That's exactly what we strive to do with Innovation in Milwaukee (MiKE). In fact, I call it "innovation blind dating." That is, we mash up startups, entrepreneurs, educators and businesses in nontraditional manners and oftentimes the outcome is uncertain. But, just like blind dates, the experience introduces them to each other's unique perspectives.
It's easier for people to see how certain assets are important to generating a strong entrepreneurial environment. The importance of having access to capital, a deep talent pool, a strong customer base and access to mentors can seem obvious. But a region poised to support entrepreneurship is one in which cultural barriers are broken down. It's a culture that supports risk taking, celebrates every tiny success and accepts, not vilifies, every spectacular failure — in essence, a culture that goes on blind dates. This concept of culture is less concrete, making it tougher to understand its importance and how to support its creation.
However, creating that culture is exactly why COMMON Pitch was the perfect fit for Milwaukee. An international event series, COMMON Pitch creates a platform for entrepreneurs to become rockstars. They took the stage for the performance of a lifetime — exposing a broad audience of hundreds to a rarely seen activity, raising awareness of the entrepreneurial activity happening in Milwaukee and around the world.
When a city hosts the Olympics, in most cases it doesn't expect its native athletes to win or even qualify for every event. Nonetheless, hosting the Olympics can do great things for a city and the surrounding region. We are thrilled that two local startups were selected to participate in COMMON Pitch, and in addition, one local high school team and one local college team also pitched their businesses. The representation of local startups out of a global submission process is proof that Milwaukee can become a major player in the startup world. COMMON Pitch was one of many steps being taken to brand Milwaukee as an emerging hot spot for entrepreneurial activity and innovation.
COMMON Pitch was part of Milwaukee Innovation Week, a five-day event highlighting the region's many contributions in the areas of design, technology and innovation. There were events that local entrepreneurs were encouraged to attend and participate in, including the Kohl's Idea Challenge (6/9), the Collaborative Workshop Tours event (6/8), the Battle of the Brands event (geared towards high school and college participants on 6/6), along with networking and social events that included local business executives, investors, entrepreneurs and civic leaders. Over forty organizations contributed to making the week possible. However, Milwaukee Innovation Week is just one component of a much broader effort to support an entrepreneurial environment.
The Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), in conjunction with BizStarts Milwaukee and other partners from the education, philanthropic, business and civic communities, is working tirelessly to develop local seed funds. The GMC runs OPEN MiKE, a free collaborative and co-working lab in downtown Milwaukee that hosts events daily and has over 130 members. The GMC's Talent Dividend and MiKE initiatives partner with the region's higher education institutions to ensure that we are creating the talent to not only meet the innovation needs of our local companies, but the talent that will create Milwaukee's next generation of great companies. The GMC hosts public events for global thought leaders to expose the region to different ways of thinking. Finally, the GMC is connecting the corporate community to the entrepreneurial through events like Milwaukee Innovation Week.
Many companies and entrepreneurs have taken the leap of faith and gone on "blind dates" since we launched MiKE nine months ago. It is thanks to them that we're building the momentum necessary to make a lasting cultural change to support Milwaukee's entrepreneurial environment. And happily, what we have found, when these two communities get together, is that these 'blind dates' often can be very successful…sometimes they even end up with a marriage.
Julia Taylor is president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee.