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.
Thomas Friedman caught our attention in 2005 with his now-famous book; The World is Flat. Millions of us in the middle U.S. had already started to live the reality of the book’s premise, which was that business would soon be largely global, not local. Interesting then that 15 years post-Flat, some of the smartest people we know (think tanks like Brookings; universities including MIT, Harvard, etc.) are still debating the perfect formula for global innovation success. Even more compelling is that communities aren’t waiting for think tanks to give them the answers. They’re activating change, as a matter of survival, on their own.
Providence, RI is one fantastic example. Providence, population 200,000, was founded in 1636 by an English immigrant seeking religious liberty and was one of the first cities in our country to industrialize. It was famous for textiles, and jewelry, and silver manufacturing.
Today the city’s economy, still-struggling like the rest of us with the impact of globalization, is centered around seven colleges and universities and a number of hospitals. It’s economic transformation, however, may be hastened by the visionary and innovation-centric leadership of (former venture capitalist) Governor Gina Raimondo. Providence, under several public-private partnerships, just built a new 200,000 s.f. Medical innovation center. The building houses Brown University’s Bioinformatics Center, an outpost of the Cambridge Innovation Center, Venture Cafe, and Johnson & Johnson and is being described as a “beacon for top-tier talent in Rhode Island.” It seems Friedman’s next chapter is coming not from think tanks or scholars but cities themselves, driving for economic competitiveness. Kudos, Providence, for planting the first tree of innovation success with such courage. We will be watching and cheering for your success.
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.
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.