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Entrepreneurs, Innovation Key to Hartford's Future

Nov 03, 2013
Hartford Business Journal
Entrepreneurs, Innovation Key to Hartford's Future
Hartford Business Journal - Talking Points
By John Shemo

We live between two regions ranked No. 5 and 6 globally as entrepreneurial hotspots, New York and Boston. Yet the Hartford region's reputation for entrepreneurial activity gets lost in the shuffle of these imposing shadows.

The truth bears that Hartford has innovation embedded throughout its business community. It occurs within our larger corporate community, our healthcare community, in smaller businesses and within our universities. United Technologies Corp., for example, recently landed on the Thomson Reuters list of top global innovators along with neighboring General Electric and Xerox.

Our region continues to have its share of entrepreneurs who use their skills to bring these innovations to market. Our local Plan B Burger restaurant chain was recently recognized as a Global Hot 100 company at the World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. But we have many miles to travel before we can lay a claim to fame. Here are a few lessons we can learn from other high performing regions.

1. Government works best when it exercises the least control but offers meaningful support.

A good example of this is MassChallenge, an annual accelerator program and startup competition. One hundred and twenty-five finalists take part in a three month accelerator. About $1.1 million is raised privately as cash awards are leveraged with $4 million in, in-kind support. Massachusetts provides $1 million over five years toward the cost of office space rental for the accelerator period. The program is otherwise managed privately.

Since its inception in 2010 the 361 MassChallenge alumni have collectively raised over $362 million in outside funding and created 2,900 jobs.

2. The role of colleges and universities.

It may take the form of academics (such as the Entrepreneurial Center at Babson College); or connections to alumni mentors and investors; or accelerators; or networking events connecting venture capitalists and angels to entrepreneurs; or running business plan competitions the likes of Harvard, MIT and Tufts. This is our lifeline to fresh ideas and the next generation of leaders. The strongest entrepreneur communities are found near world class universities that specialize in science and engineering.

3. Embrace a culture of "don't be afraid to fail."

Perhaps obvious, but we live in an environment that recognizes and awards success and disdains and punishes failure. The entrepreneur world is prone for failures and the resiliency of true entrepreneurs is a key to success. Encourage risk and reward accomplishments. Startups may be prone to failure, but they also account for the bulk of innovation in the U.S.

4. Celebrate diversity and freedom of thought.

Entrepreneurs come from everywhere. They're men and women; they're young and old; they have different skin colors, speak many languages and have no formal dress code. There's room for everyone at the table.

Immigrants are responsible for about half the country's most successful startups. Take a look at the vibrant retail activity on Park Street in Hartford. They represent entrepreneurs from throughout the Caribbean who overcame cultural and funding barriers to open and run successful stores.

5. It takes a community (with global connections).

Entrepreneurial communities thrive on a network of smart and creative people from a variety of disciplines. Their intersection creates the foundation for startup activity. These connections now extend globally. The MetroHartford Alliance's annual CT Israeli Technology summit is a good example of leveraging connections with international high-tech entrepreneurial communities to support business development on both ends.

The future well-being of our region depends on innovation and entrepreneurship. Over the past 15 years, 55 percent of all net job creation in the Hartford region came from companies with up to nine employees.

Let's be smart and creative about how we support our entrepreneurs and learn from our mistakes and the success of others.

John Shemo is the vice president and director of economic development for the MetroHartford Alliance.

See the article as posted by the Hartford Business Journal: