First in a series
THE BOSTON innovation community is full of stories about the ones that got away — the scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who earned their credentials here but chose to set up their businesses elsewhere. These proto-Mark Zuckerbergs may have been lured away by more abundant “angel” capital in California, or by the global-metropolis sheen of New York City. Just as often, though, they chose to move to up-and-coming locales such as Seattle, the North Carolina research triangle, the Washington suburbs, or Austin, Texas, seeking a more congenial lifestyle or sense of community.
Some loss of talented innovators is inevitable. The Boston area, like most worthwhile places, has a distinctive flavor, and it’s surely not for everyone. Still, the annual outflow of talent is clearly a loss, impeding the region’s quest for higher-paying jobs, lower unemployment, and a larger footprint in the world. Boston may be the world’s knowledge capital, but it owns only a modest slice of the tech economy — with no Microsoft, Google, or Facebook to call its own. That adds up to huge potential for growth.
Keeping a higher number of innovators who go to school here is crucial to Boston’s future, because their firms look more at the quality of the workforce than tax rates or energy costs, which scare some lower-wage manufacturers away. But competition from rival cities is intensifying. Biotech is the one innovation sector in which Boston leads the world. Nonetheless, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently began constructing 1.1 million square feet of lab space with the goal of luring firms from the Boston area.
Bloomberg, a billionaire ex-Bay Stater, knows what he’s doing. And Bostonians shouldn’t meet his threat with the usual sangfroid — the attitude that if you aren’t prepared to adapt to local customs, you don’t belong here — or, worse, with the suspicion of outsiders lampooned by local comedian Amy Poehler at the recent Golden Globe Awards: “You’re not better than me.”
Joking aside, the Boston area is more alert to the threat than one might think. Mayor Menino has put money into rebranding the Seaport District as the Innovation District. Governor Patrick launched an ambitious life sciences initiative. Harvard came to the table with plans for a Bloomberg-like biotechnology center in Allston, but was thwarted by the economic downturn.
Bricks and mortar only go so far. The Boston area should take greater account of the lifestyle needs and interests of those who might want to settle here, and should work harder to integrate newcomers into its charity boards and civic institutions. The intense connection some longtime Bostonians feel to their city and state may create a sense that the barriers to entry are too high. If outsiders find it daunting to break into Boston’s institutions, that’s partly because of the depth of commitment of the people already there.
But few could argue that it wouldn’t behoove the Boston area to look for ways to be more welcoming; fair or not, there is no shortage of people who can attest to how difficult it was to find their place in the Boston community. Somewhere near the heart of civic life is an inner circle that can widen its boundaries to include more of the region’s leading innovators.
Currently, Boston’s power structure contains a mixture of long-serving local politicians, representatives of universities and nonprofits, corporate leaders who do a lot of business with the city or state, and executives of some other community-oriented firms with deep roots in the city and region.
These figures dominate local organizations; through their generosity, schoolchildren receive extra enrichment, low-income kids get summer jobs, and fireworks light up the sky on the Fourth of July. But across the river, in Cambridge, the innovation community leads a parallel life with its own tech councils, innovation center, and iconic firms. The stars in that universe rarely interact with the Boston establishment; the annual fund-raiser for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Boston, held in mid-February, reaped an impressive $1.4 million from the city’s leading banks, investment firms, retailers, real estate, and construction industries. But among the 29 top corporate contributors, who each gave over $10,000, only two — longstanding local titans Raytheon and EMC — were tech firms. The neon logos illuminating Kendall Square were almost entirely missing.
The separation hurts both communities. Civic leaders quietly assert that innovators tend to be younger and lack a sense of community responsibility. Innovators, when interviewed, feel deeply alienated from a civic establishment that marches to its own tribal rhythms.
Jeff Bussgang, the founder of Flybridge Capital Partners, straddles both worlds, by dint of having grown up in Lexington and having worked on local causes such as Facing History, which educates Massachusetts public-school children about the Holocaust and similar events. He also funds innovators. When, in 2011, Bussgang was invited to the first Commonwealth Summit, a weekend-long retreat for 50 or so top leaders supported by the Boston Foundation, he found himself among an establishment-heavy roster drawn mainly from the political world and local charity boards. After Bussgang pointed out that many drivers of the jobs of the future weren’t among the invitees, organizers eagerly agreed to let him recruit about eight leaders of the innovation community for the 2012 summit.
That conclave produced a manifesto stating that Massachusetts is “Ground Zero for innovation” but that “attracting, developing, and retaining high-quality [innovation] workers requires us to be viewed as far more welcoming overall and a place where young workers can find jobs and affordable homes.” Bussgang’s role at the Commonwealth Summit, and the organizers’ embrace of his perspective, can be a model for other institutions. Massachusetts’ established leaders should remember that insider status is not a hard-earned asset, but an opportunity to reach out to people from different realms, in a perpetually widening circle. In the same spirit that they successfully solicited the involvement of people from underrepresented neighborhoods two or three decades ago, they can recruit those who may be younger and less rooted, and who neither grew up here nor followed a well-trod path to power.
Once the invitations arrive, and the sense of welcome is felt, more young innovators are likely to see the value of being part of a larger and more diverse community. Tomorrow’s John Hancock or Ralph Lowell or Ned Johnson or Bob Kraft is probably sitting over in Brighton or Cambridge right now, in jeans and flip-flops, dreaming of ways to shape the future. He or she needs to know that there’s a larger Massachusetts community that shares that dream and wants deeply to be a part of it.