Your Turn: Community needs to provide real opportunities

My primary job as a school board member is to provide educators with the resources and leadership they need to produce thoughtful, well-rounded graduates.

As a community member and business owner, however, I feel it is also my duty to create opportunities for these same graduates to work, live and play in their home town. Too many of our best and brightest leave Lawrence after high school and never return. To encourage our graduates to work and raise their families here, we need to provide them with real opportunities.

Unfortunately, these opportunities are sorely lacking. It’s a sad fact that despite years of effort by the Lawrence Chamber and millions of dollars of spending through tax incentives, Lawrence has fewer job opportunities today than it had 10 years ago.

This needs to change. We can’t afford another lost decade, another generation of young people fleeing our community to build their lives elsewhere.

That is why three months ago my company and a dozen local startups suggested that the new Chamber CEO change the direction of our economic development efforts. We wanted our community’s economic development efforts focused on entrepreneurship and startups.

This past week I got a chance to see the first draft of the new strategy. It was very gratifying to see that the Chamber and economic development corporation (EDC) is beginning to take entrepreneurship seriously. The EDC is looking at a number of mechanisms to support entrepreneurs. Included in the plan is funding to support event spaces, mentorship programs, startup activities, even a revolving loan fund.

This amazing progress is proof that with leadership from local entrepreneurs our city’s economic development staff can adapt to a changing economy. They can be encouraged to deploy limited government resources in a way that promotes the creation and growth of local businesses.

That doesn’t mean, however, that government should do it alone.

Local business people who have profited from tax abatements, TIF districts and taxpayer funded infrastructure need to get out their checkbooks and support this local effort. After all, a vibrant startup community means more hotel rooms rented, apartments leased and homes purchased.

The same goes for entrepreneurs themselves. Any loan programs should require matching investments. Any mentorship programs will require time from established business leaders. Any startup community will be catalyzed by the entrepreneurs themselves.

In some ways this is already happening. On Sept. 26, our local startup community will be holding its first “startup weekend” at the public library. This event is powered by Google for Entrepreneurs and allows interested community members to come out, pitch an idea, work with talented designers and developers, build a business plan and present a prototype. The best part? Participants get to go home at the end of the weekend with new friends, new experiences and no long term commitment.

That’s not the case with entrepreneurship in general. Supporting entrepreneurship is going to take a concerted, committed effort from local leaders. It may take years before a local entrepreneur comes up with a big idea, capitalizes her company and takes the world by storm, but when she does she’ll grow her company and create jobs right here in Lawrence, Kan.

With support from the public, local government, local educators and established businesses, we can build a community that values entrepreneurship, works to build up local businesses and gives our children the opportunity to earn a brighter future.