Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the 2017 SSTI conference in Washington, D.C., where I was part of a session focused on building bridges in a time of shifting organizational priorities, continued growth in income inequality and overall political turmoil.
SSTI, which stands for State Science & Technology Institute, is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving initiatives that support prosperity through science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. It works as a sort of trade association for technology based economic development entities, sharing of best practices, education and development opportunities among members.
The fact that the conference took place in Washington DC provided a strong springboard for our session, where I began my presentation by sharing how my own reaction in the aftermath of the 2016 election helped me better understand how so many of us often get trapped in our own echo chambers. I spoke of the need to shake some things up in our world, build new relationships with different constituencies and have the confidence and courage to bring some members of your network along for the journey.
I was also able to share my belief, and the belief of JumpStart, that getting out of these echo chambers and seeking out a more diverse set of perspectives isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s a critical step toward unlocking our full potential for growth and innovation—whether you are talking about the venture capital industry or our society as a whole.
But I didn’t attend the SSTI conference just to speak. I was also there to learn from other experts on a wide variety of topics. I participated in a “Hackathon” where there were breakout groups of leaders from across the country, tackling some of the key issues together and creating solutions, which were then shared with the audience.
With that in mind, here are four of my key takeaways from the day, all dealing with different aspects of economic development.
Diversity issues aren’t going anywhere
However you feel about diversity and inclusion initiatives, one thing is for sure—we are becoming a more diverse society every day. The conference was full of statistics and references to the fact that right now people of color already make up the majority in some American cities, not to mention the fact that Asian and Hispanic Americans are the fastest growing demographic in the nation.
Systems that continue to neglect or seek to suppress these growing voices do not have appear to have a bright future. However, our growing diversity also presents enormous future potential, if we can find new ways to translate it into inclusive systems that take full advantage of its power.
The definition of a“job” is changing
One the most interesting things about the current economy is that in many ways the very nature of work itself is evolving while attitudes aren’t necessarily keeping up, let alone policy. Many professionals today are part of the “gig” economy—where freelance work, temporary contracts and lack of traditional benefits take the place of long-term steady jobs and 401k contributions.
This sort of work structure can certainly have advantages in terms of freedom, flexibility and efficiency. However, it can also create new types of job insecurity and there is a real need for new solutions that can provide more stability for this new type of worker and help ensure that we reap the best aspects of the gig economy without falling victim to its potential pitfalls.
Solving the skills shortage
It’s true that there is a skills gap keeping some people from claiming good jobs that are available. But many employers are also stuck in very antiquated ways of evaluating and hiring talent. Despite a shortage of labor, some of these employers still insist on advanced educational degrees workers may not need, refuse to raise wages to a level that would attract a more highly skilled talent pool and do little to connect with geographically or economically disconnected urban and rural populations.
Employers who are succeeding in the new economy are doing so by building strong and diverse talent pipelines as early as primary school, while simultaneously training and upskilling existing workers, paying a living wage and reevaluating their job qualifications to be sure they focus on the actual skills needed to do the job.
Nothing matters without a compelling story
Whether you are part of an economic development organization seeking funding from large foundations and/or public sector legislators or a small nonprofit seeking contributions directly from the community you serve, no one will understand (or fund) your work unless you tell them a compelling story.
Whenever possible, these stories should be less about how smart you are, and more about how your work is changing lives and making a real impact in your community. Of course, to tell this story effectively you need good metrics, which means you have to dial down on the analytics you want to track and be diligent about tracking them.
These are just a few of the many insights I gathered from this year’s SSTI conference. To learn more about these conferences and the important work of the organization that puts them on, click here.