“It’s not cool to be smart on the West Side of Detroit.”
They’re just a dozen words among 1,212 from tech exec Stacy Brown-Philpot of Palo Alto, Calif., in a New York Times interview about her career, but they pack a punch back home.
The Cass Tech graduate (’93) drops that red flag in “Corner Office,” a popular Sunday business section feature in The New York Times. She’s a Silicon Valley star who’s chief executive at TaskRabbit, an online and mobile marketplace for freelance labor that she joined in 2013 after nine years at Google.
The “not cool to be smart” claim comes in response to the first published question — “Tell me about your upbringing” — from David Gelles. The Times, posting the column two days before its print version, uses the attention-worthy comment as a display element (right).
Here’s the native Detroiter’s reply in the context presented:
“I grew up on the West Side of Detroit. My mom raised my brother and me by herself. We didn’t have a lot. My mother worked a job that didn’t pay a whole lot of money, so she had to make a lot of sacrifices. But she prioritized education. She would fall asleep helping us with our homework at night. She always taught us that no one can take your learning away from you. And with that, you can go anywhere and do anything.
“So I focused on getting good grades. I wasn’t always a popular kid. I didn’t have the best clothes. But I was a smart kid. It’s cool to be smart in Silicon Valley. It’s not cool to be smart on the West Side of Detroit.”
Cue the outrage as west-siders represent. And read on for her damage-control response.
“Nah, maybe it was just you sis,” Aaron Foley comments, starting a lively Twitter thread Friday afternoon.
“I’m also a smart kid from the west side and I get it,” he adds. “Nerds are made fun of, etc. But we weren’t anomalies. Smart kids came from every kind of home in Detroit you could think of.”
Foley, an author and former journalist, posts eight tweets in all and generates 16 comments. “This might this person’s reality,” one follower reacts, “but to generalize is a bit far-fetched.”
“Don’t blame your lack of popularity on a location,” says another Detroiter. (More examples are below.)
The 42-year-old business leader sticks by her view in a three-sentence response to Deadline Detroit via her director of communications and public affairs:
“The story I shared in my interview was my experience growing up on the West Side of Detroit. It was not viewed as cool to be smart in my neighborhood when I was growing up there, which is why I’m committed to changing that perception.
“As a native Detroiter, I take a lot of pride in the revitalization of the city and have personally invested time and resources in coaching young entrepreneurs, speaking at events like Detroit Homecoming [in 2017] and advocating for positive change in the community.”
Her media representative, Amelia McLear, adds that Brown-Philpot hosted a San Francisco event this year “to bring together expats from Detroit to support the city” and “regularly visits the city.” The email also says:
Stacy is close with Amanda Lewan, co-CEO of Bamboo Detroit, and has met with several entrepreneurs through that program to mentor and coach them as they build their companies.
The west-side success — who has degrees from the Wharton School (’97) and Standford University (’02) — remains a loyal hometown booster, in other words. Yet she stands by the view that brains and good grades weren’t valued in her neighborhood during the 1980s and 1990s.
Perceptions are based on memory, identity and emotions, not facts. So this is about different takes on growing up focused and ambitious in Detroit.
Brown-Philpot and her challengers share Detroit pride, though their impressions of how education was valued differ.
As it happens, the CEO seemed to have a different tone in part of a May 2017 interview with the Detroit Free Press. “I’ve never met more interesting, dynamic, motivated people than the people I grew up with,” she told Frank Witsil.
She also recalled middle school scuffles that included a punch to her face, which may explain the sense of having been an uncool outlier:
“I stood up for myself, and at some point, I learned you have to tell people to stop, and go in there and fight — even if you don’t win.”
A Twitter sampling:
‘Smart kids were the norm’
Fast-forward to mid-2018, when the current clashes are digital rather than physical. Below are representative tweets in the extended discussion Foley sparked. (Names aren’t shown because his followers didn’t tweet for publication.)
“We were surely encouraged to be smart at 7 Mile and the Lodge.”
“We literally used to be SO competitive in academics.”
“Being known as one of the ‘smart kids’ in the neighborhood is what kept me OUT of trouble. Things were rough and we dealt with a lot of crime, but some of the most dangerous elements left me alone or even looked out for me because they wanted to see me make it.”
“I have never attended any Detroit Public School where it was ‘uncool’ to be smart. And I jumped around schools a lot growing up.”
“I grew up on the west side of Detroit and smart kids were the norm.”
“I was never teased for getting good grades. People in Cass Corridor always encouraged us to be smart and get good grades.”
“I grew up on the West Side of Detroit. It was pretty damn cool to be smart, work hard and achieve dreams.”
“Getting tired of this narrative: ‘I was a book-smart black kid and no one liked me.’ Maybe you were a snobby smart kid.”
“I dislike this so much. I remember how my peers competed on our entry scores for the high school of choice. And once at King, everything was a competition — grades, athletics, etc.”