×

These Midwest towns are starting to rival Silicon Valley

Ladue is an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis
Walter Bibikow | Getty Images
Ladue is an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis

The frustrations evident in the 2016 presidential campaign season were largely fueled by an economy that is leaving too many Americans without employment or sufficient income. And the election was sadly short on real solutions. So what can we do about that?

The only way to address those frustrations on a large enough scale is through an approach that can literally reach every community in the nation. Fortunately, a grassroots movement is sweeping the country that can do just that — transform how Americans grow our local economies through building robust entrepreneurial ecosystems. With Global Entrepreneurship Week approaching, I'm embarking on a four-state Midwest road tour Friday to better understand the opportunities and potential.

I'm teaming up with Phil Wickham, executive chairman of the venture program, Kauffman Fellows, and a legendary figure in start-up investing from Silicon Valley. Together we will spend a week driving from Kansas City to Omaha, Cedar Rapids, Peoria and St. Louis. We want to see what's happening on the ground. We want to talk with real people who are making things happen. We will talk with key players in each city's entrepreneurial community — or ecosystems — and learn more about their challenges and what they're doing to overcome them.

There is a grassroots movement happening to build these ecosystems of entrepreneurial innovation. The beauty of this movement is that every community in the nation already has the required ingredients — either on their own or in combination with others. Those communities can be small towns or neighborhoods, or even broad cities.

Innovation ecosystems are traditionally associated with high-tech communities on the East and West coasts — from Silicon Valley to Seattle; Boston to Washington, D.C. But the potential is everywhere. The Midwest is especially well-suited because of its extraordinary natural resources, manufacturing history, engineering talent and expertise, lower cost of living, and the community-minded spirit that is already pervasive.

The key to strong entrepreneurial ecosystems is not just technology, research institutions, or capital. Instead, it's the willingness of communities to create their own entrepreneurial cultures by connecting existing ingredients to form environments that spawn businesses in new and unexpected ways. These ecosystems start with local ingredients: talent, history, heritage, and custom, as well as local institutions. But what makes each ecosystem unique is the environment and the way the ingredients are mixed.

In an ecosystem, the mixing must be organic rather than planned. Ecosystems bring together people with a shared commitment to see what emerges. That's why diversity is so important, because it enables a combining of skills, backgrounds, experiences and creativity that would not have happened otherwise.

— By Victor Hwang, special to CNBC.com. Mr. Hwang is vice president of entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @rainforestbook