THE BLOG

Mississippi at the Crossroads of History

06/30/2015 03:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2016

It's surreal to be in the south during this time in history. The hot, humid muggy Mississippi weather today was interrupted momentarily by a ferocious thunderstorm that flashed and rumbled over the Capital City, dumping buckets of warm rain in its hurry to race through the region. But neither a torrential downpour nor the loud rolls of thunder could drown out the buzz of excitement that permeates this place at this moment in time. There's a real sense that something historic is about to happen in Jackson, Mississippi that will have a positive impact on the economic course of this city, and perhaps the entire state, into the foreseeable future.

In the shadow of national discourse over emblems of exclusionary policies and practices of the past, the City of Jackson on June 30 will take a monumental proactive step to pioneer a path in the future frontier of economic inclusion and empowerment of all its residents. On that day, Jackson will play host to national experts in innovation ecosystems from Silicon Valley, CA and Cleveland, OH to participate in the first TECHJXN Innovation Summit, where local leaders will unveil their dream for an inclusive 21st century economic environment.

HISTORIC PROBLEM

Aspirations aside, there is considerable long-term commitment needed to move the stagnant needle of inclusive competitiveness. Jackson is home to a population that is 80 percent black and 18 percent white. Yet, the 18 percent white population produces 98 percent of the local GDP, while the black population contributes a mere 1.4 percent. But, before we stare slack-jawed at the inability of Mississippi to overcome the economic inertia of the past 60 years, we should look in the mirror. These statistics are comparable to national data.

The Census Survey of Business Owners shows that all 1.9 million black-owned businesses in America produce less than 1 percent of the nation's GDP and zero percent job growth. With the addition of all Hispanic-owned businesses the combined total contribution to national GDP is less than 4 percent with a mere 1 percent job growth. Yet, by mid-century these two populations alone will account for 42 percent of the U.S. population. With a looming demographically driven imperative, this current economic paradigm across America is simply unsustainable. The good news is that the black and Hispanic American entrepreneurial growth rates outpace the national average (18 percent) by more than triple (60 percent) and double (44 percent) respectively.

JUXTAPOSING JACKSON

As a national media spotlight shines brightly upon the shifting conscience of America in the wake of the tragic massacre of nine black Americans in Charleston, South Carolina at the historic Emanuel AME church, deep down in Mississippi an invisible change is occurring that will determine a different, more inclusive, future for all its residents. But there's considerable work needed to connect a historically disconnected population to new educational resources and entrepreneurial infrastructure that will improve access to opportunity, strengthen productivity performance and bolster the overall competitiveness of the region.

Jackson is home to the Mississippi (MS) Center for Education Innovation, which has coordinated an unprecedented coalition of partners and supporters that bridge historic divides across education, socio-economics, race and politics. These diverse pioneers span the spectrum of leadership in communities in and around the Capital City. Participants in this historic TECHJXN Innovation Summit include the City of Jackson mayor and leaders in education, business, impact investing, public policy, entrepreneurship, community and economic development. They are bound together by a common vision to develop the nation's first inclusive innovation ecosystem built around the framework of inclusive competitiveness.

This summit will introduce an economic concept that will catalyze a strategic planning process through which this diverse coalition will have an opportunity to commit to developing the capacity of underserved, low-opportunity and underrepresented residents through new pipelines of productivity, from education through workforce development and entrepreneurship.

COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

Certainly Jackson isn't the first city to experiment with education and economic strategies. It isn't the first to explore unique ways to invest in uplifting its historically distressed communities. But heretofore, most (if not all) efforts devoted toward empowering underrepresented populations across the nation have been deployed through the lens of deficit perception. Churches, nonprofit organizations, philanthropy, charitable donations, public welfare and a wide variety of creative approaches have resulted in fragmented disparate programs lacking cohesion, strategic planning and accountability. These efforts have predictably produced varying degrees of outcomes. TECHJXN is taking an altogether different approach to education and economic empowerment that has been tried and proven to work.

And this is where Jackson leaders have a distinct competitive advantage as first movers in a new landscape of opportunity. Multi-trillion dollar industries have been built and sustained from the value extracted from America's poorest and most neglected communities. Still, despite the constant organic growth of talent, these fertile grounds remain in a perpetual state of neglect. Imagine how much more value those communities would produce with strategic investments, deployment of a viable plan and sustained measurable results. This is the paradigm shift set to take place in the heart of Mississippi.

Jackson leaders are convening at the TECHJXN Innovation Summit to discuss investing in identifying and scaling up value hidden within communities suffering from chronic economic neglect and lack of access to quality resources. They use phrases and terms like: inclusive competitiveness, regional competitiveness, impact investing, inclusive innovation ecosystems, economic gardening and STEAM education. Much of the aforementioned is unfamiliar vernacular to most community leaders, educators, parents and students nationwide. And that's understandable, since much of our nation, in particular underrepresented populations, are still operating under the frameworks of older economic systems such as the 19th century Agrarian Economy and the 20th century Industrial Manufacturing Economy.

But today, America is many decades into a knowledge-based, tech-driven, globally competitive Innovation Economy. And we desperately need to overhaul obsolete systems of education that fail to prepare and equip students and community residents to not only participate, but compete in today's innovation economy.

HACKING THE FUTURE

The TECHJXN Innovation Summit is hacking into uncharted territory by equating investing in areas of economic distress with the same process by which investors approach funding scalable enterprises, public-private partnerships and developing Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies (CEDS) plans to channel funds to achieve regional competitiveness goals. The lens through which TECHJXN views low-performing communities is the same lens through which investors view the potential in a promising startup. The focus is on investing in value, cultivating and mentoring talent and reaping a return on investment. Everybody wins.

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Perhaps this venerable relic of the Civil Rights Movement will establish a new 21st century reputation for developing a local innovation ecosystem built deep in the south around a framework of inclusive competitiveness. Perhaps Jackson's inclusive economic model will be replicated in other urban regions to build capacity in distressed communities, develop and maintain on-ramps to local innovation ecosystems and empower underrepresented populations to improve productivity and compete in today's innovation economy.

Perhaps Jackson, Mississippi will be the birthplace of a 21st century national transformation of America's archaic systems of economic exclusion into future ecosystems of inclusion and opportunity for all who seek to compete.

June 30 is shaping up to be a historic day in Jackson.