Why I Can Cheer for and Support Innovation Success while also Challenging it to Be More Inclusive

Oct 01, 2012 at 3:42pm by: William Generett Jr., J.D.

The great philosopher WEB Dubois spoke about a “double consciousness” or a lens through which many African Americans view the world. At this point in life, my African American “double consciousness” entails viewing the world as a “Pittsburgher” and as an “African American Pittsburgher”. When I left the city in 1989, like many other young African American men that had the opportunity to leave, I swore that I would never come back. At the time Pittsburgh was reeling from the closing of the Steel Mills. There were few job opportunities for anyone, let alone young African Americans, and race relations were awful. Sadly, I began to see the strong African American communities that I spent a lot time in begin to be ravage by drugs, violence and the other societal ills that occur when there are no jobs. I knew that once I went to Atlanta, I wasn’t coming back.

Fast forward 15 years, my family and I decided to move back to Pittsburgh from DC. The Pittsburgh that I left in 1989 and swore I would never come back to had changed and my needs with a young family had also changed. Pittsburgh was a totally different city. The lens through which I saw Pittsburgh was different. For many (especially if you have one of the new economy jobs) it is a world class city. There are good white collar jobs created by the new economy led by resurgences in healthcare, education and innovation. The cost of living is great; it has an incredible cultural district and a lot of things to do and, of course, world class sports. There also seems to be a renewed sense about the importance of diversity inclusion. Today, Pittsburgh is even more successful then when I returned in 2004. The highly touted
economic resurgence is not just touted by Pittsburghers, it is seen by outside observers as a national and international model for economic transformation. The city has world class jobs and cultural amenities to match. We successfully hosted the G-20, the Pittsburgh Steelers have added 1 more Super bowl ring to their collection and the Pittsburgh Penguins have added two Stanley cups. The Pirates … well you can’t have everything.

Thirty years of significant investment in technology based economic development by government (federal, state and local), and our foundations – billions of dollars — have created a world class educational institutions and technology ecosystem that is the envy of similar sized cities throughout the county and every city in the Midwest. The technology revolution in this city is real and we have a list of successful companies that have and are creating good jobs and stimulating tremendous economic growth. These companies are highlighted on the websites of our region’s most successful TBED organizations (www.innovationworks.org, www.ideafoundry.org). I am proud to say I know and work with some of these companies. Our continuing tech success makes me proud to be a “Pittsburgher”.

Viewing Pittsburgh through the African American lens; however, does not make me proud. Instead it makes me sad and sometimes, angry. All of the African American communities that played a significant role in shaping me into the person that I am today are a skeleton of the communities that they were when I grew up in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. To see this, all one has to do is drive through the ring of African American neighborhoods inside and outside of the city. Some of these communities look more like communities that we would expect to find in the third world rather than in the our nation’s number one city. The issue for me is not theoretical but personal.

The sad reality is no region in the country, that has a successful innovation economy, has been able to spread that success to underserved communities. All one has to do is looking at our nation’s most successful innovation economy, Silicon Valley and look at surrounding communities like Oakland that are not doing well.

Fortunately, in the last 5 years we have seen a lot of the Pittsburgh region’s stakeholders acknowledge this problem and begin to do the heavy lifting needed to solve the problem. In 5 years, as a region, we are farther ahead then most, but still at the beginning stages of doing the work to solve the problem. Many stakeholders throughout the nation are looking at us to become a model for creating an inclusive innovation economy like we became a model for economic transformation. For me I hope that one day I can say that my “Pittsburgh” reality and “African-American Pittsburgh” reality are one and the same. This blog will work to highlight the best practices here and nationally to create an inclusive innovation economy. If you haven’t read the article in the Atlantic magazine, it provides a great analysis of the
success and challenges that our region and this country faces as it works to make TBED an inclusive growth engine.

Pivoting a City: Can Startups Help More Than Themselves?

William Generett Jr., J.D.
President and CEO
Urban Innovation21