At a recent power breakfast event hosted by Business Report, three speakers discussed the potential of our city and state as well as the need for vision and leadership as we work as a team. The speakers included Congressman Garret Graves, Dr. John Kirwan, executive director of Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and Kenny Nguyen, a 29-year-old entrepreneur.
Nguyen was the first person under the age of 30 we’ve had as a power breakfast speaker—and, yes, we should have invited one sooner. What’s also true is that Nguyen was one of the youngest people in a room of 500 business and elected leaders.
But why was that the case if an almost universally accepted Capital Region goal is to retain and recruit more young talent? How many times have we been told that these young professionals are critical to competing economically with other cities?
Given that, how can we convince millennials, who will soon make up half of our workforce, that they are valued and that their ideas are welcome if we don’t give them a seat at the table?
In 2003, during the first canvas trip BRAC organized, with some 130 leaders traveling to Austin, we heard a lot about how young people came and then chose to remain in a city that 25 years earlier looked an awful lot like Baton Rouge. They were eager and creative and didn’t hear “but that’s not the way we’ve always done it.”
I looked around that group and could count on one hand the number of canvas attendees under the age of 40 (and found out most of that number had been invited on scholarship. Good idea.) I remember asking the head of BRAC at the time how many of its almost 50-member board were under 40. The answer was “zero.”
Of course, there was mass agreement by those on the trip that Baton Rouge and BRAC—as well as other influential business, government and community groups—needed to have more young people at the table, but who was going to give up their seat?
Last week, I asked how many of the current BRAC board of more than 50 are under the age of 40. I learned it is now five. Though that number is a step forward, is it enough? What if some top investors on the board would designate a 30-, 35- or 40-year-old in their company to represent them and bring new ideas, energy and perspective? (And this can apply to other nonprofit organizations in town as well.)
As I have shared before, Austin’s mayor told us on that canvas trip 17 years ago that the one thing we should take home with us was this: “Find out what it takes to attract that 25-year-old entrepreneur to your community and build on that.”
Recently, Inc. magazine announced its list of top 50 cities for startups. Austin was No. 1. No city from Louisiana was on the list.
Since 2003, Austin has focused on what attracts youth and entrepreneurs and now it leads the nation in job growth and high-growth company density. What did we do with the advice that mayor gave us in 2003? What will we do in 2020 and going forward for the next 17 years?
Ross DeVol—president and CEO of Heartland Forward, a nonprofit think tank focused on improving economic performance—spoke at the 2019 CPEX Smart Growth Summit. He shared that communities that intentionally invest in entrepreneurs and young businesses are the ones that will grow and thrive in the 21st century.
“It’s not small firms that create growth, its young firms that scale up,” he said. “It’s important to innovate and create new firms because eventually your anchor firms are not going to be as dominant.” Young entrepreneurs matter.
This was confirmed for me in BRAF’s 2019 CityStats survey on East Baton Rouge Parish. When asked what would make young people stay here, 90% said “job opportunities.” The importance of entrepreneurs and startups creating those jobs is critical. In the survey, almost half of parents (45%) said they would encourage their children when grown, to move from Baton Rouge. And another 44% said “It didn’t matter.” But it does matter because those young people are the future. Half of the population in EBR is 34 and under—and it shrinks every time one more moves.
CityStats showed that 76% of EBR residents are born in Louisiana, meaning our “status quo” is large and new ideas and outside advice have been resisted. (This could explain why we didn’t pursue the advice of Austin’s mayor 17 years ago.)
The survey also revealed that 69% of East Baton Rouge residents believe “the pace of progress is too slow,” with the number jumping to 77% among those in the 30-49 age group. This select group of young people were between the ages of 13 and 32 when the Austin Canvas trip occurred and they of course had no seat at the table to implement—and most still don’t. But the rest of us don’t have an excuse. We dropped the ball.
Nguyen was 12 at the time of the Austin trip. He is the co-founder of ThreeSixtyEight, was recognized as a “30 under 30” by Forbes in his field of marketing, and was named Business Report’s 2019 Young Businessperson of the Year. He went to LSU and started his business when he was 20—and he is bullish on Baton Rouge and an advocate for his hometown and his peers.
He stressed that to establish Baton Rouge as a creative headquarters in the South, we need to keep our talent from leaving. Businesses need to be recruiting not just university students, but start with high school students. (Have you heard of the Young Entrepreneurs Association?) By reaching out to the younger generation, leaders help ensure the next generation of talent is invested in the community and wants to remain in the Capital Region to work and start a business.
Last week, Adam Knapp, the president and CEO of BRAC, said work will soon begin on the plan that will guide that organization for the next five years. He said they would meet with many over the next six months as they look to develop goals to pursue into the new decade. Knapp said some of those meetings would be with young professionals and business leaders to help gather input on the new plan.
That’s a smart idea but it can’t be once every five years during a planning session. Young talent needs to have a seat at the table throughout the year at BRAC and all community organizations. And make sure entrepreneurs are among those. It’s their future being planned.
Nguyen had a challenge for all in attendance at the breakfast, encouraging the audience to engage, develop and hear the young people in their respective companies and throughout our community. “If you don’t elevate the people you have, they’re going to find somewhere else to jump,” he said.
How are we doing in 2020, and are we willing to think differently, take risks and change? We can’t wait 17 more years—and our young talent won’t wait.
Business events coming soon
Mark your calendar now and get details and tickets at businessreport.com/events:
Feb. 20, special event: Jon Gordon, whose best-selling books and talks have inspired readers and audiences around the world, will share his ideas for elevating your leadership and your team.
March 24, Business Awards & Hall of Fame: Join us as we recognize achievement and success in the Capital Region.