Article Published: November 2, 2015
Article Published: November 2, 2015
In September, I was invited to speak and participate in the Waterloo Innovation Summit. While Waterloo is not too distant from Pittsburgh, it is an hour from Toronto, which means I was sequestered in this lovely college town for two full days. Communitech leads this event with the University of Waterloo—a university that yields top engineering talent, who, like here in Pittsburgh, often leave the region, heading to Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. Similar to Pittsburgh as well, are boomerangers, who love their hometown, seeking ways to return and build their lives there.
A few things struck me as I met presenters and attendees, which included renowned investors from Silicon Valley; leaders who run accelerators in many cities; entrepreneurs in the early stages of product development; leadership from Blackberry; faculty from U.S. and Canadian universities; plus the deep bench strength of economic development staff across their provinces and territories. People who work in the innovation economy have many of the same struggles.
Here is what I heard in Waterloo:
• Inadequate representation of people across gender and ethnicity.
• Inconsistent findings of positive correlation of government-sponsored infusion of ecosystem support to long-term sustainable job creation and prosperity, and relentlessly figuring how to measure impact.
• Venture/risk investment at every stage of company develop-ment is deeply inadequate.
• Engineering graduates are quickly lured with opportunities far from the epicenter of Waterloo and Kitchener who have a sum population of ~354,000 with Waterloo’s growth at 26 percent over the last four years. There have been attempts to consolidate government functions across them, as well as include the adjacent city of Cambridge.
• Seasoned executives who have successful experience scaling ideas and delivering products in the relatively newer economy are in high demand.
• Many hold the reflective mirror to their efforts of what they “see” and “hear” occurs in Silicon Valley (and a few other cities).
• Wrestle with being a “flyover zone” for investors, talent and customers.
• Not enough young people entering the hard sciences in college. They are worried about their pipeline to fill the opportunities.
• That their city is “livable” with vast amenities.
We, Pittsburgh, have these same conversations. Even as we see the enormous amount of activity in the city and region in energy, technology, life sciences and health IT—we have the same “complaints.” But, there is one difference with Waterloo and Pittsburgh. Twenty-five percent of Waterloo’s population is foreign born. Twenty-five percent! Uh, Pittsburgh MSA—we are at what? Two percent? Our growth across this new economy will not be sustainable if we do not welcome people to participate in our transformation, along with helping those in our own city who do not have access to this new world order of commerce and communication. It just will not happen.
I’m afraid that if our region cannot successfully address the dearth of foreign-born talent, we will not be able to compete and fully capitalize on transformative opportunities. We could effectively be stuck in neutral or, even worse, putting the engine into reverse.
So the key takeaway from Waterloo is quite simple and exceptionally daunting: if our region is going to continue to prosper, we must attract people who are not only from other regions of the U.S., but from around the world.
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