Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Innovation Village chair Richard May: "As if the Ravens played with only three players"


In yesterday's post I described how radio interviews and a presentation of the Innovation Village concept at the Wind-Up Space had left me with many questions about what Innovation Village really is and how it is supposed to operate. Richard May is the chairman of Innovation Village and I was told to speak with him to get a much better explanation. Below my account and the interview:

Richard May doesn't show up at the appointed time, his phone voice mail box is full when I try to call him. I wonder about innovation, His assistant tracks him down and soon we sit across the small round conference table in the One Baltimore office, fully engaged in the perennial discussion what Baltimore needs to succeed.
Chairman Richard May

May had just returned from a trip to Saint Louis and its Cortex Innovation District.  The success of the St Louis district has impressed him, "half the size of Baltimore, twice the development", he reported referring to the development in the innovation district there. The half hour interview turned into a two hour conversation during which I became more and more convinced that the Innovation Village is not just fluff. May proved very well informed about innovation districts around the country and the world. He has the ability to see Baltimore from the outside and within.

He doesn't preach but conveys an aura of practical competence with the tendency of slipping into tech jargon. But he concedes that Innovation Village really isn't (only) about tech. He said that "the ingredients of a vibrant [innovation] eco system are talent finding capital and capital finding talent". Ostensibly that is the mission, but there is a strong emphasis on implementation and actual transactions.

The biggest difference to past efforts like the Empowerment zones is maybe, that this isn't a government driven effort. This is not a poverty program but an effort to bring entrepreneurship to a disenfranchised community. The response so far has been very promising and integrated the start-up community in ways it hadn't been before.
Start-Up Soiree: Fostering entrepreneurship

Innovation Village is not funded by a federal, state or local program, even though tapping into public grants and programs is certainly intended. Possibly May's strongest asset: He does not stay siloed in West Baltimore. There are monthly open community meetings that allow the effort to steadily strengthen and broaden its foundation within the community, but May doesn't shy away from speaking with Damien Coste of Under Armour about venture capital or assertively with Commerce Secretary Mike Gill from the Hogan administration about State programs. ("I can lay out the playbook for you"). Sometimes people ask him, "why do you talk with those [white] folks?" he muses. But that is part of the pragmatism that makes me believe that Innovation Village can, indeed, succeed.

Here the excerpts of the conversation:

Talk a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up, what did you do, how did you come to Baltimore?
I was born in the New York metro area and grew up in Baltimore area since I was 4 years old, my father's father had a big grocery chain in Philly. I also lived in Philly. my father studied microbiology and chemistry with Masters in both.. in the fifties..around the Brown decision..when he retired he started a transportation company, moving stuff I studied with two full scholarships at the University of Maryland..they had a study abroad program, at the time you couldn't go to East Africa..but I had some connections..and went to East Africa travelling to several countries there. I wound up with a sociology degree. Then worked for a large consulting firm on advanced technology transfer..am on a sabbatical right now to get the Innovation Village going.
You announced the Innovation Village in January, what has happened since then?
We were focused on getting the community engaged in the planning process and the programming side. The programming is about capital, real estate and talent, bringing those together. We identified the first development projects...We are close to closing on two buildings, one for the first innovation center. We asked "do you like where you live?"; everybody raised their hands. There are so many wonderful assets but also so many deficiencies. We've also organized a Global Air Media Drone Camp for kids  at Penn North Kids Safe Zone during Spring Break. Also  hosted three city-wide business startup networking events (at historic Arch Social Club, Shake & Bake, Columbus Center), Light City programs (including Kindling events in our Innovation Village's historic neighborhoods), a global business bootcamp sponsored by Conscious Venture Lab, and partnering with a host of incredible organizations in our historic neighborhoods.
The Entrepreneurship networking event at Arch Social Club. you mentionedHow did it go? Was there any follow up?
that was an overwhelming success. 300 people showed up.... it was the first Wednesday after the snowstorm..at the Arch Social Club, such as special space...many didn't know we had such a thing...it was diverse in every dimension...simply meeting people became transactional......the Start-Up Soirees carried this on, it led to the Soiree at Light City Baltimore with 500 people.. Moms As Entrepreneurs launched their first academy and had their first class of moms graduating with their pitch competition where we were a judge. They're awesome
Many community leaders in central West Baltimore were taken aback by the announcement that their communities are now an Innovation Village. Did you get their support now? How did you respond to their concern that they hadn't been informed first?
Dovecote Cafe Reservoir Hill: A place to meet
There were a couple of challenges...there is a lot of distrust in West Baltimore...but people now see the shared benefits..there is testimony from Start Up Soiree participants who said this has benefited them already...We did the drone camp with the Children Safe Zone...we focus on access and activation. Innovation is creativity plus delivery...There are talented committed people, it is a matter how resources are directed.. We're committed to helping all the great organizations on the ground who've been doing great work for years in these neighborhoods. We all need to help build capacity and not duplicate efforts. The needs are great and we're all stronger together.
In one of the interviews you mention the University City in West Philly as a model. What has University City achieved that you would want to emulate?
I wouldn't use University City as an example for economic inclusion. 
The jury is still out on an example. Presently there is no example where economic development did not result in displacement of black and brown populations. Innovation Village was resident sponsored, community driven economic framework that attracted multi-sector partners.  We live in these neighborhoods, have family throughout these neighborhoods, so it's about our home rather than emulating some other place.
You name Coppin University as one of the strong anchors. Coppin itself needs help, though. It has the lowest graduation rate in the country and sinking student enrollment, leadership problems and new science buildings for which it has no staff or students. Coppin's past attempts of providing services to the community have very mixed results. 
Coppin has incredible new assets and is in an important anchor in Innovation Village and is an historical institution serving the black community. When you have decades of disinvestment as in West Baltimore, all have capacity issues. Most of our universities have capacity issuesThis is a capacity issue. There could still be spillover benefits for everybody. Baltimore is very siloed. [The Innovation Village] is the first time in history such a broad coalition was achieved. The industry and university partnership is a challenge, still. St. Louis is much further along with that.
Your approach builds on entrepreneurship and is essentially the neo-liberal idea of people pulling themselves up on their own bootstraps. what do you call "conscious capitalism?"
Underground economy: Hacking, an early form of Uber
We want to be economically inclusive. Its about who is involved. There is nothing wrong with profit, but we want conscious companies, there must be some purpose other than profit.
How will you integrate the existing underground economy that exists in West Baltimore?
When you travel around the world, what people know about Baltimore is its underground music, its underground art, there is an eco system to be tapped into. I went to St. Louis and Ferguson. I saw what they did with Ferguson 1000 since the unrest. It is phenomenal. In Baltimore the perception is that we usually don't support the majority of the population. Seven out of 10 self identify as a person of color - the City is 64% black. We have to ask, does government and philanthropy always work for the benefit of all? I like to say, it is like as if the Ravens would play with only three players. To be competitive we can't leave 70% on the sidelines. We have to build more structure around the existing talent in underground economies, create businesses that create sustainable jobs.
Thank you for the conversation 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Underground art, Baltimore

Links:
Innovation Village Pitch Competition Tuesday June 7, 2016

"It became very clear that the creative class and innovation economy was really our core competency here in this part of the city and what could really generate the biggest outcome for our future," Dale Terrill,vice president of the board of the Mount Royal Community Development Corporation (MRCDC)

University City, West Philly
University City District is a partnership of world-renowned anchor institutions, small businesses and residents that creates opportunity, and improves economic vitality and quality of life in the University City area of West Philadelphia. Our primary mission is community revitalization. We work within a place-based, data-driven framework to invest in world-class public spaces, address crime and public safety, bring life to commercial corridors, connect low-income residents to careers, and promote job growth and innovation.