Ph.D.s Should Not Drive Cabs

Ph.D.s Should Not Drive Cabs

Let’s agree, Madison is a great place to live. But let’s stop saying, “Madison’s quality of life is so good that our Ph.D.s stay to drive cabs.” This isn’t a pride point; it’s a gruesome waste of human potential. We should be ashamed. Madison has to become more than a good place to live. It has to become a great place for our next generation to flourish.

We all agree, right? So why hasn’t it happened?

Well, Madison has never had a plan. We’ve relied on our stable base of university and government jobs for growth. Austin, Texas, used to do that. So did Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. But while Madison’s been coasting on its 1960s hippie vibe, other university towns have been experimenting with and fine-tuning their economic development models.

Here are three things Madison needs to turbo-charge our economy and make it more than a great place to retire:

1. Create an entrepre-neurial support organization, or ESO.

ESOs exist solely to help entrepreneurs grow high-potential businesses. The Chamber doesn’t do this, nor does Thrive. ESOs are based on more than thirty years of research showing that some start-ups have the potential to really grow, and some don’t. Trouble is, most economic development plans treat all start-ups the same. Wrong! We should focus on the high-potential start-ups, which usually meet the following criteria:

In Madison, the only business I can think of that meets these criteria is Epic. If we had an ESO, we’d have a half-dozen Epics.

2. Press pause on all activities to attract new businesses and press fast-forward on all activities to retain and grow the businesses that are already here.

There’s a saying in business: “It’s cheaper to keep a current customer than it is to attract a new one.” Same thing in economic develop-ment. The era of “big game hunting”—trying to attract large companies—is over. There are fewer big projects, and attracting them requires insane bribes (e.g., tax breaks). What’s more, as any girl who was raised right will tell you, he won’t buy the cow if he can get the milk for free. We won’t keep businesses that move to Madison only because we offered the best economic incentives.

A better use of our atrophied economic development muscle is to do what the smarties in Halifax, Nova Scotia, do. They meet with every business and ask, “Do you want to grow?” If not, they go to the next business. If yes, they proceed to the next questions: “What are your barriers to growth, and what kind of help do you need?” Then they turn the answers into an economic development plan.

3. Hire (or enable) creative people to think differently and get dirty when it comes to economic development.

Vibrant economies ride the line between chaos and stability. Madison has plenty of stability. We need a little more chaos.

Austin was a stable college town—not a Top 20 music market—in 1987 when South by Southwest was born. And when Monica Doss was hired away from the North Carolina Museum of Art to head Raleigh-Durham’s Council for Entrepreneurial Development, she started with a heretical act: She separated great ideas from the people who had them, giving both a true opportunity to thrive. Twenty years later, Raleigh–Durham’s Research Triangle is a pulsing mass of innovation.

Both cities are case studies for Madison’s economic development future.

I know, some of you are saying, “Rebecca, we have the Chamber and Thrive’s Advance Now strategy!” It’s not enough. It’s riddled with safe words like “coordinate” and “facilitate.” These are white-collar events that will be carried out during bankers’ hours by men in suits. By contrast, most of the exciting economic development stuff I see in Madison happens online or in bars, after hours, carried out by folks who don’t own suits.

It’s not going to be easy. Madison is already a decade or more behind. We don’t have the economic develop-ment infrastructure or playbook that other communities have spent the last generation building. But I have faith. Babies are born in blood and chaos. And I believe we have the muscle to push.

Rebecca Ryan is a futurist who’s worked with more than fifty cities in North America on strategies to engage and retain young talent. Contact Rebecca Ryan at