Film Review: Generation Startup

Cheerful look at various young entrepreneurs involved with business launches in Detroit.
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Generation Startup is a fun spin on long-form native content, as it promotes Venture for America, a former startup that has apparently taken off as a venture to place college grads nationwide at startups. This inspiring doc, shot through a rose-colored lens of optimism, provides a lightweight insiders’ look at six recent college grads, most newly arrived in Detroit to work at rising startups or grow their own. Unlike similarly themed docs or films like The Social Network that have worn their cynicism on rolled-up sleeves, Generation Startup is every bit as suspenseful (who among these newbies will survive this adventure into the unknown?) while retaining a welcome warmth and optimistic spirit. In this nicely captured Detroit, America—if not the city—is beautiful again.

The film’s assets have everything to do with the featured young Detroit pioneers—all recent college grads—whom award-winning filmmakers Cynthia Wade and Cheryl Miller Houser showcase on an up and down 17-month journey into failure, success, or wise change of mind.

Among their early twenty-something subjects bravely entering a new world of entrepreneurship are the laudably resilient Johns Hopkins engineering grad Labib. He also brings from his Yonkers home personal “baggage,” since his financially strapped parents, devout Muslims, disapprove of this first career choice instead of their son going practical with a high-paying engineering job. Their skepticism seems justified after Labib lands at a tiny startup that assembles and sells to corporate customers cheap mobile phones, all of whose parts come from China. Labib struggles on many fronts: tension with his boss, continuing family pressures, long late-night hours that also steal his weekends and his Muslim faith that is slipping away.

Also profiled is Cornell grad Avery, good-natured but seemingly up in the air regarding his life’s direction. In Detroit he comes down to startup earth, where he hovers over bowls of dry and cooked pasta. He’s assistant to boss Brian, co-founder and CEO of a company that is trying with difficulty to make the chickpea-based pasta he invented marketable. But the pasta stubbornly continues to break down into mush when boiled. Worn down by long hauls to the company’s factory in a desolate corner of northern Michigan and depressing stays there at cheap motels, Avery is nevertheless impressed with his patient, obsessed boss—but will the duo’s stamina and faith pay off?

Perhaps the most impressive of the Detroit newbies is Dextina Booker, an M.I.T. mechanical engineering grad with remarkable spunk, eloquence and self-confidence, virtues all the more remarkable considering that she is a weight-challenged woman of color in a white man’s world and has a Guyanese mother whom she idolizes but who has struggled to raise her family. Like some of the others, she works outside her major when she lands at a startup that monitors and invests in local startups. Considering her daunting circumstances, can she handle such a shift?

Providing another source of inspiration is Kate, maybe the most grounded and focused of the bunch. She’s a coder with an already established startup who wants to build her own startup that will bring other women into technology. Her idea is Women Rising, a venture that will provide ways for women to find mentors who will help them enter so male-dominated a business.

For some comic relief, Generation Startup has Max Nussenbaum, a real guy’s-guy who with the help of two pals builds a startup that provides software and property-management tools for landlords and property owners. The trio goof around and seem clueless even in business fundamentals like creating effective flyers and pitching new customers. Their other battle is with Detroit’s harsh winter climate. Can these clowns really make an effective pitch to New York money guys for the cash they need to develop their company?

Not to be left out is the doc’s least glamorous player, which, in spite of her looks (the familiar decaying, neglected buildings and streets), is beautifully, even dreamily conveyed by eye-pleasing cinematography. This is Detroit, of course, but just as it does with its young entrepreneurs, Generation Startup offers glimpses of a renaissance in the making, or a swan-to-be emerging from an ugly duckling. More pragmatically inclined viewers might like to know that the doc also provides some insights into what and who it takes to get viable new businesses and careers off the ground (as long as they bring along some luck and good timing).

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