The Super Heroes of Middle America

The Super Heroes of Middle America

As Waymaker closes up a three-day tour with generous Midwestern hospitality provided by the leaders of the Cortex Innovation Community, it sinks in deeply: innovation leaders in the middle part of the country are made from a special kind of mettle. Leaders of Cortex, a 200-acre model innovation ecosystem built in the heart of St. Louis, started with zero resources and lots of resistance. I’m certain every breakthrough innovation leader would say the same, but St. Louis offers some unique and inspiring lessons for the rest of the middle U.S. Our takeaways from the trip can be applied to any of us pursuing advancement through technology and innovation: Champions and champion-level investments are required. While on the ground, much credit is given to founding partners BJC HealthCare, the Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) and Washington University in St. Louis; not enough external recognition is given to the visionaries who “sold” the project and its required initial investment of $29M. William Danforth and the administration of Washington University strike me as the superheroes in this narrative, with later leadership coming from Donn Rubin of BioSTL; Dennis Lower of Cortex, and others. I left with astonishment as the true level of sacrifice and tenacity came into view.

Reinvention is a long game. Rushes to find partners, make commitments, or set trajectories will be met with certain failure.
Cluster strategies don’t always apply. Leveraging a market’s natural strengths makes sense for some, but not all markets in the middle U.S. Strengths in declining industries don’t always translate into success in innovation ecosystems, so new strengths must be imported and built. Place matters. I know we’ve all heard this, but it can’t be repeated enough. Next-gen workers rate environment much higher than former generations. Catering to their needs is not optional.

No One Can Do It Alone is Cortex’s slogan and its rung in my ears for weeks. Single entities (municipalities, universities, corporates) who have invested independently of one another in innovation efforts are already finding the error of their ways. While it’s understandable—this is a new game after all—institutions becoming inter-dependent will become the new skill, art, and key to success.

While St. Louis folks will tell you they’re still fighting for more growth, more inclusive prosperity, declining populations, and unequal access to education, they’ll also tell you there’s never been a better time to be in St. Louis. I would have to agree. To be affiliated with a project that has, against all the odds, made such progress in such a short amount of time tells me the flywheel is spinning and the future super bright. Kudos to the unsung innovation superheroes of St. Louis, Missouri.

“Expositions are the timekeepers of progress,” President William McKinley, 1901

“Expositions are the timekeepers of progress,” President William McKinley, 1901

It may sound like a boring topic, but the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, was really a global technology Fair. One of the original public-private partnerships, the Fair was funded by the city of St. Louis, private funders from throughout the state of Missouri and the federal government—to the tune of $15 million ($433 million in today’s funds).

Supported by then-President William McKinley, the Fair’s purpose was two-fold—to mark the centennial anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and to bring foreign nations, the U.S. government and the states together in the name of science, civic pride and entertainment. Exhibits included the Civic Pride Monument, The Tyrolean Alps, and the Palaces of Electricity and Transportation. The Fair encompassed 1,270 acres and also featured the 1904 Summer Olympics.

Imagine your city, in the span of eight months, hosting 62 countries and 19.7 million visitors—with infrastructure from more than a century ago. Imagine your city (or our country) rallying around a cause where the latest inventions and creations were the center of the event. Imagine being able to witness the first wireless telephone (“radiophone”), the first fax machine (the telautograph), the first x-ray machine, the first infant incubator; or experiencing the electric streetcar, the automobile or airplane (“airship”) for the first time.

The legacy of this amazing event seems to be fading, unfortunately—but it did, on a recent trip to St. Louis, inspire the question: if we had the chance to replicate this mission and Fair in today’s world, what would it look like—for your city or for our country?

We were unprepared

We were unprepared

The last 90 days have been full: 12,000 miles crisscrossing very distinctive regions in the Middle and Eastern U.S.; three innovation conferences; meetings with two mayors; visits with thirty-three C-suite execs from municipalities and private industry; reconnections with old Austin friends; and a couple of sessions with an uber-progressive head of research for a Tier One research institution. This last quarter has brought me great joy. I’ve been able to meet new friends and connect with long-standing ones on a topic we all have in common—creating or accelerating innovation-based economic growth.

Funny, though. You’d think with all of that collective brainpower, and we’d have all figured it out by now. Or that we’d have a stronger ability to predict the future or create an algorithm to fix it all.

The only thing we seem to agree on is part of the past. I’ve been pondering a phrase I’ve heard twice in this last quarter. A new mantra that seems to ring with key leaders in this space: “We were unprepared.”

Unprepared, we can agree, for the impact that technology, innovation, and globalization had on our country, our respective regions, our communities, our families, and tribes. Man, it’s been a fast and rough ride.

While I’m not a big fan of looking back, I do believe we can learn from the past. But have we started to really ask that question of ourselves about the last thirty years? Have we stopped for a second to ask ourselves what we’ve learned from being caught entirely off guard economically, competitively, and socially? What should we do next to help us meet the new demands of technology, innovation, and globalization? These forces will only continue to accelerate in impact.

There are lots of reasons for being unprepared, most of which we’ll explore in the coming months and years here at Waymaker. My starter list of topics for us to discuss and explore together are geographic differences in risk tolerance, social contract differences in the middle part of the country compared to the east/west coasts, readying adequately for the demands of a global economy without access to global players, lack of industry leadership as it relates to policy formulation and lack of policy leadership as it relates to declaring a national industry policy. Not your average cocktail party topics, I can assure you. But don’t worry. That won’t stop me from trying to the dismay of my closest friends.

Send us a note and let us know what you think needs to be done to prepare our country — not for the future, but the right-now. We’re thirty years behind in getting prepared after all.

$22K in 1992

$22K in 1992

My sister recently sent a package of old school pictures (my bangs were pretty awesome in the 80s if I do say so), cards and mementos—personal belongings from my father who passed away four years ago. Among the items, a small piece of paper from Emery Air Freight. The 1992 W-2 from Emery, an embattled cargo transportation company that ultimately folded, reflected his occupation as a truck driver and his annual salary—$22,614.62.

Folks who understand the history of Waymaker understand that the purpose of the company is a personal and a spiritual quest. We started this company to help communities embrace the change and the culture we know technology and innovation-based growth require. We want them to experience the hope of knowing that they have the power to create the prosperity that was once promised, albeit in a different form, as the American Dream. Ignore the change and opportunity to embrace technology and risk being left behind—something our family felt very personally as we watched our father struggle to keep the family farm and later, keep food on the family table.

The pay stub served as a poignant reminder—not just of the struggles from the past but more importantly, as a proof point about how incredibly quickly communities, and individuals, can create transformative change that alters their trajectories.

Working in smaller communities in the Midwest these past two years has been a reminder of how terrifying embracing the future can be. And how fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt can torpedo the best of intentions and future plans. Due to a series of decisions my dad made in the late 80s and early 90s, it’s safe to say he never truly embraced change, was terrified of the fast-changing world that surrounded him and, and unfortunately, never fully recovered from losing his path.

What’s been the most inspiring, and uplifting, are the amazing stories of the individuals, and communities that Waymaker has served– those who have thrived as a result of facing their fear, saying yes to education, training, retraining and essentially, the 21st century, even in the face of daunting uncertainty. In the last three years, we’ve had the honor of working with:

  • A young man from Michigan whose father left his long-standing career in retail to get his degree in computer engineering
  • A leader in Dallas who suffered repeatedly from racial discrimination but still rose in the ranks of executive management to become a very successful CEO
  • A young lady—and there are lots of these inspirational stories—who was the first to get a degree in her family and went on to become a successful entrepreneur on the West Coast

For every amazing anecdote like these, however, there are millions of individuals in the U.S. who have truly been left behind by global change. My father, a fourth-generation farmer turned truck driver, essentially got caught in a number of shifting winds that forced the direction and confidence out of him. Global competition in farming meant lower commodity prices, technological changes meant higher production with fewer required producers, rising equipment and land costs translated into scaling challenges. Add the fact that my father never graduated from high school to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for financial calamity.

Despite the challenges in his first chapter, he showed up for work early every day at Emery, brightened the lives of those he worked with and earned an amazing reputation within the community (and along his route) as a kind-hearted, generous man.

While I’m proud of the heart that he led with, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had he been more open to education and learning? Had he been just a little more open to embracing change? Had he said yes to the uncertainty and stepped out just a bit to learn from others, and to start to take the baby steps we know are required to lead us to the easier, bigger steps toward risk.

At the very least, I wonder what kind of pride and sustenance a wage greater than $10.00/hour would have given him, and what a fantastically greater variety of options it would have provided him in the remaining decades of his life.

Is it too late for Middle America?

Is it too late for Middle America?

For the past 18 months, I’ve been giving Steve Case’s book, Rise of the Rest out to future and current clients. Mr. Case is best known as the founder of AOL but in years past has continued to provide his view into the technology industry’s crystal ball. There are few I trust more to weigh in on incoming technological waves. You can imagine that as his book title attests, his belief is that the middle part of the country, long overshadowed by the invention, innovation, and entrepreneurialism on the East and West coasts, will soon come into its own. And as you also might imagine, I not only drank the Rise of the Rest Kool-Aid but dunked my head in for a nice long soak. Lately, however, I’ve started to ask some questions—mostly around geographically and cultural readiness.

For the past 18 months, I’ve been fortunate to have visited with folks in a number of markets—each with its own personality, history, and agenda: Ann Arbor, MI; Kenosha, WI; San Antonio, TX; Cambridge, MA; Dallas, Waco, TX; Nashville, TN; Chicago, Lincoln, NE; St. Louis, MO; Detroit, MI; Denver, CO; Milwaukee, WI; San Francisco, Portland, Austin, just to name a few.

It’s solidified my belief that there are Tech 1.0 cities and Tech 2.0 cities. In later posts, we’ll talk through some identifying characteristics of each but namely, my concern is for that of 1.0 markets in the middle part of the country.

Granted, my Middle American experience as it relates to readiness has been mixed. I would say that roughly half of those in Middle America has been open, ready for change and hungry to not only compete but transform. But the curiosity and my concern come from the other half that is not. Folks in the center part of the country pride themselves on being risk-averse, careful and slow to embrace change. There doesn’t seem to be a desire to not only get caught up on what the global economy has accomplished in the last twenty years but to surpass it and prepare for the future.

Unfortunately, these are exactly the opposite of the characteristics required to lead innovation economies.

But here is the true problem: as communities discern whether or not it makes sense to jump on the innovation bandwagon, other cities, including those on both coasts, are readying to double down on investment. The more advanced markets (i.e., Boston) have made those commitments already.

If 2.0 markets, in realizing the benefits of innovation-driven activity, are doubling down to compete on a whole new level, and the U.S. continues to see the rise in urbanization (younger populations leaving rural areas to seek opportunities in urban markets), what will this mean for communities still on the fence about positioning their markets?

I am compassionate for these communities. I often joke that they are “my people” having been raised in a very rural area of Illinois. There is nothing more powerful than the drive to help your tribe.

However, I’ve also come to realize that a certain minimal amount of courage is required to jump out of your comfort zone. Time will be our truth-teller in this case but may we see more and more Middle American communities using their courageous selves to indicate that they are ready to change. The future of their economies depends on it.

Continued Investment

Continued Investment

A last-minute trip to Cambridge last week turned out to be eye-opening. Over the past year, Waymaker’s focus has been on serving markets in the middle part of the U.S. But, I’m discovering, even the most advanced markets need support too. Hosted by @BioLabs, led by good friend and colleague @Joan Siefert Rose, the experience was an ironic reminder by one of the most revered life sciences markets in the country. A wake up call that even the most mature ecosystems make continued investments in their own development—even when you suspect they could evolve organically.

It was beyond refreshing to be dropped into an environment where investors & entrepreneurs led with a desire to “have an impact on human health” and “develop a solution that will have an impact on society”. It was also refreshing to know that the principles for building a successful life sciences company have stayed the same—despite the tumultuous environment the industry has had to endure over the last decade. More on that topic soon…Thank you Joan & co. for providing a much-needed breath of fresh air. Witnessing Cambridge’s investment in growth & continued learning, all while still endeavoring to save the world, are principles all markets regardless of region could stand to be inspired by.