Connectivity will be a key factor in U.S. efforts to lead the global economy in the coming decades. So said business people and entrepreneurs at the Forbes Reinventing America Summit, which took place Thursday in Chicago for the second straight year.
They referred to offline collaborations as well as digital and technological connections. And they urged Chicago, which some attendees called the “capital of the Midwest,” to seek links to neighboring states and their startup communities — a move they said could even draw venture capital to the region. Silicon Valley attracts most of the country’s venture investments.
“I think to really elevate the Midwest, we need to find ways to connect Indy to Chicago, Chicago to Detroit, Detroit to Ann Arbor,” said Scott Dorsey, co-founder of Indianapolis-based ExactTarget, on a “Betting Big on the Heartland” panel. “I think we’ll get a lot stronger if we build more connective tissue throughout the big Midwestern cities where today I feel like we do a lot of things in isolation.”
The official theme of this year’s Summit was “Leading the Next Industrial Revolution.” The 300 attendees heard from makers of 3D printers and those who use 3D printing techniques to create novel items, such as a dress printed all in one piece.
But strengthening the Midwest remained a focus.
Terry Howerton, co-founder and partner at TechNexus, emphasized the importance of companies to embrace the Midwest as a whole. He suggested a connected Midwest could make an attractive home to entrepreneurs.
“Instead of tearing each other down or trying to steal a company across a state border, we have an opportunity to retain talent in the Midwest, to develop research in the Midwest, to build companies in the Midwest that compete against the whole world,” he told Blue Sky.
Howerton appeared on the “Heartland” panel and later introduced Gov. Bruce Rauner, who reiterated his criticism of taxes and regulations in Illinois.
Steve Case, co-founder of America Online, discussed his belief that communities outside of Silicon Valley offer opportunities for innovation. He is behind Rise of the Rest, a multi-city tour that runs pitch contests in cities including St. Louis and Nashville. He said communities in smaller cities should celebrate entrepreneurship and startups.
“Most startups fail, so going in with some degree of skepticism is understandable,” Case said. “I think it’s really important that you lean into the future and at least give the entrepreneurs the benefit of the doubt that maybe this actually could be a big idea.”
Panelists also discussed the idea of transforming — instead of replacing — company staffs through “upskilling,” the practice of teaching an existing employee new skills. Howard Tullman, CEO of the 1871 tech hub, said high-end vocational training could offer digital skills that would keep employees competitive.
Caralynn Nowinski, executive director and COO of UI Labs, said upskilling could fill a need for skilled labor at manufacturing companies. She encouraged companies to consider the variety of skills in their workforces and approach upskilling accordingly. Someone in skilled labor may need a different sort of training than someone in engineering, she said.
She urged employers to remember “that it’s not a one-size-fits-all in how you think about your workforce.” That perspective should help company leaders to establish the right mechanisms and programs, she said.
Panelists throughout the day discussed the value of apprenticeships and internships for workers seeking development.
Lifeway Foods CEO Julie Smolyansky shared her company’s experience with Year Up, a Boston-based non-profit that trains young urban adults through internships and classes. Partnerships with companies give jobs to low-income people, and connections to those workers give companies access to their opinions and insights from their experiences, Smolyansky said.
“They have been operating under really scarce resources, and that’s something that we can learn," Smolyansky said of workers from low-income backgrounds. "We all, every day, operate with scarce resources. So I think they’re looking to us to teach them, and I’m looking to them to teach me.”