Last Tuesday, Tom Guevara, deputy assistant secretary for Regional Affairs of the U.S. Economic Development Administration (pause for breath), was in Louisville on business.
Long title aside, Tom’s job involves helping cities such as Louisville think through their strategy on growing jobs and a diverse, robust economy. Perhaps the best benefit of having Tom in town was when he agreed to sit down with various members of the entrepreneurial ‘ecosystem’; namely, the entrepreneurs, investors, service providers, and advisers that collectively spur innovation, startups, and early stage investment in our community.
The one-hour meeting, which took place in the recently renovated Greater Louisville Inc. offices, included about 20 people, from educator Suzanne Bergmeister (University of Louisville e-MBA Program, Venture Connectors) and entrepreneur Taylor Trusty (Blackstone Media) to investor Dale Boden (Yearling Fund/BF Capital) and Rebecca Fleischaker, assistant director, Metro Government Department of Economic Growth & Innovation.
The group first took 10 minutes to listen to Guevara’s thoughts on not just what Washington is doing to help spur the economy, but also pragmatic takeaways for Midwestern/Southern cities such as Louisville.
In addition to sharing many interesting anecdotes, Tom, who lives in Bloomington, Ind., was pointed in his call for communities such as Louisville to be open and inviting to others looking to enter the entrepreneurial world. Strong ecosystems, he noted, tend to embrace openness, diversity, and a healthy tolerance for risk.
In Louisville, I felt (and feel) that we must be much more open to recognizing and discussing our problems. The hard truth is that we don’t have the talent, the funding and the resources that other areas enjoy. When I added this to the discussion, others in the room immediately pushed to dissent and convince Tom that our community was small, but vibrant, open, and significantly more mature than just a few years ago.
While I totally agree Louisville does appear to be building its ecosystem the “right way,” it struck me how our group jumped on a critique I offered with an aggressive pro-Louisville commercial, lest Guevara think less of our people or our city.
Comparing 2014 Louisville to 2009 Louisville does paint a rosy, but ultimately incomplete picture of where our entrepreneurial ecosystem needs to be. We are all competing in a global economy, especially in the digital startup world. Engineers can live anywhere, and capital is pouring in from all over the world.
If Louisville wants to slurp from the 21st century economy’s fountain, it has to be a livable, urban, cultural, talent-dense, capital-flush, resource-rich city. Period.
My big takeaway, which Tom and I discussed further on his way out, was a confirmation of a phrase I find myself saying all the time already in these types of discussions: “Our problems are not unique to Louisville.”
Every community is struggling with a lack a talent, capital, and innovation.
Every community is challenged with creating a modern economy, without leaving a huge percentage of the population behind.
Every community is working to educate their young and not-so-young citizens for jobs that don’t exist yet.
It’s hard. It’s hard to create density for the startup community. It’s hard to cross pollinate talent. It’s hard to keep fast growing, ambitious companies and people in the city.
To solve problems, it takes persistence, debate, focus, and input from every level of the ecosystem.
Alex Frommeyer is founder and CEO of Beam Technologies, creator of the digital health tool the Beam Brush, and is based in Louisville.