Entrepreneurship is booming in Madison and Dane County’s growing job market is “driving the state’s economy,” Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce told 1,000 attendees at the business group’s annual dinner Wednesday night.
But there are still gaps to bridge — gaps of diversity and poverty — and it’s time for the business community to step up and help, he added.
“We can’t leave anyone behind as our businesses move forward,” Brandon said.
“A puzzle is a challenge waiting to be solved” was the theme of the dinner, held at Monona Terrace.
Keynote speaker Richard Reeves, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, presented data showing the American dream is far less accessible to blacks or to children raised in poverty.
Even among black Americans raised as middle class, 72 percent are likely to wind up poor, twice the rate of whites who fell from middle class to low income, Reeves said.
In Madison, upward mobility is “just OK,” Reeves said, compared to other cities of similar size. He said Madison has a high level of spending for schools, per student, and is tops in civic engagement but is No. 2 in segregation of the poor, second to Tallahassee, Florida.
Yet Reeves praised the community. Of all the speeches he has given — Reeves is European Business Speaker of the Year — this was the first time he’s been asked to address a chamber of commerce.
“The culture and history of this place seems to be one where these issues have been taken seriously,” he said.
Reeves said cities with smaller economic gaps are “more productive economically.”
Helping diverse and low-income residents acquire skills and make business connections creates a more competitive economy, he said. But, he added, that requires commitment.
“This is nobody’s fault but it is everybody’s responsibility. And it starts with you,” Reeves said.
Madison school superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said personalized pathways are helping students to explore the career paths they’re interested in, with programs such as internships and apprenticeships. She credited a partnership among the school district, the chamber of commerce, Madison Area Technical College and the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin.
In the next five years, the city’s high schools will change, Cheatham said.
“We simply ask for your engagement,” she told the business group. “Cultivate partnerships with our schools.”
Chamber president Brandon said if each person at the dinner helps one family or invests in one entrepreneur, “the puzzle will come together.”
Beth Donley, Stemina Biomarker Discovery CEO and chair-elect of the chamber’s board of directors, said, after the speeches, the message is “100 percent true. We can’t expect to succeed if everyone doesn’t have a seat at the table.”
Gregory St. Fort, executive director of the 100State co-working space, said minority entrepreneurs need more doors to open. “Once that barrier is broken, talent can take over,” he said.