Thank you, Kansas City! I visited for the Midwest Symposium on Social Entrepreneurship. I left feeling inspired by so many rich examples of community-driven efforts to promote opportunity, and by how much our cities have in common.
The middle is the new edge.
That’s how Columbia Business School Professor Georgia Levenson Keohane opened her keynote at the Midwest Symposium on Social Entrepreneurship. She fired up the crowd in Kansas City by highlighting how much “the middle” of the country has to contribute to a conversation about economic opportunity and the future of work that can at time seem focused only on what large coastal cities have to offer. Her point was that the Midwest was on the cutting edge. And she’s right. I left feeling impressed and inspired by what that community is doing to nurture community-driven ideas.
As the Innovation and Performance Team thinks about how to connect youth to economic opportunity, we are fascinated by the role young people can play in creating work for themselves and for others as entrepreneurs. With that in mind, a panel discussion of a Jobs Bond project in Kansas City taught me about a geographically-focused approach to drawing government together with entrepreneurs, investors, social investing intermediary, and community members to bring business that create good jobs to a neighborhood that had been left behind while the rest of the city prospered. The most important thing I took away from that discussion was a set of tactical questions that can guide our research here:
- How might we leverage economic development tools meant for large firms to support people who want to start a small business in their community?
- What sorts of jobs do entrepreneurs starting small business create for others?
- What’s the best type of business to target first? Once one type of business takes hold on a block or in a neighborhood, can it start a flywheel leading to further development?
- How can a model like this lead to unintended consequences like displacement?
- How might we support job growth in neighborhoods, instead of bringing jobs downtown?
My favorite panel of the day featured voices on creativity, diversity, and the neighborhood economy. Leaders from several neighborhood-based enterprises told us their stories of how they became models for what business can contribute to communities finding their footing in economically uncertain times. Dre Taylor, in particular, was inspiring. His story has been told more vividly elsewhere than I could hope to do here, but I’ll attempt to share two highlights. First, he saw opportunity on two adjacent in his struggling neighborhood and started what has become Nile Valley Acquaponics, which has become a thriving urban agriculture project producing fish and vegetables, as well as a point of community pride. As if that wasn’t enough Dre went on to found Males to Men, a mentorship program that teaches youth many of the same skills we’re learning about in our project, and that gives many of these youth their first taste of employment working at Nile Valley Acquaponics. While opportunities may not present themselves through vacant lots in Seattle, there is so much I think we can learn about how Dre is helping young men in Kansas City take their first steps toward economic opportunity.
Finally, I left Kansas City reflecting on how our conversations with youth in Seattle have reflected the same entrepreneurial spirit. I couldn’t wait to get back home to head outside and hear more from our neighbors who are putting their own imprint on community-led initiatives like Dre’s.