Detroit. Hustles. Harder.

Wiebe Helder, CEO of Cargobase wants you to Put Your Hands Up for Detroit.

Whenever I say “I was in Detroit” or “I’m heading to Detroit” to anyone, I watch in amazement as their expressions slip into a mix of wide-eyed wonder and crinkled foreheads; their lips twitch, their heads tilt to one side. If any words follow, it is usually an alliteration of some sorts, like “dangerous”, “destitute”, “despair”, “decay”, and I feel strangely offended.

For many, Detroit is a torn page from an old chapter in a book, where once upon a time, men and women from the cotton fields, steel mills and coal mines, flocked to Detroit for well-paying jobs of the automobile industry kind. Some riots, corruption and bad decisions later, the chapter ends with the city’s widely publicized bankruptcy filing and its rock-bottom status, fortified by images of broken windows, abandoned buildings; a city crippled by crime and riddled with unemployment. The End.

But if Netflix has taught us anything, it is never The End, it is just a Season Finale.

Time to turn the page

I remember my first encounter with Detroit. It was 1992 and I was with my family, in transit. We flew Northwest Airlines from Amsterdam to Los Angeles, CA, with a stopover in Detroit. I remember the rain and the cold, it was so cold it hurt.

Years later in 2009, my career brought me back to Detroit. I started working for a logistics company whose focus was on the automotive sector. Detroit became a common stop for business meetings with some of the carmakers, as well as Tier-one or two suppliers. I did not have much time to explore the city, but commuting from hotel to office to meetings to airport burned an image of decay and ruin that I, along with others, came to associate Detroit with.

Then came 2014 when my co-founder and I, both based in Singapore at that time, made a decision to move closer to our target market, the automotive industry.

What was supposed to be a couple of months, turned into a year – a move considered logic-defying by our friends – “Why would you go from living in tropics, in one of the safest and most convenient places (Singapore), to its complete opposite?” most asked.

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it” we learned to say.

We love Detroit

Today, the Detroit you will see is in the process of reinventing itself, about to make a comeback… Although cold and harsh on the outside, underdog Detroit radiates energy. And at its heart, it has warmth, fire, grit, hope and hustle. The people are tough and real, and the city is all tooth and nail. Scores of tech startups in the new city can attest to that. Every other day, it seems, a new business opens in Detroit — a distillery, swanky restaurants, a florist, and even bicycle makers.

Detroit is a city at the cusp of gentrification. What was once filled with pessimism, is now filled with optimism, with a vibe that says “we are rebuilding a city here, and everyone is welcome”.

Detroit embraces its history and welcomes its future. Yes, it hit rock bottom, and now the only way to go is up.

The next time I say “I was in Detroit” or “I’m heading to Detroit” I hope to see you.


“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it” we learned to say.