Gateway ’17, an inaugural small business event aimed at businesses interested in exporting goods or otherwise expanding their customer base in China, took Detroit by storm this week.
The sold-out event features big name speakers like Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma, CEO of UPS David Abney, and style-maven Martha Stewart.
This conference is not so much about sourcing manufacturing of goods in China (although there’s some of that represented). It’s mainly about helping small business owners and prospective entrepreneurs in attendance to network and learn more about tapping into the hundreds of millions of Chinese middle-class consumers.
Jack Ma decided on Detroit for the event because, according to company officials, he and Alibaba are committed to the heartland. And Detroit has recently become revitalized and has a strong entrepreneurial base. According to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, “the Creative Class is here” (giving a nod to the book by Richard Florida called “The Rise of the Creative Class”).
The event opened last evening, and among the speakers was Ma, who was interviewed in a fireside chat format by media personality Charlie Rose. In inspirational and surprisingly candid remarks, Ma outlined the struggles of starting Alibaba in 1999, at a time when the Internet was new in China. “Everything I did before Alibaba failed — everything,” he said, highlighting the need to have an entrepreneurial vision and believe in it.
Entrepreneur and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers Dan Gilbert, who has been a driving force behind Detroit’s comeback, also emphasized how failure is a part of achieving success. He urged the small business owners and entrepreneurs in the audience, “Don’t be afraid to fail.”
The event kicked off with a bang with a team of drummers. But these were not ordinary drummers. They wore lighted suits and drummed to a light show — while being suspended in the air on wires. Ecommerce entrepreneur John Lawson, who attended the event, said after the opening evening, “As soon as I saw that opening drum show, I knew Alibaba had kicked it up to a higher level than your typical conference.”
— Anita Campbell (@smallbiztrends) June 20, 2017
Tina Yuan of Co.Media, who attended the event, counts Ma as her business role model, saying “He started out as a small business. He says you have to give back. He wants to make others successful and that’s his strength.”
And in fact, helping small businesses is a message that Ma repeated during his opening remarks. People sometimes call Alibaba an eCommerce company, Ma said, but that’s not really a good description. “We’re not an eCommerce company. We help small businesses become eCommerce companies.”
After listening to the keynote speakers, attendees will have the opportunity to drop in for breakout sessions on everything from exporting specific items like clothing or food to China, to learning about the specific offerings of platforms like Alipay (Alibaba’s payment platform). The event also features casting sessions for CNBC reality shows “The Profit” and “Billion Dollar Buyer,” along with customer spotlights and success stories.
The focus of the event is to help small business owners and prospective entrepreneurs explore growth opportunities in China and learn about marketing to Chinese consumers. China is one of the fastest growing consumer bases in the world. So learning how to market and sell to this growing group could provide a major boon for small businesses, likely one of the reasons Gateway ‘17 has drawn in thousands of registered attendees.
About 3,000 people registered to attend the event at the Cobo Center in Detroit on June 20 and 21, 2017. The opening evening appeared filled to capacity.
Anita Campbell, also in attendance at the event, contributed to this report.
Images: Small Business Trends