Kara Swisher, the doyenne of technology, recently interviewed entrepreneurs in Indiana about what makes the Midwest so special (brainpower), why the rest of the country should pay attention (special knowledge of certain industries needed to solve some of the biggest problems of our time), and what Midwesterners can do better to grow prosperous economies (position for innovation).
The World Economic Forum recently released a report re: the fastest growing occupations. Which rank at the top? Artificial Intelligence specialists, medical transcriptionists, data scientists, customer success specialists and full stack engineers.
To say that economic development is going through a revolution is an understatement. What we do about it as a country will make the difference between second and third tier communities making it or not. To put it succinctly, while the historic role of economic development has always been to focus on the expansion of the tax base, without taking any role in education or workforce development. Today, that reality is shifting. Economic development today is all about talent which means we will have to take a vested interest in workforce preparedness and skills training to ensure the sustainability of our communities.
While we have much to look forward to as it relates to the technological revolution, we have some pretty ugly realities— including some of the topics covered at this past week’s TEDC conference. CEO @Carlton Schwab has a stellar reputation for a reason. The conference featured many of his followers and some driven and passionate leaders that shared knowledge on workforce and demographic trends, tax incentives and abatement direction in the State of Texas and advice on how EDOs should be thinking about talent.
It was refreshing to be in a group of big thinkers and visionary planners— all driven by a passion for serving others and by the challenge of making economic prosperity accessible to all. It was also a delight to be stimulated by so many data-driven conversations, a new shift within the industry in recent years.
While this was my first conference, I’m already looking forward to the next fall gathering. What we didn’t have time to cover included some of the most critical topics referenced above: how EDOs can and should be positioning for increased automation in manufacturing (an industry responsible for 8% of U.S. employment), how to engage industry in helping us address pipeline and STEM training gaps, how to get business leaders involved in policy issues that affect their company’s bottom line (i.e., immigration), how to address and foster our country’s declining rate of entrepreneurialism.
What is happening in technology will most certainly directly impact EDO leaders. Our aging population is well, aging, and not adequately skilled for 21st century occupations; our incoming workforce lacks fundamental skills business leaders say are required to be successful in today’s global economy; our K12 education systems are all systemically broken, not to mention culturally not ready to shift; current immigration policy severely limits those from outside the U.S. who seek educational and entrepreneurial opportunity; regardless of trade tariffs, our country lacks a cohesive vision articulating our future technological competitive focus areas and investment.
While I’m by nature an optimist, I’m eager for our trade associations and policy groups to amp up the dialogue and work required to get us to where we need to be. I regret while in Austin, I wasn’t a more aggressive leader in tackling some of these tough topics.
I look forward to continuing to learn from my Texas eco-dev compadres but also look forward to holding our own economic leadership feet to the fire.
The healthcare heroes that are part of a growing community in Austin taught me just enough about their worlds to be dangerous (thank you, Gary Sabins, Dennis McWilliams, Timothy Sullivan, Jack Henneman). Thankfully, jumping back into that world on the East Coast recently proved that the best entrepreneurial advice really is timeless. The following gems offered by a stellar panel of LaunchBio investors seem to ring a bell from years past: 1. Don’t be too focused on valuation- it can be your undoing. Do your homework, look at the market, be flexible. 2. Make sure you’ve built your (IP) moat 3. Hit your milestones 4. Know where the puck is going 5. Communicate- clearly (harder than it sounds) 6. Go for non-dilutive funding- or at least have a plan to pursue it (see larta dot org) 7. Companies fail when bad things happen and there’s no money in the bank. Make sure these things don’t happen at the same time. 8. Hiring the best management team is your single most important function 9. Be careful about choosing your investors & advisors. Those outside of tech find it hard to understand the blinding pace of change entreps face while building company infrastructure, while facing regulatory and investor scrutiny. While the pace might be fast, it’s nice to know that least the rules for success remain constant.
I’ve spent a great deal of time recently thinking about the rate at which people are ready to adopt new ideas and new possibilities, and therefore big changes. Back in 2008, stepping into my new role as CEO of the Austin Technology Council, I heard every excuse as to why tech was not and would not be an impactful part of the Austin economy. As we brought forward data suggesting the exact opposite, we were still met with resistance. We were told we were going too fast. That Austin wasn’t Silicon Valley. That we didn’t have a startup scene. Or simply, “Our city is too small.” What I learned from the Austin economic transition, was that human nature, and our fear of change, can often cloud our ability to see the bigger picture, to think outside the norm, and in many cases, can keep us comfortably stagnant at a time of great potential and urgency. There is an art to pacing the development of a community, its economy, and its transformation; to acknowledge this aspect of human nature, and then respectfully choose to reject fear and become visionary leaders of innovation.
Over the years, I have found that the pace of technological transformation can be so fast that it gives instant rise to fear. Many people feel as though they haven’t kept up or that they haven’t felt able to keep up. Technology and the rapid pace of innovation can be overwhelming in how it changes us and changes our environment. As a result of this fear, people have a tendency to try to move slower, to take back control at times of uncertainty. Ironically, it is in these times of great transformation that we need to trust ourselves and our peers and take the leap into the unknown; we need to move quickly to keep up and stay ahead.
But what I often see when doing this work, is the debilitating fear of the unknown future. We fear what we can’t see or haven’t experienced. People fear change, in part, because of our assumption that change is disconnected from the past. That if we accept and adopt new change, we are leaving the past behind and becoming disconnected from it. This is simply not true. We always bring the past with us and incorporate the learnings into our successes in the future. But how easily we remember our defeats and our failures instead of honoring our successes. It’s a harmful habit we have developed and must work hard to overcome it. We need to have the confidence to trust in the future, in our own capabilities and successes, and take a leap of faith to stretch ourselves and lean on our learnings from the past to affect positive, intelligent change in the future.
Milwaukee, for example, has successfully transitioned into very different economies many times over the centuries. From fur trading, to agriculture and farming, to manufacturing, Milwaukee’s past boast numerous successful economic shifts. I see the potential of this city, of the Midwest region as a whole. The talent, grit, and resources here give Midwesterners an advantage to become the next leading region for technological innovation. Unfortunately, if we don’t move with urgency at the pace of technological advancement, we will lose this opportunity to be innovative leaders to other regions or countries who have more focus than us, specifically China. The alternative to moving quickly with intention is getting left behind. We must be intentional about the future we want to accomplish.
Today, the sentiments in the Midwest are similar to those I was met with in Austin a decade ago. Understandably so, Milwaukee doesn’t want to be compared to Austin in the same way Austin didn’t want to be compared to Silicon Valley. Big change takes time, intention, and risk. We should acknowledge that our human nature requires us to take time to accept and make change, even to accept the thought of change. A decade later, Austin is proud to be one of the major tech leaders and most successful innovation economies in the United States.
Trust in the bigger picture and working towards a greater purpose is a stabilizing force in this era of innovation and uncertainty. We must get to a place to look beyond ourselves and our individual fears that are holding us back. We must do better for our children and our children’s children. We must lose the excuses and commit to our responsibility to take control of our economic development, to move forward and not get left behind.