Sunday, October 23, 2005

Notes from Austin: A conversation with an outsider

The Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce took an intercommunity visit to Austin, TX on October 16, 17 and 18. These are notes from that trip.

One the plane ride to Austin, I sat next to someone who had lived in Greenville only a year. She told me how difficult it had been for her to get plugged into the community. She had asked to volunteer on committees and seek other ways of being incorporated into the community but had found it very difficult to be included. Now, if this was the only time I had heard this about Greenville, it would have been easy to write it off as an isolated case. But I hear it frequently, in particular from African-Americans trying to become part of the leadership in the community.

The problem, though, is that leaders in Greenville don't perceive that it is a tight, closed system. We think of ourselves as enlightened and open to new ideas and people. So where does the disconnect come from, and why do newcomers have a much easier time integrating into Austin than they do into Greenville?

What Austin has, and what Greenville doesn't to a large extent, is a high level of churn driven by the high level of entrepreneurial activity and creative energy. It's not uncommon to find major companies and other organizations in Greenville where almost all of the senior leadership has been in place 20 or 30 years. They have deep relationships going back decades, and they have benefited together from the status quo. Like anyone would, they tend to rely on people they have known and trusted for a long time. They don't necessarily try to keep new people out (though I'm not so naive to believe this doesn't happen), it is just very difficult to break into the club unless you work at it for years.

In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter described the entrepreneurial dynamic.
The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers, new goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization … that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.
Creative Destruction is an incredibly challenging notion to those in charge today. But it is the furnace of energy that creates wealth and keeps the community vibrant. Austin has it to a much greater degree than Greenville does.

I'm sure that Austin, like everywhere, has its citadels of power too. But Austin has a culture of people creating the new new thing, and this gives outsiders a chance to catch a new wave and become a player in the community.

If we want to ignite an entrepreneurial engine that drives the creation of enormous wealth in the community, then we have to address how outsiders - like students, managers spinning out of large companies, and immigrants - find opportunities to lead. The reception of outsiders and the creation of entrepreneurial wealth are integrally tied together.

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