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Aaron Seybert

Central to Detroit: In vested interest

Alumnus contributes to efforts to accelerate Detroit’s return to prominence

Contact: Heather Smith


Editor's note: Central Michigan University is involved in the entire state's success — after all, Michigan is our middle name. This is part of a special report on people with CMU connections making a positive difference in Michigan's largest city, Detroit.

Aaron Seybert has a selfish reason to negotiate and facilitate million-dollar investment deals within the city of Detroit, but it isn't about money.

It's about his commitment to the Motor City's momentum — and his two daughters.

Aaron, a social investment officer with The Kresge Foundation, has focused his career on helping people and areas considered low income.

As a result, his oldest daughter has grown up attending groundbreakings and ribbon-cutting ceremonies for homeless shelters, food banks, business incubators and human service centers. 

"I've never had a job that I'm not proud to tell my kids about," says Aaron, a 2004 Central Michigan University graduate who majored in accounting and corporate finance. "My oldest daughter has been to countless volunteer events with me, where I hope she learned how to serve other people. She knows what I've dedicated my career to, and hopefully her little sister will, as well."         

Aaron has millions of reasons to be proud of his job.

Aaron Seybert

Hometown: Mount Pleasant, Michigan
Occupation: Social investment officer, Kresge Foundation
CMU education: Accounting and corporate finance major, 2004
Noteworthy: Once planned to become a political science or history professor ​

He's worked on Kresge's Social Investment Practice since early 2016 to strengthen neighborhoods and improve life in American cities. Aaron focuses on Detroit, including partnering with banks, community development financial institutions and others to invest in the city's neighborhoods, downtown and future.

Investing in Detroit is familiar territory for Aaron. Before coming to Kresge, he was a vice president and executive director at JPMorgan Chase & Co., where he helped design a $100-million investment in Detroit in 2014 to boost urban development, blight removal, home loans and retaining people in the workforce.

Not too shabby for someone who came to CMU thinking he would become a political science or history professor. He says every day he uses fundamentals of business he learned at CMU.

"I developed an interest in finance and had a number of faculty members who cultivated that in me," says Aaron, who was encouraged to explore accounting, as well. "Both programs were structured around really learning the fundamentals and taking a student who knew very little to a strong level of competency." 

Leading the $100 million effort for JPMorgan Chase was like a dream come true for Aaron, who grew up in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, but fell in love with Detroit while completing his law degree at Michigan State University and working for the Great Lakes Capital Fund.

"I was there around the time they hosted the Super Bowl in Detroit (in 2006), and I saw then that the city was on its way back to prominence," Aaron says. "Detroit welcomed me early in my career, and the people here treated me as if I had something to contribute to the future of the city."  

Contagious community and business practices

The Kresge Foundation is a $3.6 billion private national philanthropy that works with nonprofit, public and private partners to help improve the lives of people with low incomes.

Aaron says the foundation is in a special position to support the city through its grants and social investments, such as low-interest loans and guarantees. When it funds a project, it lessens the financial risk for other investors and raises their confidence level.

"It's about using all the financial tools available to magnify its impact within the community," he says. "What we are doing is taking on part of the risk, which helps other more traditional investors come along. That's what our social investing work is all about."

Kresge funding has cleaned up neighborhood blight, helped renovate early childhood care centers and made it easier for many families to get home loans.

" The people here treated me as if I had something to contribute to the future of the city."​

 Aaron Seybert

Its Woodward Corridor Investment Fund is revitalizing the downtown, Midtown and New Center areas with more business and residential opportunities, including replacing vacant properties with new restaurants and housing.

Other projects include public-private investments in public spaces such as the Detroit Riverfront, Dequindre Cut bikeway and walkway, Belle Isle, Eastern Market and neighborhood parks.

Aaron says the excitement of investing in Detroit is contagious among banks, developers and community groups.

"Lately, I don't have to do a lot of convincing," he says. "We have seen a flood of capital come into the city in the last few years, and that attracts more capital and new partners that want to be a part of the Detroit story." 

That capital comes from sources like The Platform, a real estate development company where CMU alumna Karen Gerstenberger (see sidebar below) is chief financial officer. The company has invested in major residential and retail developments along the Woodward Corridor and other city neighborhoods, focused on rebuilding the Motor City.

Karen Gerstenberger is among the financial professionals signing the checks as investors like Aaron Seybert celebrate banks’ and developers’ interest in Detroit.

Karen is chief financial officer for The Platform, a real estate development company focused on rebuilding the Motor City. The Platform concentrates on opportunities for residential and retail developments along the Woodward Corridor and other city neighborhoods.

This includes serving as developer of the new downtown training facility for the Detroit Pistons.

“That’s a huge vote of confidence in our company,” says Karen, a member of the Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants and the CFO Forum.

Karen graduated from Central Michigan University in 1993 with a degree in accounting and has more than two decades experience in finance, accounting, risk management and human resources. She is quick to credit her experiences at CMU for preparing her for her career.

Growing up in Muskegon, Michigan, she says the close-knit CMU community provided the perfect environment for her to thrive. And she always was comfortable with speaking in class and meeting with her professors — especially accounting faculty Robert Bromley and Thomas Weirich — when she needed help.  

“From the Student Training Program to the Student Accounting Society, there were plenty of opportunities to prepare for what lay ahead,” Karen says. “The preparation paid off at the Career Fair when I obtained an internship at Deloitte, which led to permanent employment upon graduation.”

 

She began working at The Platform in 2016 after serving as CFO of The Hayman Co. in Southfield for eight years.

Karen says she spent a lot of time working near Detroit and noticed all the great developments within the city. She was especially taken by the vision of Platform chairman Peter Cummings and president and CEO Dietrich Knoer. With more than 60 total years of experience, they joined forces in the iconic Fisher Building.

“Their enthusiasm is contagious, and I really wanted to be a part of the revitalization effort in Detroit,” Karen says. “The work we’re doing here will long outlive me.”

Beyond downtown, The Platform is involved in numerous developments in neighborhoods such as Brightmoor, Islandview and Milwaukee Junction. Projects range from rehabilitating and adapting existing buildings to developing brand new facilities.

Karen says projects keep evolving because The Platform meets with residents and business owners to learn what their communities need.

“It’s a great feeling to know what you are doing is making a difference in people’s lives,” she says.

An investor could make a sound economic argument for building a factory or office complex outside of the city, Aaron says, but an investor who chooses to locate within Detroit will join a like-minded business community that is vested in the mutual success of the city. 

Aaron says people used to tease him about being a cheerleader for Detroit. Now they ask him how they can participate and invest in the city.

'Tell us what's happening in Detroit'

People beyond Michigan notice the progress in the city.

Aaron says when he travels, everyone — from Uber drivers to politicians to corporate executives — is curious about what's happening.

"I recently returned from a monthlong fellowship in Europe, and 'tell us what's happening in Detroit' was the most common question I got," he says. "The Detroit story has gripped people from all across the country and world, and that feels pretty good." 

Read more about alumni in Detroit:

Using change to invest in the future

 

Kyle Goodall cultivates eager young helpers as he works to “tear down the walls of injustice.”

Read his story

CMU grad leads bike-share effort

 

Public service has always been in Lisa Nuszkowski’s worldview. Now she’s putting Detroit’s public on wheels.

Read her story

Rebuilding with social capital

 

Community leader Marlowe Stoudamire focuses on Detroit’s future by looking back 50 years.

Read his story

Building a company, rebuilding a city

 

Thirsty for success, entrepreneur Cason Thorsby says he and his chosen city have a lot in common.

Read his story

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