Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to moderate a panel at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference. This annual event, held at the Grand Hotel at pristine and quaint Mackinac Island, provides access to Michigan’s top business professionals, legislative leaders, corporate CEOs, entrepreneurs and veteran regional champions. The 2012 gathering is quickly spurring a comprehensive dialogue on innovation, collaboration and the 21st century global market. Speakers and sessions focused on creating a globally competitive, financially attractive business environment in Michigan.
Now, I’m always proud of my home state, don’t get me wrong. But, this week’s exhilarating, whirlwind gathering got me fired up about certain things that make me puff up my chest just a bit more than usual. Granted, Michigan’s infamous economic tornado is one for the record books, but historians and journalists alike need to re-sharpen their pencils and take some notes. The Great Lakes State is making a Rocky Balboa-esque recovery, and the world should pay very close attention to the secrets of a state in the midst of a miraculous turnaround.
SECRET ONE: Policy Conferences Focused on Action: Whether it’s the Mackinac Policy Conference, the Press Symposium, or something else altogether, these exclusive, senior-level events are critical to any turnaround. This week I witnessed first-hand the true power of the diplomatic handshake; it gets things going and holds people accountable. At these “who’s who” events, important decisions begin to take shape, setting a precedent for the year to come. It’s not exactly as action-oriented as a whiteboard session with your founders, but it allows reflection on what’s been accomplished from one year to the next. Sometimes the 30,000 feet view is just as important as the one from within the trenches.
SECRET TWO: State Government Supportive of Small Business: Political views aside, a state legislature must fiscally support small business and those trying to grow them. If not, entrepreneurs will find another state to call home as they establish their enterprises. Thus far, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has supported business leaders, as has Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.
SECRET THREE: Emergence of Venture Capital: Venture investments are required to jumpstart private sector job growth. As a venture guy myself I am proud that investment into the Michigan startup community helped diminish a catastrophically-high unemployment rate (one that reached 18% at its worst point). Think about Seattle and how venture-backed Microsoft and Starbucks defined their home city. Detroit and Michigan are following suit, and it’s high time other cities and states do the same.
SECRET FOUR – Affordable and Accessible Higher Education: While we all understand the importance of access to higher education, it’s a frustrating reality that many of our youth simply cannot afford to go. For those that matriculate, there is no assurance of employment given the current, highly volatile job market. Michigan makes this brutal reality transparent, and it’s working. Tens of thousands of our out-of-work engineers are shifting their skill set for the new millennium, transferring their manufacturing knowledge into jobs in modern, digital technology. Many of these professionals enroll in the various software training programs popping up around the state, honing their craft in new ways. To reemploy a talented workforce that is unemployed and underemployed, our universities must be both affordable and applicable in today’s global job market.
SECRET FIVE – A Desirable Community Culture: When children are born, raised and educated in Michigan and then take their talents elsewhere upon graduation, our state loses not once, but twice. Not only are the costs to educate someone essentially lost, the opportunity costs lost are infinitely higher when that person succeeds elsewhere (ahem, Groupon, Google, et al). Aside from a plethora of jobs, a region must offer a reason enough to stop a “brain drain,” and a vibrant, comprehensive lifestyle is key. Music, arts, food, sports, nightlife, retail, fitness and transit all factor into a dynamic community, but without the proper blend, our “kids” will leave for greener pastures. For a city with such a longstanding cultural presence, it’s downright embarrassing that Detroit could ever become so devoid of the cultural epicenter it once had. Nonetheless, times are changing, and Detroit 2.0, bustling with eclecticism, is here in full force.
SECRET SIX: Movement of People into the City: A thriving downtown creates a thriving city. Thriving cities as epicenters bolster a thriving region. People must work and live downtown. We at Detroit Venture Partners (the firm where I’m the Managing Partner and CEO), along with our partners at Quicken Loans, created the Valley To Detroit campaign, in hopes of bringing fresh talent into this once-again-thriving urban core.
If Rocky can take on a challenge as big as Apollo Creed, Michigan can too. Michigan is doing it, and so can you. Get back in the ring.