The perception and practice of Philadelphia public schools and the depth and widespread recognition for the city’s startup communities are two issues that need the most addressing to develop the future of entrepreneurship here, according to a panel and breakout group discussion held Monday night by Young Involved Philadelphia.
The Business and Entrepreneurship night, which drew more than 50 young Philadelphians and a handful of prominent members of the city’s business community, was in conjunction with Young Involved Philadelphia’s two-week State of Young Philly series.
“We’re looking for ideas that we can walk out of here tonight and do something about,” said Bernie Dagenais, the former editor of the Philadelphia Business Journal who last month became president of the Main Line Chamber of Commerce.
[Full Disclosure: Technically Philly was a sponsor of and active in last night’s event. YIP is also a supporting organization for next Wednesday’s Switch Philly business demo event. TP will also be present at Friday’s series showcase.]
The event, held inside CBS 3 studios at 16th and Spring Garden streets, featured a brief panel discussion in which Dagenais created a dialogue about the real obstacles Philadelphia — most usually focusing on the city, though regional aptitude was also addressed — faces in becoming an internationally respected place for business.
“We are not risk takers here,” said Kevin Dow, the acting Chief Operating Officer of the city’s Commerce Department. “We are researchers and teachers who are brilliant but are not necessarily ready to be entrepreneurs. We want the ‘steady Eddie,’ like pharmaceuticals… We’ll distribute pills for the rest of our lives.”
That sentiment is one that was echoed by Kerry Rupp, the entrepreneur who is leading the 2010 DreamIT Ventures incubation program at the University City Science Center.
“We simply don’t have enough early stage investment here, so we don’t see those high-risk deals,” Rupp said, though Dagenais cautioned her that most markets complain of a dearth in early stage capital. “It just seems like a difference in expectations from the West Coast [and other cities] and here.”
Though Dagenais called for all five panel members to address what advantages Philadelphia’s business community has, those answers were mostly recycled — a strong university community, a tight-knit fabric of leaders, proximity in between the country’s finance and political capitals and a wealth of neighborhoods.
Rather, the panel featured a lot of tough talk on the city’s chances of developing a well-regarded business reputation..
David Calabrese, an investment and market strategy executive who has spent time in other markets, was perhaps most frank.
“What’s great about Philadelphia is how comfortable you can get here, but, then, the problem is that, you can get too comfortable here,” he said. “People stay here because they are loyal to the city or to family, not to advance their careers. We don’t have product managers of Fortune 500 companies who then leave and can get funded because of their background and connections.”
“Why would you ever have your company in Philadelphia when you could have comparable space in New York City and have access to every Fortune 100 senior executive you could want?”
Calabrese seemed to fight back a smirk when Pat Gillespie, the business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Union, spoke about the city’s apprenticeship program training young people and the value unions offer the city in terms of consistency.
Indeed, the decades-old conversation about whether a high-cost union workforce is good or bad for the city was perhaps the only deeply-seated oft-cited-obstacle for Philadelphia’s business community that wasn’t addressed in the 30-minute panel talk, sped by a gong when members exceeded their allotted time.
From there, the 50 audience members were put into seven groups led by facilitators and charged with envisioning how Philadelphia’s business community could be in 2020 and then discussing practical steps to arrive there. Dagenais later noted that the smaller group’s forward-looking task was complementary to round table events held by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.
[Full Disclosure: This author served as a facilitator at last night’s event.]
After a half hour of smaller group discussions, a member from each reported back, repeating hopes of transit infrastructure development, more connectivity and a mass of successful startups that became stable, growing businesses.
Dagenais synthesized what was shared, noting that an overarching sense was that Philadelphia’s perception had improved over the past quarter century but certainly didn’t include much talk of its business community.
That perception starts with young people, he said, both school-age and the 20 and 30 somethings who are known for their healthy contributions to startups.
First, better connecting business and the school district for more internships, training and opportunities could grow a new work force that could blossom a new age of entrepreneurs, Dagenais said. Improvements have been made in the past 5-10 years with the school district, but still half of its students dont’ graduate, he added.
Secondly, growing, supporting and nurturing startups today can be a way to gain attention nationally for successes and add to the community, Dagenais said.
“Creating a real startup community is really all about momentum,” Rupp said.
“That’s something to take away from here, to remember that those two big subjects — public schools and the startup community — are the real building blocks to really impacting Philadelphia and its business culture,” Dagenais said.