There were some mentions of incubators, startup competitions and venture capital at a roundtable with Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway on how to help entrepreneurs in Madison.
But the business leaders and startup mentors who spoke on Wednesday at the American Family Insurance’s Institute for Corporate and Social Impact mostly focused on some of the perennial issues that loom large in modern Madison: housing, transit and racial disparities.
"It's important for folks to be able to afford to live here, and to be able to get around without having to depend on a vehicle," said Adam Barr, public policy manager with the Greater Madison Area Chamber of Commerce. "We live on an isthmus with limited roadway, so we have to start planning for the future of our transportation system."
“You can find brilliance everywhere,” said Amy Gannon, the director of Doyenne, a nonprofit that strives to help minority and women-led startups. “Because of our structural situation, and our cultural situation, we don’t always recognize the potential and the brilliance that’s out there.”
The roundtable came as part of Forward Festival, an eight-day event centered on startups and entrepreneurship in the Madison area. The 10-year-old tradition has a history of engaging political figures on issues of entrepreneurship: In 2016, for example, Sen. Tammy Baldwin participated in a similar roundtable.
For the mayoral roundtable, Rhodes-Conway said she wasn’t there to do much talking.
“I really appreciate the format of this session. It's designed around me listening to you,” she told the panelists, who included Barr, Gannon, gBeta Madison director Nhi Le, and the Urban & Manufacturing Alliance’s program and membership director Katy Stanton.
Rhodes-Conway did take the time to outline some city-led initiatives to stoke entrepreneurship, from the MarketReady Program — which strives to train and support potential Madison Public Market vendors — to Kiva Greater Madison — a microloan program for small businesses — and the business assistance team working within the Department of Community and Economic Development.
Rhodes-Conway acknowledged that there was room to grow in terms of how the city currently helps entrepreneurs.
"What we should really be doing is figuring out what the barriers are in the city process, and making them lower barriers -- rather than having people who can help you get over those barriers," she said.
She also acknowledged the importance of “non-traditional” modes of economic, like improving the city’s infrastructure and housing affordability.
“People need to be able to afford to live in the city to be part of entrepreneurial work,” she said.
Stanton talked about the importance of cultivating local companies instead of attracting them, and the importance of expanding focus beyond high-tech startups to include lifestyle or culinary startups, and to create ecosystems that can zero in on “pockets of brilliance” that are otherwise overlooked by typical startup institutions.
"How can we identify structures that are existing in our communities — libraries, churches, immigrant centers — how can we identify those kinds of existing structures ... that already have that trust built, and activate the brilliance that's there," she said
Le spoke at length about the experience of young people living in Madison. She said that to keep young would-be entrepreneurs from leaving the area, affordability of transportation and housing is key.
“How do we afford to be able to take a risk on entrepreneurship in Madison specifically, without accepting a high-paying job at another corporation, either here in Madison or elsewhere?” she asked.
All the panelists spoke on the issue of race and inclusion.
"The cultural social life for people of color in Madison is lacking ... pretty dramatically,” said Gannon. “They may feel like they're a guest in somebody else's house. And sometimes an unwelcome guest in that house. If we think of Madison is as house, how do we build it together?”
“I've heard far too many times from people of color I've met here, they just don't feel comfortable in enough spaces,” echoed Barr. “I don't know how you crack that egg, but it's a problem.”
Toward the end of the roundtable, the event’s emcee Scott Resnick — COO of Hardin Design and Development, the entrepreneur-in-residence at StartingBlock, and himself a former mayoral candidate from 2014 — gave panelists and the few dozen attendees a rapidfire survey, prompting them to weigh in on various policies other communities have implemented to spur entrepreneurship.
Some, like expanding the library’s makerspace program and doubling down and arts investments, received overwhelming approval. Others, like planting startup recruiters in San Francisco or launching startup-centric marketing campaigns for Madison, received overwhelming dismissal.
Some, like turning a vacant house into an “idea house” where people could live together and think of entrepreneurial projects, received a mixed reception.
“Let’s fill a vacant house with a family that needs a home,” said Barr, following some applause for the idea.
After the event, Rhodes-Conway said that she was gratified to hear that a lot of the ideas she heard from panelists were things that the city was already thinking about or working on.
"I heard really strongly, transportation. I heard affordable housing. I heard issues on geographic connections, which makes me think about, where do we build neighborhood business districts, and where do we build more density?” she said.
Asked about her thoughts on high-growth, high-tech entrepreneurship specifically, Rhodes-Conway said that her focus is on cultivating homegrown startups, regardless of the type of venture.