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Tech Titans Look Back -- And Ahead -- At Detroit

Something in the water? Dick Costolo, Larry Page and others left Detroit to start technology companies on the West Coast.

Fifty years ago or so, Detroit lost its mojo as a birthplace of innovation. But somehow, it was still the birthplace of a (generously defined) generation of modern innovators. They left town as young adults to start and lead technology companies on the West Coast.

The list of tech leaders who came from Detroit and its environs is long: Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Google CEO Larry Page, Nest and iPod creator Tony Fadell, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Sun co-founders Scott McNealy and Bill Joy, Skype and American Express exec Josh Silverman and Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster.

Ballmer, the son of a Ford Motor Company manager who grew up just outside Detroit in Farmington Hills, recently addressed Dan Gilbert’s revitalization efforts in a speech at Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.’s Rainbow Push 18th annual Wall Street Summit.

“It’s great what Dan is trying to do in Detroit,” said Ballmer, who left the city to go to college at Harvard. “Since I was probably a teenager, Detroit has been ‘evaporating’ somehow, and it’s been tough … It’s kind of like any big thing in tech or anything else. If you don’t try something hard you don’t know. But most startups wind up failing. So we’ll see how it does, and I’m rooting for him.”

As Detroit finds its footing as a modern city, with technology startups part of its new downtown core, the city still looms large for many of the bold-faced tech names who left to seek opportunity elsewhere. Here’s what they have to say about what’s going on.

Why do you think so many tech titans hail from Detroit or nearby?

Dick Costolo: “The only thing I can think of is, Detroit was really a mono-industry city when I was growing up there. It was automotive. My family was really engineering-centric, so I grew up in that sort of an environment. My mom’s brother ran a dealership. My dad worked at Pontiac. My uncle on dad’s side worked at Ford. My dad’s father worked at Chrysler. My uncles would always be talking about engines.”

Tony Fadell: “Growing up, my brother and I hung out in my grandfather’s garage with him and every single tool, every nail and screw that he saved since the Depression. We used to recycle and rebuild and repair lawnmowers and bicycles. There wasn’t a weekend where I didn’t have rust-stained hands. You’d blow your nose and all the dirt and dust would come out, because you were fixing and cleaning and building. When I moved to Dallas, nobody had garages like that.”

Did you feel you had to leave to succeed?

Scott McNealy: “I’d have gone back to Detroit if there had been a good job opportunity. But I had a business school buddy who had been at GM and talked about bureaucracy and the lethargic nature, and it just didn’t sound appealing.”

Fadell: “When I left Michigan after graduating from Ann Arbor to go to [Silicon Valley startup] General Magic, my parents were like, ‘I’ve never heard of it, why can’t you work for IBM?’”

Are you hopeful for Detroit now?

Fadell: “Will it be the scale and the size of Silicon Valley? No, no one should think that. But maybe there’s a breakthrough from time to time. There’s a spirit borne out of near-death experience and make-it-happen Midwest culture.”

 A young Scott McNealy with his family in suburban Detroit
A young Scott McNealy with his family in suburban Detroit
Courtesy Susan McNealy

McNealy: “The real question is: Where do bright engineers want to go? Do they want to go to snow with no slopes? Probably not. They have a great hockey team — that matters to me. But you know what, Vegas is going to have a hockey team and Vegas has zero tax rates, and that really matters to kids who are going to start things.”

Are there any lessons for Silicon Valley in the arc of Detroit?

McNealy: “Detroit just happened to be a one-trick pony with automobiles. But it was a pretty good trick for a while.”

Costolo: “One of the things that Detroit has going for it is, it fell on such hard times — including the bankruptcy — that it didn’t have the innovator’s dilemma of, ‘We’re so successful over here, if we do that it might ruin everything.’ It got to the point of, ‘What do we have to lose?’”

Detroit’s biggest evangelist may well be Eminem.

An admitted technophobe but an industry titan nonetheless, the hip-hop star of “8 Mile” mused about his feelings for his adopted hometown in his song “So Far”:

Maybe that’s why I feel so strange/Got it all, but I still won’t change
Maybe that’s why I can’t leave Detroit/It’s the motivation that keeps me going
This is the inspiration I need
I can never turn my back on a city that made me and/Life’s been good to me so far …
In January, Eminem released a video for the anthemic “Detroit vs. Everybody,” playing off a popular hometown-pride T-shirt line and featuring a roll call of Motor City rappers, including Big Sean, Danny Brown, Royce Da 5’9”, Trick Trick and Dej Loaf celebrating their city:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCdgDxQbW_U

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.