(Photo by Tony Abraham)
Look at a map of Baltimore’s current startup ecosystem and you’ll notice something peculiar: All of the innovative new businesses are clustered on one side of town. And it’s not the marginalized West side of town, either.
“These neighborhoods have been … disinvested for generations,” said Andre Robinson, executive director of the Mount Royal Community Development Corporation (MRCDC). “We want to get from tolerance to acceptance and embrace.”
MRCDC is looking to shift that economic lopsidedness with Innovation Village, a burgeoning hub of CDCs, anchor institutions, investors, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and government agencies that make up a “framework for economic development” and urban revitalization.
Robinson moderated a panel of those community members at Light City:
- Jeff Cherry, impact investor and founder of Conscious Capitalism
- Shayla Adams, founder of Remix Education
- Dayvon Love, director of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle
- Rich May, founder and chairman of Innovation Village
- Kyle O’Conner, founder of The Startup Nest
Cherry said there’s a reason for the lopsidedness: There are preconceived notions of what an entrepreneur should look like, and those preconceptions don’t fit the people living in West Baltimore.
“Steve Case brings Rise of the Rest to Baltimore. We’re the Rise of the Rest within Baltimore,” he said. “The first thing is setting up the Innovation Village. Putting a stake in the ground, letting people know it’s going to be real, bringing capital.”
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That didn’t happen by chance, he said. It happened for structural reasons West Baltimore has to overcome.
“In the year 2040, the racial majority and minority is going to flip,” O’Conner said. “There will be more people of color in this country. There’s a massive target audience out there that’s not being tapped into. If we start to lay the groundwork, the bricks and the breadcrumbs to start engaging with that audience, us as a country are going to be well off when 2040 comes.”
But that starts with education, Adams said. Modes of teaching are relics of the industrial economy and not representative of the innovation economy, where the workforce needs 21st-century skills to survive.
“If the schools are built for didactic learning where you’re sitting in rows and being a recipient of content not a content creator, that’s where we see a disconnect,” she said. “It starts with bringing project-based learning, blended learning and personalized learning to all types of organizations in the city.”
"We need to shift our notions of what it means to invest."
That’s one kind of investment. Love said “investment” means different things to different communities: Investment in affluent white communities means wealth accumulation. Investment in black communities means “other people trying to fix our problems for us.”
“That kind of investment has not been effective. We need to shift our notions of what it means to invest,” he said, in a way that allows people of color to change their own condition.
In other words, it’s all about community narrative.
“We don’t tell our success stories very well. Baltimore itself has adopted the crime story as its own narrative. We start to believe it,” May said. “You can’t have opportunity until you have access to it. For a majority of our citizens there’s no access to that opportunity to begin with.”
Adams pushed the need to create access a little further.
“The cost of this conference is a significant barrier,” she said. “Are you going to do a hackathon in the ‘hood? Are you going to come to the ‘hood and do a pitch competition?”
People care about where they live, Cherry said, and they also have the power to change the way their home is perceived. All you have to do is decide you want to.
“When I say we’re going to be the Rise of the Rest within Baltimore,” he said, “we’re going to West Baltimore to build real, sustainable, long-term businesses.”-30-
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