What’s a Tech Guy Like You Doing in the Midwest?
I was a software executive, and an industrial engineer by education, during the nascent days of the internet in the mid ’90s and the majority of my colleagues were clustered in technology hubs like Silicon Valley and Boston. Me, I was smack in the middle of the beautiful heartland. It was an exciting time in the tech industry and while I was fortunate to travel the world with my job, my roots are in the Midwest and as my wife and I started to raise our family, we felt this was the place we wanted to be.
I’ll never forget the day one of the venture capital guys I dealt with on the coast asked, “What’s a tech guy like you doing in the Midwest?” After a good chuckle, I started to think about why this was so funny. It wasn’t even the first time I’d heard that line. The Midwest is traditionally known as a manufacturing economy but years of outsourcing to other countries, factory closures and a national economy where the skills of the mind are valued at a higher rate than skills of the hand, have left many thinking the heartland is beating at a much slower pace.
This is a damaging myth, because too many highly skilled individuals do not see heartland cities like Cincinnati, Indianapolis, or Kansas City as destination locations where they can apply their skills.
They’re wrong and in the past year, we are changing that attitude.
We launched the Cincinnati Innovation District (CID) about a week before the pandemic shut down the nation. And yet, we have thrived. Our framework focuses on growing talent anchored around our world-class university, attracting talent through the city’s Fortune 500 companies as well as exciting startups, and retaining talent with a “live, work, learn and play” environment. This pioneering model is already being replicated in other cities in Ohio and can be a model for other heartland cities. The difference with our model is that it is intentional and purpose-built.
As the economy shifts and pandemic-induced work patterns evolve, innovation districts solve multiple challenges including driving economic development, pairing eager, talented workers with companies looking for this talent, solving problems that matter and, for the heartland, diversifying industry and welcoming new residents.
For these types of districts to have an impact in the heart of the country, there are 3 principles that serve as a foundation for success.
If you think about the knowledge economy, an economic unit is a person. It’s no longer a piece of steel or the tires that go on your car. The cost of labor is really important. In Silicon Valley, the average wage is high. But so is the cost of living. We are starting to see companies look beyond the marquis cities and diversify into areas where these talent bases exist in a more competitive market.
Talent isn’t isolated to the coasts and opportunity isn’t reserved for these legacy tech hubs. Attracting talent will naturally attract companies and if the pandemic has shown us anything, it has demonstrated the ability, and even the desire for the nation’s workforce to work anywhere. Cities like Cincinnati are making that happen.
Did you know Cincinnati is the #1 microbrewery city in the country? I’m not saying that is the only reason to relocate, but amenities, quality of life and a sense of community are vital to building a thriving community.
Looking beyond the pandemic, changes in places to ‘live and work’ will undoubtedly be with us. This is why heartland cities are so appealing: they allow you to live and work in an area that offers good schools, green spaces, great food, access to arts and entertainment with a true neighborhood feel. Talent has to see these interesting locations. Companies will migrate.
Proximity to cutting-edge universities is enticing to corporations, who find an endless supply of motivated, tech-savvy future employees, researchers who focus on problems that matter and educational resources. It’s also a great recruiting and retention tool. Companies use the CID as a place to showcase the innovation happening here — seeing is believing.
Innovation to some is the sexy new startup created in someone’s garage. Sure, many companies started that way, but to me, the definition of innovation is bringing an idea to reality. As an entrepreneur, I can be as effective in a large organization as I can be in a startup and whether you are a startup, a midsized company, or a multinational corporation, you still need to bring ideas to reality every day. And remember, today’s workforce is not driven solely by salary and benefits anymore, but want to feel empowered, creative, excited and have a real impact — and they want a community with lots of opportunities.
Ultimately, when it comes to innovation districts, success comes from ensuring the companies that are driving our local economies are as strong as possible. The CID, for example, has an ecosystem comprised of partners like P & G and Kroger, large employers who harness the innovation coming out of University of Cincinnati and other district partners and who, in turn, are powerful economic engines.
We have a responsibility to grow new ventures and industries but an equally important responsibility to the strong and vibrant businesses that exist in our nation today. And the heartland boasts that classic Midwestern grit and blue-collar work ethic; companies see a roll-up-your-sleeves and get things done mentality.
And we are getting things done.