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Layering the technology ecosystem

Madison is on the right growth path, but plenty more can be done to build out the local technology ecosystem. We present 10 ideas from local executives.

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

What more needs to be done to build Madison’s technology ecosystem? Whether it’s more of a risk-taking attitude, greater diversity, or more coordination with local schools and their curriculums, local thought leaders have plenty of ideas to keep the tech momentum building.

That momentum has national organizations noting that Madison is punching above its weight when it comes to technology growth. A new study by the Progressive Policy Institute puts Madison in a group of 35 metropolitan areas — at number 26, to be precise — with a thriving, tech-driven startup scene. However, momentum can be blunted without consistently applied focus, so we reached out to local technology executives, economic development professionals, and educators to get their take on what can be done to go beyond maintaining the status quo.

In so doing, we came across a couple of schools of thought. One holds that while we have some work to do, we have established several of the most essential components of such an ecosystem and we can build upon them. “When you look at the menu of assets and activities that a region needs to compete in this space, we would maintain that we’ve checked most of the boxes, but each of them have a different maturity, density, or success level,” notes Paul Jadin, president of the Madison Region Economic Partnership, or MadREP.

The other school holds that Madison is only scratching the surface. Max Lynch, CEO of Ionic, a Madison technology firm that develops platforms for the development of mobile apps, has blogged about Wisconsin’s low ranking in startup activity, as cited in the 2016 Kauffman Foundation report, and he believes Madison has a great deal of work to do in ecosystem-building areas such as affordable medical insurance, the lack of diversity in the technology industry, declining university support from the state, and even social progressivism.

“For some reason, Madison is seen by the rest of the state as a technology leader to a very large degree,” Lynch notes, “but it’s funny because when you actually compare it to the rest of the country,
we are so, so far behind.”

Both views acknowledge that ecosystem work is never really done, so here are 10 technology industry recommendations for accelerating entrepreneurship.

1. School ’em

Focusing on our schools in ways that stimulate interest in the hard sciences such as robotics and engineering will go a long way to building the most essential ecosystem element — the next-generation workforce. “This is not only for preparing the future generation to be part of the tech community as an employee, but also to have schools where engineers want to send their sons and daughters to expose them to the hard sciences and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math),” says Scott Resnick, vice president of Hardin Design and Development and entrepreneur-in-residence with the entrepreneurial hub StartingBlock Madison.

Unfortunately, robotics clubs and competitions are somewhat expensive to run, which is why bills have been introduced in the state legislature to provide grant money to public schools that sponsor robotics competitions. Resnick wholeheartedly endorses them because neighboring Minnesota, which has put some economic distance between itself and Wisconsin because of its tighter embrace of technology, has such clubs in greater numbers.

Jadin also believes that Madison has some work to do in this area. He cites growing technical investment in public schools, particularly a $25,000 state grant incentive that only handful of local schools have taken advantage of thus far to build out technology space for equipment such as 3-D printers and laser printers. Jadin likens such spaces to “Sector67 right in the schools,” and by reinvesting in technology in the schools, he believes students will be encouraged to pursue related disciplines and that will translate into a more diverse, available pool of students for technical colleges and universities.

“We need to continue to nurture the relationships with K–12 and higher education to guarantee that we are providing curriculum and classroom capacity to continue to serve the demands of the sector,” he states.

2. Accelerate diversity

The 2016 Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Survey, conducted by MadREP, shows the vast majority of local employers haven’t even taken the necessary first steps toward establishing a “D&I” program. In the survey, which was sent to a random sample of 2,474 employers, 86% of respondents acknowledged they do not have a written diversity statement, and 90% do not have dedicated full- or part-time staff to drive diversity and inclusion within their organizations.

While women are pursuing jobs in the tech fields, the lack of a pipeline for people of color isn’t helping matters. Resnick says former Madison School Board member Ed Hughes once shared with him the lack of diversity in advanced placement classes in computer science. Even more woeful was the low number of people of color statewide taking and passing the exam for advanced placement in computer science. “I want to say two years ago, it was under five,” Resnick recalls. “So when you talk about issues of diversity in the technology field, when you only have five high school students statewide taking the exam, it’s no surprise that by the time they are at employment age, we simply don’t have a robust number.”

The Madison School District has identified increased access to AP coursework as goal No. 2 in its District Strategic Framework, so at least the ball is rolling on this aspect of the digital divide.

Ashley Quinto Powell, business development manager for Bendyworks, a custom software development company in Madison, and a co-organizer of the 900-member Madison Women in Tech, notes that diversity is a challenge everywhere but adds that Madison is at least aware of its diversity challenges and people here “are very conscious about trying to improve that.”

Quinto Powell cites a host of local coding camps and engineering camps that make a big difference for getting more girls interested in technology. “We’re starting to see that it’s really cool to be in technology,” she says, “and women in technology are very conscious of being available and visible so that girls can see themselves in technology.”

A Chicago native who moved to Madison in 2008, Quinto Powell points to a distinct advantage that Madison can build upon when diversifying its technology workforce, and that’s the willingness of local employers to respond to employees’ need for work-life balance. “We don’t find this on the coasts,” she states. “This morning I happen to be home with my kids, and I’ve been traveling for the past week and nobody batted an eyelash at me when I said, ‘I’ve been traveling for a week and I’d like to spend the day with my kids.’ I think that’s much more common here.”

As a Madison alder, Resnick championed the creation of the Women and Minority Entrepreneur Fund, now being fulfilled by The Doyenne Group. He cites St. Louis, Mo. as a community that pioneered the cause of getting more women into the tech entrepreneur scene and “some people would say simply by introducing more women into the scene it became one of the best cities in the world for women entrepreneurs. We started to see incredible growth in St. Louis.”


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