Doing Better at Doing Good

N.C. needs to be a part of global conversation about entrepreneurship

December 8, 2012 

Editor’s note: The following column was written by Gergen on his recent travels in Italy.

Our train heads across the northern part of Italy from Turin to Florence – the snow-covered, sun-drenched Alps that are looming outside my window. I am coming from a four-day immersive conversation that is unfolding in Europe right now about how cities across the continent are kick-starting their local innovation ecosystems to boost economic development and increase their global competitiveness.

Our host was the Turin City Council. It is targeting 18- to 35-year-olds to help drive entrepreneurial solutions to some of the city’s more pressing challenges and also stimulate economic growth and job creation in a city and country that has been hard hit by the global financial crisis.

Joining the summit were national foundation leaders, public officials, university faculty and local entrepreneurs as well as representatives across the European Union. Held in an expansive 100,000-square-foot entrepreneurial co-working space, the conversation had an urgent focus: How can cities create robust entrepreneurial ecosystems that not only create jobs but also introduce new solutions to some of the continent’s most pressing challenges?

This is the leading edge of global competitiveness. And it’s a conversation that North Carolina needs to be plugged into.

Cities, states and countries that develop strong pipelines of entrepreneurial talent – and help these innovators bring their ideas to scale through a highly collaborative, well networked support environment – will gain an indisputable advantage.

In a recent article for the U.S. Competitiveness Project, Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes, “enhanced linkages and collaborations can enrich the business ecosystem so that more ideas can surface, more job-creating enterprises can be developed, more companies can find skills and innovation, and more enterprises can increase their capabilities to grow and compete in global markets.”

Furthermore, if cities can do a good job of engaging a broad base of citizens in this entrepreneurial economy, the potential exists to lift up neighborhoods, accelerate local problem-solving and help reduce economic disparities.

N.C. is getting there

Fortunately, increasing numbers of communities in North Carolina are moving in this direction. In the Triangle, for example, Raleigh has launched Innovate Raleigh. It brings together universities, corporations, non-profit organizations, the Chamber, the city, and entrepreneurial support organizations such as HUB Raleigh (of which I’m a partner), Blackstone, and the Council on Entrepreneurial Development, to help catalyze the local innovation economy.

Durham similarly has a strong entrepreneurial support system personified by its ever-growing number of startups, the growth of American Underground and a recently announced campus downtown. Durham is also a finalist in the Bloomberg Challenge for a proposed “proof of concept center” to encourage entrepreneurial problem-solving in some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods. And Charlotte’s City Council has just approved a $500,000 matching challenge grant to invest in boosting the city’s entrepreneurial infrastructure.

As each of these cities experiments with new programs and strives to support local innovators, they learn a great deal from and with one another.

For instance, how can we help our school systems teach our students to become tomorrow’s leaders and change-makers? What are productive strategies to support entrepreneurial activity in our universities and ensure that the talent and technology transitions successfully into our communities? What programs, physical spaces, events and investment strategies spark innovation and help accelerate the growth and connection of local entrepreneurs? What are the appropriate metrics and realistic methods to measure impact? How can we better connect policy-makers, the media and corporations to the entrepreneurial conversation?

A platform for ideas

As cities have each independently tried to address aspects of these questions, they are learning, adapting and demonstrating that there is promise in the road ahead. But now it’s time to come together and learn from one another to help these independent efforts reach their collective impact.

Again, there is good news. The conversation is already under way in this country and, as my trip to Italy showed, globally. We need to join this conversation. We also need to start one of our own, by facilitating best-practice sharing, catalyzing collaboration among our respective innovative communities, and hopefully creating new market and investment opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors alike.

In the coming months, we will feature some of the stories coming out of these collective efforts – and we hope they will be instructive for our respective economic and community development efforts. We also welcome stories of how your community is helping to support local innovators or linking to the broader conversation. As they say in Italian – Andiamo (let’s go!).

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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