ICIC Asks the Expert: America21 Co-Founder Johnathan Holifield, VP of Inclusive Competitiveness at Nortech
In this Ask the Expert Q&A, Johnathan Holifield, Esq., co-founder of The America 21 Project and Vice President of Inclusive Competitiveness for NorTech, explains why it is imperative to include minorities in the Innovation Economy.
This approach to inclusion is similar to ICIC’s (Initiative for a Competitive Inner City) regional equity work — which advocates for regional approaches that deliberately include strategies for inner city economies.
The following interview was conducted by ICIC. The original version appears on the ICIC website.
Q: You are Co-Founder and Chief Strategist & Evangelist of The America21 Project – a national initiative to connect minorities to the Innovation Economy. What factors led to the creation of America21? How does America21 define the “Innovation Economy?”
A: America21 is a nationally networked and regionally focused social enterprise whose mission is to infuse a new, 21st century economic narrative in our society that connects disconnected citizens to the industry clusters and ecosystems that comprise the Innovation Economy. This new economic narrative is marked by radical socioeconomic changes brought about by further globalized commerce, democratized information, accelerated new knowledge creation and exponential entrepreneurship growth.
Dr. Chad Womack, a Philadelphia-based life sciences entrepreneur and national STEM education leader; Mike Green of Medford, OR, a media industry digital pioneer and innovator; and I, with a wide-ranging background in civic leadership and tech-based economic development, came together out of mutually aligned distress to create America21.
Our distress is that far too many Americans – particularly African and Latino Americans – are not competing in, contributing to nor realizing value from the 21st century Innovation Economy. For example, according to Brookings, on average, U.S. metropolitan regions produce 85 percent of business start-ups; 69 percent of high-growth companies; 81 percent of research and development employment; 96 percent of venture capital; 78 percent of patents; 75 percent of GDP and 68 percent of all jobs.
However, although the overwhelming portion of the nation’s innovation assets, jobs and wealth productivity are located in metropolitan areas — where 74 percent of African Americans and 80 percent of Latinos live (who combine to comprise nearly 30 percent of the U.S. population) — today, African and Latino American businesses produce less than 3.5 percent of gross domestic product and create comparatively few jobs, averaging less than one employee per business. The absence of narrative and visibility of the Innovation Economy to many African and Latino Americans unduly cripples prospects for 21st century prosperity.
Q: Why does America21 say that the Innovation Economy lacks narrative and is invisible to many African and Latino Americans? What are some examples of America21’s efforts to build the narrative and make it visible?
A: Let’s be honest, we talk with each other about things that we believe are important. In the case of the Innovation Economy, African and Latino Americans rarely talk about it. Although our present and future prosperity hinges on increased innovation capacity and improved economic competitiveness, at times it seems we are either unwilling or unable to consider these matters top priorities. America21 wants to change this – and change it in a big way.
Over the course of our history, America has experienced three major economic eras – agrarian, industrial and innovation. Prosperity and opportunity in the first two eras were highly visible and apparent to any observer. During the third and current era, however, prosperity and opportunity are invisible to those who are not aware of them. And that lack of awareness and visibility is crippling the economic prospects for African and Latino Americans and hindering our ability to be more economically competitive.
In the Agrarian Economy, prosperity in the form of successful crop-raising, production and sales, was easy to see and visible to everyone. Prosperity in the Industrial Economy was also easy to grasp, as the country watched men and later women (and, unfortunately, children) march daily into the manufacturing plants and facilities of America. Moreover, further visible evidence of economic prosperity was the enormous smokestacks that dotted the skylines of the nation’s heavy manufacturing cities, especially those in the Midwest to points east.
Today, the Innovation Economy is not openly and plainly visible. Regional innovation clusters and ecosystems comprised of critical elements such as research, commercialization and technology transfer activities, private equity investments in the forms of angel networks, seed funds and venture capital, and organizations that steward these ecosystems, are not visible to those unaware of them:
- There are no crops to see; there are Petri dishes, beakers and volumetric flasks.
- There are no hard hats, cranes and construction boots to see; there are scrubs, lab coats, perhaps T-shirts at Internet-based enterprises, and very comfortable shoes.
- There are no smokestacks and acid rain to see; there are seemingly quiet, calm buildings, generally artistically and architecturally pleasing to the eyes, and disconnected citizens have no idea what goes on inside.
Before African and Latino Americans can connect to the Innovation Economy, a new narrative must be inculcated to make it visible for us to see. To meet these objectives, America21 has co-hosted the nation’s first African American angel investors, entrepreneurs and STEM educators summit, in partnership with The Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (CUEED); co-hosted the nation’s first conference on minority bioscience innovation and entrepreneurship, in partnership with BioEnterprise; introduced and seeded innovation ecosystem connectivity and inclusion models in several cities, including Detroit, Portland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; and our work has been featured in myriad forums and several national publications, including BusinessWeek, Forbes, Black Enterprise, Bloomberg, Washington Post Innovations, Entrepreneur Magazine and Thompson Reuters Venture Capital Journal.
Sure signs that the Innovation Economy narrative has taken root and is no longer invisible will be when we’re talking about it in beauty salons and barbershops.
Q: NorTech is a regional, technology-based economic development organization serving 21 counties in Northeast Ohio. Why Northeast Ohio? What are some of the most prominent economic challenges in Northeast Ohio?
A: As outcomes of the dramatically transformed U.S. industrial landscape, Northeast Ohio is experiencing much of the same economic shift that has occurred in other areas of the country. Of particular note is what America21 calls the “Innovation Economy Squeeze” – the combination of spectacularly increased American business productivity, enabled by efficiency gains of new technology adoption and integration and far less employees, combined with the increasingly “flatter world,” where competition for new jobs is global, which is squeezing Americans in unprecedented ways. Put simply, many less Americans are now needed to produce ever more goods and services and billions of new workers around the world are now competing with us for new jobs.
In response, Northeast Ohio is pursuing strategies designed to increase regional economic competitiveness through high-growth entrepreneurship; research and development; and industry and product innovation. To lead and steward these strategies, Northeast Ohio created and provides ongoing support for one the nation’s most robust regional innovation ecosystems, comprised of not-for-profit intermediaries – BioEnterprise, JumpStart, MAGNET, Team NEO, and NorTech – that work independently and collectively, to support innovation cluster exploration and action and all stages of new business formation and growth. Leadership and assistance is customized to the distinctive needs of enterprise and cluster development, along with cross-cutting enabling stewardship that applies broadly.
Q: You recently joined the NorTech team as Vice President of Inclusive Competitiveness. How do you define “Inclusive Competitiveness” and why is it so important to a broader economic competitiveness strategy? Who is targeted for inclusion?
A: Informed by unique experiences as a practitioner of both technology-based economic development and economic inclusion, I developed the concept of Inclusive Competitiveness – the practice of improving performance of diverse populations within innovation ecosystems, emerging industry clusters and other areas critical to overall economic competitiveness. It is important to note that Inclusive Competitiveness practices neither alter nor replace, but rather complement and enhance market-leading economic competitiveness strategies, with laser focus on connecting diverse populations with opportunities in the 21st century Innovation Economy. In Northeast Ohio, we have focused our inclusion efforts on African and Latino Americans.
As a national first mover among regional intermediary organizations, under the leadership of CEO Rebecca O. Bagley, NorTech has incorporated inclusion into its operational strategy and regional cluster development approach to improve the competitiveness of African and Latino Americans in Northeast Ohio.
The case for an inclusion thrust within broader economic competitiveness strategy can be summed up by the Law of Inclusive Competitiveness. Inspired by Packard’s Law of Hewlett-Packard Co-Founder, David Packard, the Law of Inclusive Competitiveness states that:
No city, region, state or nation can sustainably increase economic competitiveness without growing enough of the right people to create and take advantage of that increased economic competitiveness. If your city, region, state of nation’s economic competitiveness goals do not focus on inclusion, you simply will not – indeed cannot – grow enough of the right people to sustainably increase economic competitiveness.
As a matter of economic physics, we believe that it is not possible to realize our highest economic competitiveness aspirations without many more Americans making much greater contributions. Accordingly, Inclusive Competitiveness is not only about equity; it is an economic imperative.
Q: What are some of the emerging innovation clusters in Northeast Ohio? How can a regional, cluster-based approach help create jobs, attract capital and support long-term economic competitiveness for the region?
A: Northeast Ohio’s emerging innovation clusters include: advanced energy; flexible electronics; bioscience; advanced materials; information technology (software) and water technology.
NorTech is a national leader in cluster development. Its Regional Innovation Cluster Model helps diversify and reinvigorate the Northeast Ohio economy through serving and involving a wide range of organizations, including: research institutions; universities; public, private and philanthropic funding sources; regional, state and federal government; industry associations; workforce system and other economic development organizations.
Clusters are perhaps the most effective and efficient means by which to organize actionable regional economic competitiveness leadership to:
- Transition from unemployment or underemployment to high-skill jobs
- Create new, higher wage job opportunities
- Develop regional business opportunities that are less susceptible to off-shoring
- Engage and stabilize diverse communities by re-purposing idle assets and human capital
- Manufacture products in region for export to other markets, driving revenue back to the region.
Q: Despite comprising 20% of the total population in Northeast Ohio, African and Latino American businesses comprise only about two percent of gross regional product. What is Northeast Ohio doing to help increase minority innovation capacity and economic contributions?
A: Northeast Ohio is the first region in the county where the regional innovation ecosystem – BioEnterprise, JumpStart, MAGNET, Team NEO and NorTech – has united to measure the competitiveness of African and Latino Americans in regional innovation clusters.The analysis was conducted by PolicyBridge andCleveland State University, and indicates that African and Latino Americans account for only about two percent of tech-based businesses; slightly more than one percent of sales for technology businesses; and less than 10 percent of employees in tech-based industries, which results in less than two percent contribution to our gross regional product.
Though in the early stages of our effort, we are committed to a common framework to deliver independent and collective impact, focused in four main areas:
- Employment (technology and innovation based industries)
- Entrepreneurship (high growth)
- Engagement (outreach/cultivate narrative)
- Education (STEM and programs aligned with regional innovation needs)
Cornerstones of our Inclusive Competitiveness initiative are to:
- Monitor and facilitate cross-system action, building on programs embedded within partner organizations and creating new strategic initiatives for collective ecosystem impact, opening a new portal to extend out from and link into the regional innovation ecosystem.
- Apply and enhance proven technology and innovation-based economic development principles, practices and strategies to efforts to connect African and Latino Americans to, and improve their performance within, regional innovation clusters and emerging industry sectors.
- Organize a subset of senior leaders of the Northeast Ohio innovation ecosystem who will be responsible for ensuring operational integration and execution, and independent and collective impact, throughout the regional innovation ecosystem.
Q: There is often a perception that minority or inner city citizens do not have the aptitude needed to access STEM careers. What is your experience with this? How do you help underserved Americans access the Innovation Economy and regional ecosystems and clusters?
A: Such a perception is pure poppycock!
About a decade ago, while leading CincyTech, I reached out to the Cincinnati Public Schools to explore their interest in developing an information technology-based high school. They were excited about the possibility. I then reached out to Cincinnati Bell, an information and communications technology industry leader and outstanding corporate citizen, and they were equally excited about the possibility. Connecting and aligning those entities, we were able to create theRobert A. Taft Information Technology High School, Ohio’s first technology-focused high school and now – as a result of their extraordinary and sustained leadership – a national model for urban education.
Only through education, especially STEM, can underserved citizens begin to better access, contribute more value to and realize greater benefit from the Innovation Economy and regional innovation ecosystems.
Additionally, under the leadership of Co-founders Dr. Womack and Mr. Green, America21 is currently developing the National Best Practices & Leadership Summit for STEM in Underrepresented Communities. We are also issuing the National STEM Call to Action, a public declaration of commitment among federal government agencies, institutions, organizations and individuals to work together to ensure opportunities for all citizens – especially, underserved minorities.Through this effort, our goal is to fulfill the promise of their innovation possibilities and prospects for improved economic competitiveness.
Q: What is the America21 and NorTech vision for Inclusive Competitiveness and how do you plan to achieve it?
A: Both America21 and NorTech fully embrace the fact that there is no magic formula to this challenge. No magic bullets. No magic outcomes. Girded by serious, sober and sustainable leadership, our Inclusive Competitiveness initiative will identify actionable opportunities for independent and collective impact.
Our vision is clear: U.S. and Northeast Ohio regional economic competitiveness can be meaningfully enhanced through a sustained series of high-leverage interventions and investments, with potential to scale and attract follow-on investment. Ultimately, this work will improve the performance of diverse populations within the national and Northeast Ohio regional innovation ecosystems, emerging industry clusters and other areas critical to our economic competitiveness.
Johnathan M. Holifield, Esq.