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.

It’s Happening

It’s Happening

It’s taken a while to get here. Admittedly, I was isolated, extremely, while living and working in Austin’s tech bubble. But the last three years has allowed me to not only dive deep into a number of different industries but to understand from CEOs, founders and entrepreneurs about the challenges technology adoption and integration will be bringing to the middle part of the U.S. in the coming years.

The pace of disruption seems to be picking up…I’ve fielded an increased number of calls from founders and executives who have either been jilted by acquisitions or management changes affiliated with innovation; been invited to help companies manage change, speak on the topic of innovation and, most recently, to help CEOs define innovative pathways for their organizations. All calls begin with, “we know you help communities manage and lead change but…surely the techniques are the same?”

I chalk the inquiries up not to Waymaker’s exposure but to an increased need in the market. Industries that have been more protected from implementing new technologies are facing increased pressure from boards, consumers and Wall Street. Parts of the country that have been isolated (with the exception of job losses in manufacturing) globally are also starting to feel the pinch.

Is leading transformation for a community the same as for a company? Yes and no. Change management for both starts at the top. Vision, leadership engagement and communication are key factors in the success of efforts both arenas. Breaking down silos is also a common thread. Ensuring departments—or institutions—are all communicating with one another and partnering for shared success is also key. Communication and defining a narrative for an organization are also key within a community effort. Engaging employees—or in the case of a community, small business owners, entrepreneurs, and future entrepreneurs—is a critical step within the process. Perhaps, however, the most challenging aspect of any change effort, regardless of whether it’s within an organization or community is culture (you knew I was going to say that right?). The topic of culture is how almost every successful leader I know spends the majority of her or his time…defining it, refining it, managing for it, removing barriers, celebrating successes.

In the coming weeks, Waymaker will be taking the question of culture, innovation, and change through technology to our network. In the interest of finding common ground, defining a shared vision across geography and industry and, quite simply, to let others know they are not alone. We hope you join us on this adventure and participate when and however you’re able. You’ll be helping us define the product and hopefully in the long run, join an ever-increasing network of humans faced with the same challenges and opportunities around some of the most fascinating topics of our time.

Engineers: The Next Power Leaders

Engineers: The Next Power Leaders

It used to be that the engineering crowd was often left out of critical strategic or vision-setting conversations. Ask any CEO about the future of business, what it takes to build a company, successfully grow a company, etc., and they’ll have answers and lots of very strong opinions. Technical leaders, trained for years in pattern recognition, problem solving, applied sciences and math, have had answers about the future but not necessarily a seat at the table. Thankfully, smart(er) CEOs today are changing that. More and more you’ll hear about specific strategic advisory functions CTOs take within the C-suite. The speed of digital and innovation disruption have necessitated it.

This particular trend was front and center this week while attending Voltage Control’s hashtag#ATXCTOSummit19 Tuesday. More than 150 CTOs discussed topics you might predict: machine learning, the challenges of scaling, and some new dialogue regarding an Austin diversity and inclusion initiative (https://lnkd.in/es_sN3a). It gave me great hope to watch this group of humble leaders lead discussions with a genuine intention to make the world a better place. It also gave me great hope knowing that our dependence on this category of competent leaders will only continue to grow.

Two Pronged Leadership

Two Pronged Leadership

Every community in the U.S. is facing new technology-driven economic demands and pressures- most especially those who enjoyed success during the industrial revolution. Meeting these new demands will require a two-pronged leadership approach– both led by private industry. Major employers will need to band together to give direction to policy makers and educational institutions. New company formation will require extra grassroots investment and support. I am super-impressed with Michigan’s efforts in both of these arenas, namely those of Doug Rothwell and  Business Leaders for Michigan.

“Nearly every large employer in Michigan faces the same major challenge: talent attraction and retention,” said Doug Rothwell, CEO of BLM. “We want to have homegrown talent sustaining our state’s productivity and continued economic growth, and to achieve that we need to boost the number of residents who attain a post-secondary degree or certification.”

https://mibiz.com/sections/economic-development/biz-groups-back-whitmer-plan-to-boost-degree-holders

A Word on Resilience

A Word on Resilience

Resilience is one of the most prized traits in business, specifically in Silicon Valley and within any successful tech ecosystem. The new era of the innovation economy requires us to sail uncharted waters and invent creative solutions to unfamiliar problems. Investors are obsessed with finding entrepreneurs and industry leaders who not only have deep domain and technical expertise, but who have also failed before, failed often, and have not given up. The most successful companies are ones that are often led by chief executives, CEOs in particular, that have endured decades of trial and error, bumps along the road, and failure.

What we all know about failure, falls and injuries is that afterwards there is healing, reflection and if we’re fortunate, deep learning that occurs. Deep learning and reflection on past business failures translate into more effective and creative approaches to building companies, best practices in assembling strong teams, efficient and creative paths to profitability, and eventually, desireable wisdom.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to reconnect with my Midwest roots since I’ve been practicing being a Texan. One story that is told over and over with varying degrees of scale is, “…we have experienced pain.” Specifically, the painful impact of lost manufacturing and other outsourced jobs, injury from fast-shifting global tides, and shattered dreams from broken work-hard-and-you-will-be-rewarded contracts with our country.

As we acknowledge and learn from the bumps, bruises and pain, I can assure you, this region will rise. Midwesterners invented grit and resilience. They are getting up from being beat down and they’re primed to take back their place on the mantle of American pride about place. Markets who have successfully turned to resilience as a prized, market-propelling attribute will increasingly be turning to the Midwest for lessons, best practices and their earned wisdom. The American Midwest is standing up again – what a powerful lesson for us all at an exciting time like this.

 

On Grit & Motivation

On Grit & Motivation

To say I didn’t have much experience in tech before becoming the CEO of the Austin Technology Council is an understatement. To be quite frank, I had never worked in tech. Thankfully, however, I was qualified. My work experience ranged from banking, to business and marketing. But what I really believe made my work at the Austin Technology Council so transformative was something I learned growing up in Illinois: grit.

Unlike many of my peers in the technology sector, I spent my formative years working on my family’s farm in Central Illinois. The Midwest invented grit. It was an inherent part of the culture and everyday life to wake up at the crack of dawn, work your tail off, overcome setbacks (perhaps the greatest skill) and wake up to do it all over again. Midwesterners are natural-born optimists.

So when we lost our family farm during the 1980’s economic recession, I learned on a whole new level what it meant to persevere, to adapt, and to pick up the pieces and carry on. Midwesterners are born entrepreneurs — a topic we’ll be exploring in great depth in the months to come.

When I started at the ATC, our organization was going through a fairly significant shift. It was clear Austin’s economy had a growing strength in the tech industry, and it would only make sense that an organization like the ATC, designed to connect tech leaders and resources, would be part of that growth. That was not the case, however. It was my curiosity about the ATC’s struggle to gain a foothold in Austin’s tech scene that lead me to take the job as CEO. That curiosity, and my Midwestern work ethic and perseverance, lead to our success in turning around the organization. More importantly, we worked alongside other key influencers to create a real impact on Austin.

How does this relate to our current economic development across the country? Specifically, what can we learn from the tech landscape in Austin and the transformation of the ATC? These are questions that stick with me as I continue my work with tech leaders and innovators across America. Stay tuned here to learn more about what I believe will be the next American Renaissance — a resurgence of the Middle American entrepreneurial economy.