Experts: Encouraging connections crucial to inclusive Madison economy

The Madison region has a long way to go to fix longstanding economic disparities, but it must start by bringing the community together, experts agree.

That’s why Manuel Pastor, a University of Southern California professor, called yesterday’s MadREP and Urban League of Greater Madison summit a “remarkable thing.” Pastor noted while the Madison economy is growing, the city is “doing pretty badly” in leaving some people behind.

And economic development leaders, he said, need to ensure their efforts target those disparities.

“This is not something that’s an add-on,” Pastor said. “It’s fundamental and key to economic growth.”

The summit came as MadREP released a survey showing diversity and inclusion numbers among employers in the region who responded. The survey found men made up 68.6 percent of company leadership positions and 64.9 percent of board of director spots.

It also found 90 percent of respondents don’t have a staff member dedicated to diversity, and 86 percent of respondents don’t have a written diversity statement. Only 2 percent of respondents, meanwhile, said they have a supplier diversity program.

The third annual summit featured discussions on such topics, bringing more than 500 community and business leaders across the eight-county Madison region to Monona Terrace.

“I think it was a success,” Urban League President & CEO Ruben Anthony said after the event. “We really found a way to marry diversity and inclusion and economic development in a way that’s probably not happening in a lot of other places around the country.”

That’s important, said Assistant U.S. Secretary of Commerce Jay Williams, because the regions that succeed are the ones that “wholly embrace and encourage diversity and inclusion.”

But it’s easier said than done, and there’s still much more research needed on how to make sure there’s a more diverse pool of entrepreneurs, said Yasuyuki Motoyama, the director of Research and Policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Motoyama pointed to some reasons why there’s a nationwide gap of women and minority entrepreneurs. One study, for example, looked at the gender gap in St. Louis and found women sometimes see themselves as “business owners” instead of “entrepreneurs,” and therefore don’t seek out resources for entrepreneurs.

But there’s also a broader issue of making sure women and minorities know about word-of-mouth resources and events, he said.

Eugenie Podesta, the co-founder of Madison’s Synergy Coworking space, said at one of the panels that accessing the right resources was an issue she faced early on. Now, she said, the challenge is narrowing down which one of the countless talks on social media will actually help her business.

“There’s so much I didn’t know existed, but I’m starting to find out now,” she said. “That was a huge lost opportunity.”

And though organizations often try expanding services to women and minorities, Motoyama said, their efforts sometimes fail because they don’t make enough changes. That means that successful outreach requires bringing in guest speakers, mentors or leaders that look like them. Those talks also have no reason to be dumbed down yet sometimes are, he added.

Though there’s lots of room to experiment, Motoyama said, business leaders need to take the lessons so far into account.

“There is no textbook that will say, ‘This is the way to do it,’” Motoyama said.

— By Polo Rocha,