. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re optimizing the same priorities, but that they’re working collaboratively to solve the related problems. 
  4. To have a valuable, rewarding, and insightful social enterprise summer internship in government or public service role, it’s highly critical to work under a strong leader, team manager, or mentor. 

I can’t wait to return to Detroit post-HBS. Of course, there are many things I’m apprehensive about, but there’s no question the City of Detroit is no longer what most perceived it to be a mere five years ago. The young energy is palpable, and the trajectory has been permanently improved. In due time, the City will transform once again into the embodiment of the American Dream. So, don’t miss the revival. Come check it out! 

Nikhil Patel (MBA 2019) is a 2018 HBS Social Enterprise Summer Fellow.