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Inside the far-reaching effort to ‘reinvent’ Delaware’s economy

Reinventing Delaware is a wide-ranging group of stakeholders looking to build a new tech-savvy workforce in the First State. Here's what they've accomplished so far.

Zip Code Wilmington has become a cornerstone of the Reinventing Delaware effort. (Photo by Tony Abraham)
This is the cover story of the Delaware Innovation Week 2016 print magazine.
Delaware’s economy is ready for a remix.

Though there have been recent positive signs of stabilization, when General Motors closed what was billed as Delaware’s last automotive plant in 2009, there was a collective awakening that the state needed the jobs of the future.
And perhaps that’s when Delaware began entering its third business wave: from its origins in chemical sciences (DuPont and Dow) to its present of financial and legal services (credit card companies and corporate law) to, perhaps, a future of web, software and other modern-day knowledge workers.
It’s this mix of those talking about entrepreneurs and technologists that some think could be the wide-ranging sector of makers that manufacturing once was. Indeed, Delaware’s economy is being reinvented, and a group of key stakeholders is leading the charge.
One of the quietest beginnings of this reinvention is the forthrightly named Reinventing Delaware, which started as an event series from the Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation. Paired with the Non-Obvious Idea dinner series, civic leaders like Ben duPont, the local VC, have been gathering members of the state’s business, nonprofit and civil society groups to conceive of ways to improve Delaware’s future.
Consider some of the outcomes from the informal and broad stakeholder group:

  • Zip Code Wilmington: the coding bootcamp that has fast become a bedrock of Delaware’s nascent tech community came out of a 2014 Reinventing Delaware ideas dinner.
  • Silicon Valley East: the internal working name of a volunteer effort that spiraled out of that phrase being shared by Jim Kelly, the one-time ING Direct COO who became a bigwig at Capital One before retiring earlier this year. It spun out a handful of ideas for Delaware, including a founder-matchmaking effort for downsized DuPonters, expanded wet lab space and a pilot tech incubator.
  • {OpenBracket: the coding competition that brought 100 top-flight technologists to Wilmington earlier this month was in-part in motion before it got the boost of additional attention and network from a Reinventing Delaware dinner and a subcommittee from the Silicon Valley East working group. (Full disclosure: helped organize the event.)
  • Accelerate Delaware: the effort from the Longwood Foundation to push the live-work dynamism of Wilmington and beyond started in 2014 and this year launched as an independent nonprofit. Among its boosters are efforts that came from the Reinventing Delaware network. And, of course, remember that the Longwood Foundation is headed by There DuPont, brother to Ben and son of Pete.

What’s one common theme of these Reinventing Delaware outcomes? How about a familiar cast of characters who tend to be civicly minded and of the belief that Delaware (and specifically Wilmington) needs a big dose of urban revitalization and innovation clustering.

Places like Silicon Valley are over-saturated. Delaware has the chance to be the next tech hub, to be the next Austin, Texas.

“I spent a long amount of time when I was at DuPont at a manufacturing plant. I love manufacturing,” Ben duPont said in an interview with But “coding is going to be a better investment than manufacturing.”
Emerging Enterprise Center Program Director Frank DeSantis is a longtime champion of First State entrepreneurship efforts, working on growing another generation of companies in Delaware. He sees the link between growing a technologist- (whether they work at a credit card company or by themselves) and a entrepreneurship-friendly climate for improving Delaware’s future prospects.
“At first glance one could say this is not really integral to entrepreneurship because a lot of those individuals who are going to the coding school and learning coding aren’t themselves going to be entrepreneurs,” he said. “But it gets to how different pieces all come together for the entrepreneurial ecosystem to have all the components you need.”

Wilmington rising.

Wilmington rising. (Photo courtesy of Buccini/Pollin Group)

With the rise of fintech, there is no doubt that that the banking industry absolutely needs more coders in Delaware.
“If that talent doesn’t exist here in Delaware, they’re going to have to go elsewhere to find it,” DeSantis said of the tech-driven corners of the financial industry. “In my opinion that’s why you have the birth of something like Zip Code, in order to create a pipeline of people who can code in the fintech industry.”
If Delaware does not create the pool of qualified applicants for these jobs, the community risks these companies going elsewhere. The Delaware community lost a promising company last year, Cnverg, to the Austin tech scene due to a scant pool of talent in the area, according to Zip Code Wilmington Director of Education Tariq Hook.
“Places like Silicon Valley are over-saturated,” Hook said. “Delaware has the chance to be the next tech hub, to be the next Austin, Texas.”
Mona Parikh, tech community liaison and adjunct professor at the University of Delaware Horn Program in Entrepreneurship actually recalls a time when she left her native state of Delaware because there were no coding bootcamps around.
“I went to a 12-week code bootcamp, I knew it was the future back then,” she said of her decision in 2012. “That was where we needed to go as a community in Delaware. During the earliest days of coIN Loft we ran coding workshops. We knew the interest was there in coding. We were so excited when Zip Code formed.”
So instead of focusing on what Delaware used to be and trying to bring that back, the community should focus on the future and what possibilities lie ahead. “Regardless of whether or not if manufacturing is coming back, I don’t think it’s going to hurt anyone if we doubled down on teaching people code,” said Parikh.
This is a call for the community to work together and focus on the future of the state’s economy. “Zip Code is not the end-all-be-all, by all means,” said Hook. “Just like there are a number of colleges here in Delaware, there can be more code schools.”
For those in training, now is the time to make the decision, whether to be a part of this movement or be left behind. “As far as labor, I think there’s going to be two types of jobs: People who tell computers what to do and people who are told what to do by computers,” said Ben duPont.
Which would you rather be?

Companies: Zip Code Wilmington / DuPont / University of Delaware

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