$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.

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.

Why the Midwest?

Why the Midwest?

Why will the Midwest experience an economic renaissance through tech? While there is trepidation and concern around the evolution of manufacturing and the rise of a new economic era, there is also excitement within the region. My conversations with numerous employees and industry leaders in the Midwest illuminate a clear intention to evolve Midwestern culture to embrace innovation. The time is ripe for this cultural shift for three main reasons: regional timing, capital efficiency, and grit.
As we’ve seen throughout history, the Midwest has successfully been able to shift into different economic models. In the 1800’s, the Midwest established itself as a farming and agricultural region. During and after the Industrial Revolution, they successfully added, and some shifted, to become a leader in manufacturing as well. However, what most don’t know is that in the last thirty years, the United States has lost five million jobs in the manufacturing sector. This translates to five million families– many concentrated in the Midwest– that have become severely impacted and essentially lost the very simple promise that was emblematic of that era. The promise that if you work hard, you can support your family and live a happy life.

As opportunities in manufacturing have become more and more scarce, there is an overwhelming recognition in the Midwest that it is time for another industry to come forward. Midwesterners are not ready to give up. They are ready for another industry change – a shift. They are ready for tech. The timing in the region is right for a significant economic shift.

So who will lead the Midwest into this new era of tech and innovation? We are going to need cities and companies to lead people through the transformation and evolution of the region. Already, we have multiple cities in the Midwest that will step forward sooner rather than later. Milwaukee, Detroit, and Cincinnati are all stepping forward as innovative economic leaders in the Midwest. Numerous corporations in these states are investing millions of dollars in early stage tech companies both inside and outside their state, utilizing new investment models, including the Fund of Funds approach. These new approaches are the perfect example and a clear signal that the Midwest is ready to make change. They have all of the pieces needed — including grit and capital efficiency — two other critical factors setting the stage for the tech evolution in the Midwest.

 

 

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.