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Randal Charlton: Purpose Prize Winner

An entrepreneur's drive to put Detroit's economy back in high gear may be the ultimate community service

Bored with retirement and ripe for a new challenge, Randal Charlton walked into the office of the president of Wayne State University in 2007 and asked if he had a job — any job — for a top-notch entrepreneur.

Charlton, now 71 and winner of a 2011 Purpose Prize, had a lot to offer. In a career spanning nearly 50 years, he had started a raft of successful companies and bought and sold 14 others.

See also: Nominate a 2012 Purpose Prize candidate.

Wayne State's president, as it turned out, did have a job, one that incorporated a lot of community service. He named Charlton executive director of TechTown, a teetering business incubator on the outskirts of the school's Detroit campus.

"Here in Detroit, we have 20 percent unemployment and another big percentage of underemployment, as well as racial problems and — on top of all that — the near collapse of the auto industry," Charlton says. "All of which demands that we create a more entrepreneurial culture here in Detroit, and we at TechTown are at the epicenter of that."

Randal Charlton 2011 Purpose Prize winner

Randal Charlton, winner of a 2011 Purpose Prize. — Civic Ventures

Since Charlton took command of a nearly empty industrial building, some 250 companies have become tenants of TechTown and more than 2,200 entrepreneurs have graduated from its programs. One graduate, Ramiro Ramirez, 62, a former engineer for the Big Three automakers, says he felt "too young to be put out to pasture."

"Randal Charlton is always thinking about possibilities," says Maxine Gardner, 58, an artist who has used nearly every service in the TechTown portfolio. "He sees transformation around every corner."

To learn more Charlton and TechTown, watch the video in the player above.

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