Published in the Lansing State Journal
June 30, 2012
When I first heard the term "economic gardening" a few years ago at a conference, I was in complete agreement with its ideals. Communities can help "grow" local entrepreneurs by connecting them with knowledge resources and access to capital. These networked resources would become the "garden" in which communities would grow their local small businesses. I was in "complete agreement" with economic gardening because I had been implementing the model for years in the Prima Civitas Foundation's entrepreneurship initiative, Moving Ideas to Market! I was an economic gardener! I was thrilled to have a catchy term to describe my work. And catchy it was! Economic gardening is now being practiced throughout Michigan – from our most rural villages on up to Michigan's leadership. While many other states are focusing on attracting and retaining their talent, Michigan has put a spotlight on GROWING its talent! And Entrepreneurs really are the MVPs of the talent world: they create their own jobs and employ others.
So when we typically envision an entrepreneur, we most often picture a post-college graduate or a 40-something career shifter; it's no surprise then that a vast amount of resources for entrepreneurial development is directed toward existing entrepreneurs. But what are we doing to ensure that there is a healthy supply of young entrepreneurs in the pipeline? In other words, what seeds are we using to "plant" entrepreneurial talent in Michigan's economic garden?
As Program Manager of the Moving Ideas to Market (MI2M) initiative, my primary focus is entrepreneurial culture change for Michigan. I employ the economic gardening model on a statewide scale and for entrepreneurs of all ages; however, I put an emphasis on the K-12 entrepreneurial age group because they ARE Michigan's future talent MVPs. Throughout Michigan, teachers and parents are hungry to teach youth about innovation and entrepreneurship. To respond to this hunger, MI2M has spent years collecting and sharing innovative lesson plans, highlighting teaching best practice models, interviewing young entrepreneurs, and developing pilot programs that advance entrepreneurial education for youth. And there have been several best practice models, particularly in the Greater-Lansing region!
In DeWitt, teachers Jason LaFay and Jeff Croley started the DeWitt Creativity group to support creativity and innovation of their students. Students in Williamston garnered national attention, and a $10,000 grant from the Lamelson-MIT InvenTeam initaitive, for their solar-powered, buoy-mounted device that alerts swimmers when dangerous rip currents are present. In Stockbridge, high school teacher Bob Richards’ Stockbridge Advanced Underwater Robotics Team is working with the BentProp Project to locate downed WWII aircraft in the Pacific Ocean. Nearly every student I spoke with in these examples knew that they could start their own business someday. I wish I could say that these types of programs were in every school in Michigan, but I can’t. Locating scarce resources and cultivating “entrepreneurial education champions” take energy, time, and money. So it’s up to all of us.
DeWitt, Williamston, and Stockbridge shouldn't be the exceptions – all schools in Michigan should offer enriching and FUN programs that allow students to experience innovation and entrepreneurship – and to build the support systems they one day need to start a business in Michigan. Just as Michigan communities have embraced economic gardening as a key development tool to support current entrepreneurs, we should also help support the model of economic "planting" to sew seeds of entrepreneurial talent for future generations.