Can soup change the world?

By Richard Fenton-Smith
BBC News

image copyrightDetroit Soup

Detroit - once a manufacturing giant - went bust in 2013. An innovative crowd-funding project called Detroit Soup is helping the city get back on its feet.

It's a typical winter's night in Michigan. Snow is falling, and so is the temperature - it's -15C at last count. Unsociable conditions such as these would put paid to plans for many people, but not in Detroit.

"Winter 'Soups' always do well," says Detroit Soup founder Amy Kaherl, preparing for the latest of her fundraising events. "People are grateful for a chance to come out of hibernation."

With a small team of dedicated volunteers, an empty hall is quickly filled with tables laden with huge loaves of bread, and the waft of soup. Kaherl and friends started Detroit Soup to help local artists fulfil their creative ambition. Five years on, "Soup", as it's more commonly known, is a city-wide movement which has reached well beyond the artistic community.

"Tonight is our 95th soup, and in total we've raised over $85,000 (£57,000)," she says proudly.

image captionAmy Kaherl at the 95th Detroit Soup event - running the movement is now her full-time job

The 33-year-old Kaherl is a master multi-tasker - with her rapid-fire speech she is the kind of person who can answer three questions in one sentence. "Check one, check two - pah-tub, pah-tub- pah-tub-PAH. I wish I could beat-box," she rues during the sound-check.

As predicted, despite the cold, people come out in force, bringing with them trays of cupcakes, pastries and pots of hot food to add to the standard fare of soup and salad which gave Detroit Soup its name.

It's a simple concept: people turn up, pay $5 (£3.30) at the door, and listen to three or four people pitch an idea to improve the local community. Pitchers may not talk for more than four minutes, and definitely must not use PowerPoint. The audience can then ask a maximum of four questions.

image captionA diverse group of people gather to listen to the Dragons' Den-style pitches
image captionPitches last no more than four minutes - they are followed by four questions

With the presentations over, soup is served. People mull over the ideas and then they vote on their favourite. The winner gets to take home all the money taken at the door and use it to fund their plan, with the promise they will come back three months later to report on their progress.

The ideas bidding for funding tonight include an urban farming project, an adult literacy programme, a community library for Black History Month, and a support group helping people facing repossession.

image captionEveryone votes for their favourite idea

In its early days, Detroit Soup was run from a bakery in the Mexicantown neighbourhood. Forty people attended the first event and raised $110 (£75) for a local art project. Having outgrown that first venue, home is now a renovated film studio which was once used to produce US Army propaganda films. These days Detroit Soup winners often go home with more than $1,000 (£670).

Past winners include a new theatre company which puts on free performances of Shakespeare, a two-man team making benches for bus stops, and a start-up which turns one of Detroit's most bountiful local resources - graffiti - into jewellery.

image captionOne winner had the idea of turning fallen graffiti into jewellery - the business now employs homeless people

Its most high-profile success, though, is the Empowerment Plan - a not-for-profit organisation that makes coats which convert into sleeping bags. These are given to homeless people.

The plan's founder, Veronika Scott, pitched the idea in July 2010 while still a student. To her surprise she walked home with about $850 (£570). Not a huge sum - but it was not just about the money.

"The money can only go so far, and it went pretty fast actually. It was the vote itself which made a difference - the vote of confidence," Scott says.

"It was the first time I had spoken publicly about the project, and these people said: 'This could be a really great business and you should try to make it happen.'"

Following her win, local media picked up on the story, and this caught the attention of national media - and, importantly, investors.

Today the Empowerment Plan has 25 staff, recruited directly from Detroit's homeless shelters. They were trained to make the sleeping-bag coats, and last year the project distributed around 4,500 coats to homeless people across the United States. This year, they expect to make more than 6,500.

Though they have some big backers, including clothing brand Carhartt and Madonna, a Michigan native, their ultimate goal is to become self-funding.

media captionDetroit Soup: Empowerment Project

"We have a product that people have wanted to buy for years - hunters, campers, doomsday preppers - and we've been turning them down. But we're lucky - so over the next couple of years we're looking to sell it to the public to fund what we're doing on the streets," says Scott.

image captionPrevious Soup winners include Sit On It Detroit, who make bus stops with free books for the cash-strapped city

The success of the Empowerment Plan is a sign of what might be for those pitching at tonight's Soup.

"We have a winner," announces Kaherl. "And going home with $1,151 is Tricycle Collective. Congrats, congrats, congrats!"

The Tricycle Collective helps families who face having their home repossessed - a big problem for Detroit, which could really do without another empty home for vandals to wreck.

"It's wonderful to be supported in this way," says a visibly ecstatic Michele Oberholtzer, founder of the project. "I believe in what I'm doing and it's wonderful that other people believe in it too."

Inspired? Here's how it works

media captionDetroit Soup: Top Tips
  • Gather - as diverse a group as possible
  • Pitch - four ideas, four minutes each
  • Ask - four questions, no more
  • Eat - and discuss the ideas
  • Vote - winner takes proceeds

People have faith in Detroit Soup. Thanks to funding from a range of charitable foundations, the project is now a full-time job for Kaherl, and she helps launch in other US cities and beyond. She has been recognised for her hard work, too - the town of Warren, Ohio declared 5 October 2013 as "Amy Kaherl Day" and she has also been invited to the White House.

It's something Kaherl could never have foreseen - not least because, like so many of her peers, she never saw a future in the city.

"I left in '99 for college and went to California and never thought I would be coming back to Detroit. Never. There were no jobs here," she says. She returned 10 years later and found it had changed.

image captionThe night's proceeds go to the winning team - but the idea must benefit the community

"You'd meet all these people who worked in the city - artists, lawyers, community activists - and it was really just an introduction of who else is here. I felt I went on this excursion of just understanding what this city was really about.

"Detroit is still one of those places where you have to be a pretty resilient person to live [and] yes, we're broken on the outside, but man, we have a heart - we have a lot of awesome humans!

"I think Soup has opened the door for possibilities and through it I've met some of the most passionate, kind people, who are really thinking: 'How can we change this?'"

Find out more at

Listen to: Can Soup Change The World? on 21 March at 19:05 GMT on BBC World Service aor catch up via the iPlayer

For more on the BBC's A Richer World, go to - or join the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #BBCRicherWorld

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