$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.

Innovation and Invention

Innovation and Invention

For the last few months, I’ve been in Milwaukee diving deeper into the economic potential of the Midwest. I left with a renewed sense of optimism and excitement, specifically with regards to the amount of invention and innovation coming from the region already. Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio all came in higher than anticipated in patent and research and development spending. Steve Case recently bragged that about 20% of all new patents in America are currently coming from the Midwestern states. While we are seeing an impressive amount of innovation and invention already, the missing link to accelerate their economic growth is going to be a doubling down on the commercialization of these inventions.

Often I’ve found that in discussing startup culture, innovation, invention, etc., there is confusion between the varying elements required to fuel a healthy system. While we can be proud and excited that the Midwest fares well in the creation of new solutions and products, we’ll need to do a stronger job of distinguishing between the creative IP process and the culture and expertise required to commercialize inventions in the marketplace. I’ve met with numerous industry leaders this past week in Milwaukee who are ready to capitalize on the tech boom that is happening in other parts of the country. The good news is that the innovation and invention is already booming in the Midwest. As I see it, in order for successful commercialization to occur, the next big step is for industry and government leaders to shift culturally towards fostering robust startup activity. The punch line to this story is that while patent and research and development activity are high in the Midwest, most cities in the five states I mentioned rank in the bottom quartile of the Kauffman Index. Cities in these promising states will not only have to shift culture, but very seriously consider importing the entrepreneurial talent they need to shift into innovation economy gear.