Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman at the Aspen Institute, where he was giving a lecture on globalization. One of the qualities I admire most about Friedman is that he is a journalist who does his homework.
He doesn’t write from theory alone; he gets on a plane and gets his boots on the ground to find out what is happening firsthand. He might spend several years and log hundreds of thousands of miles to deeply understand the topic on which he is focused.
For this reason, I listen carefully when he has something to say. Recently, Friedman wrote a commentary on the future of America’s economy in which he emphatically stated that the merger of globalization and new information technologies would create “ecosystems” of innovation that would become the driver of our country’s return to greatness.
In the column, Friedman wrote, “the best of these ecosystems will be cities and towns that combine a university, an educated populace, a dynamic business community and the fastest broadband connections on earth. These will be the job factories of the future.”
My friends, he is talking about Gainesville—and he is talking directly to you. As business leaders in this community we have the opportunity—no, the obligation—to use every tool at our disposal to ensure that Gainesville is clearly recognized as one of the nation’s premiere “innovation ecosystems.” So how do we do that? Here are a few ideas.
Start with YOU. Work hard to create a culture of invention, innovation and creativity within your organization. Whether you run a restaurant, a manufacturing facility, a professional services firm or a retail shop, find ways to encourage everyone that works for you to think like an entrepreneur (or an “intrapreneur”) by constantly looking for ways to improve, grow and accelerate innovation throughout your business.
Build a Network of Innovation. Become a fanatic not just for meeting but for truly collaborating with fellow business people across our community. Embrace the idea of “co-opitition,” rather than competition, and share your best ideas with other businesses in town to help them improve. And when you meet cool, innovative people, introduce them to everyone else you know to get them connected and sharing their best ideas, too.
Get Involved in the Startup Community. Gainesville has more business incubators per capita than any other city in the United States. These include the amazing new Innovation Hub at the University of Florida, Santa Fe’s Center for Innovation and Economic Development (CIED), the Gainesville Technology Enterprise Center (GTEC), the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator and more. Right now there are dozens of highly innovative small businesses being planted and they need all the help, guidance and support our business community can give them.
You could be a mentor and offer your expertise and experience, or allow one of the startups to use some of your equipment or people. Perhaps you could offer some financial support, even at the micro-finance level. The key is this: There is no way we can have a vibrant and growing entrepreneurial community unless we get everyone involved in helping and supporting our local startups.
Stop Thinking Like a Small Town. This one is especially near and dear to my heart. I travel all over the world, working with businesses of every conceivable size and focus, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that Gainesville is one of the most impressive and exciting communities for business innovation in the world. We have everything Thomas Friedman was talking about: A top-tier university, one of the nation’s leading community colleges, a highly educated populace, a dynamic business community, incredible sporting events, world-class arts and leisure activities and strong community activism in one of the most beautiful places to live in the country.
Gainesville is in a truly unique position to stand up and be counted as one of a handful of elite communities that could be considered as an international hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. What is holding us back? Nothing but ourselves.