BY MIKE GREEN | OB BLOGGER
“Entrepreneurship is America’s secret sauce,” wrote Karen Mills, Chief Administrator of the Small Business Administration this past spring in the Washington Post. “It’s what built the greatest economy in the world and the strongest middle class. It’s what fuels American innovation, makes our industries more globally competitive and creates new jobs across our economy.”
If Mills is right, then America has a serious problem. Someone forgot to inform the K-12 public education sector. It’s still trying to figure out how to mitigate a generations-old institutional system initially built on a foundation of socio-economic disparity that consistently produces poor products pouring forth from poverty-burdened schools.
America’s need for job-creating, tech-driven, high-growth entrepreneurs is dependent upon a flowing pipeline of young innovators from all communities.
Fortunately, the Silicon Forest region is developing a working model of "inclusive innovation" and entrepreneurial competitiveness for other states to emulate. Here are a few reasons why Oregon is poised to lead in this arena:
1. The state is undergoing a metamorphosis that’s transforming it into a top tech-driven startup region:
• In its August 2013 report, “Tech Starts: High-Technology Business Formation and Job Creation in the United States,” the Kauffman Foundation ranks the top 25 metros that have the most density of high-tech startups. Surprisingly, Boulder, CO tops the rankings. Colorado leads all states with a total of five cities on the list. Running a close second is Oregon, with a total of three metros ranked in the top 25: Corvallis (No. 12), Bend (No. 16) and Greater Portland (No. 23).
• Oregon has invested long-term in developing and growing a startup culture. Cities like Corvallis and Bend are leading indicators that you don’t have to be a major metro like Portland to develop tech startup density.
2. The latest Census report on America’s shifting demographics projects a majority-minority population by 2043. But Oregon isn’t waiting around for 2043 to wake up to the realization that underserved and historically disconnected communities require investment today to shore up and scale up the value inherent in resource-starved areas:
• Last year, Gov. John Kitzhaber hosted a “Scale Up” rally at the headquarters of Wieden + Kennedy, in which a diverse gathering of local, regional and national leaders convened to discuss ways to tear down the walls of competitive silos and channel collaborative resources to local levels in an effort to scale up innovation, inclusion and impact through a bottom-up jobs economy. (Full disclosure: I was contracted by the state to help in the design and production).
• The Technology Association of Oregon is a diverse organization actively seeking ways to connect more minorities with the tech economy.
• The City of Portland and Portland Development Commission (PDC) are committed to the Activate Local Communities (ALC) initiative, which emerged as one of five projects supported as outcomes of the White House Tech Inclusion Summit in January. ALC is co-led by Microsoft and the America21 Project. A Tech Inclusion Roundtable is being planned for Portland in an effort to connect as many local stakeholders in the tech innovation ecosystem as are willing to collaborate.
• The City of Portland hired Ben Berry Jr. as its Chief Technology Officer in January. Berry is a cutting-edge aviation tech entrepreneur whose father is a business partner, living legend, WWII hero and member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
• Oregon State Representative Lew Frederick, Dwayne Johnson, head of Ideal Portland, and Berry were honored guests in August at the Puget Sound Region Economic Solutions Summit. The day-long summit was produced by a diverse group of local stakeholders who gathered to discuss collaborative solutions to establishing an “inclusive competitiveness” vision, with tech inclusion pipelines from education to entrepreneurship.
Frederick, Johnson and Berry seek to develop inclusive economic frameworks in the Greater Portland region and cross-border collaborations with mutual benefits for Oregon and Washington. (Full disclosure: I designed the agenda and led half of the summit).
Historically, our society has maintained an exclusive economic framework rooted in deeply divided ecosystems that have made little change over the past six decades. Today, a prudent response is for power brokers and policymakers to invest in establishing inclusive channels and pipelines to productivity, mentoring and entrepreneurial resources for economically disconnected communities. Luckily, Oregon is thinking ahead toward investing in the development of this kind of multicultural entrepreneurial environment.
With its tech-focused global economy, emerging startup culture across several metro areas (with others soon to emerge) and tech inclusion efforts, the state is poised to establish a strong competitive advantage to its tech-savvy neighbors to the north and south.
The success of such a strategic investment may manifest in the following: increasing investor deal flow, STEM-educated entrepreneurial-minded students, a seamless environment of tech startup culture across the K-12 and higher education landscape, retention of locally grown innovators and attraction of top talent from around the world.
And, if we’re lucky, perhaps job growth and generational wealth among our disadvantaged populations will also rise to the top of the list of measurable outcomes.
Sure, that’s an optimistic dream. Yet, isn’t that how our nation produces young innovators and a fast-paced startup culture — by investing in the dreams of America’s youth?
Mike Green is a Medford-based writer and a co-founder of the America21 Project. He is also the founder of Saving Americas Black Boys campaign.