In March, we told you about an exciting partnership that we are working on with the city of Rockford, Illinois and the local Rockford Etsy Team to foster entrepreneurship in underserved communities. A lot has happened since then and we wanted to update you on the progress. Right now, along with experts ranging from Etsy sellers to Small Business Administration advisors to local teachers, we’re developing the Craft Entrepreneurship curriculum that will provide the business skills needed to turn craft talent into economic opportunity. Based on a Rockford Housing Authority survey, we’ve learned that residents’ skills and interests range from glass making to sculpting. We are incorporating these findings and gearing up to launch publicly in September with the Housing Authority and Rockford Public Schools.
Last month, Mayor Larry Morrissey and I attended the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting to share our ideas with leaders from government, business and nonprofit sectors. We spent most of our time talking about manufacturing and workforce development and brought a different perspective on the power of entrepreneurship. At the conference, Etsy made a commitment to launch our program in Rockford, then expand to additional cities and make the curriculum available online. In his closing remarks, President Clinton highlighted our commitment as he spoke about an economy of shared prosperity, and turning ideas into action! You can watch his remarks here (jump ahead to 1:19:37 to hear about our program):
Since announcing this initiative in March, we’ve received a lot of follow-up questions from the public. So we got Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson and Mayor Morrissey into conversation to unpack all the big ideas at play in this experiment. What follows is an excerpt.
CD: This is an unorthodox partnership. Typically, when public officials try to create economic opportunities, they want to attract big employers from other jurisdictions. Instead, we are focused on fostering entrepreneurship. Why?
LM: Rockford has suffered the same fate as many older manufacturing communities from decades of learned economic codependency. While the post-WWII manufacturing economy once helped us become one of the wealthiest communities in the country, today we find ourselves far behind.
Like other US cities, our strengths became handicaps. Over the last 50 years, we focused on churning out employees instead of entrepreneurs as we chased after global economic trends. Along the way, we lost many of our local business owners; we saw the making of actual goods devalued; and we saw many high-paying manufacturing jobs leave as our nation celebrated new sectors like financial services. The net result today is that much of our community’s aggregate wealth goes to out-of-town owners through national retail chains and national or international industrial employers.
While a job working for a big industrial or retail employer may work for some of our citizens, many have been left behind. The combined impact of service jobs has not resulted in a net benefit to our community. Sadly, we’ve lost much of the resilience and self-reliance we once had when we were a city made up of strong local crafters, manufacturers and entrepreneurs. Only entrepreneurship can ensure that we break our cycle of dependency.
Etsy generates the energy and opportunities for entrepreneurship that once characterized communities like Rockford all around the country. The type of partnership we have created with Etsy has the benefit of low cost and great agility. We’re not starting from scratch. We’re activating existing assets with a fundamentally different approach. The potential to create positive, active economic output is outstanding.
CD: We’re inspired by your vision and agree that the potential is huge, but Etsy is only one piece of the puzzle. How do you think about holistically creating economic growth in Rockford?
LM: Our most important and promising resource is our people. Unfortunately, our 20th century industrial model drove many talented individuals to “sit on the bench” waiting for someone else to hire them or provide support for them. But positive changes are happening right now. Human capital is the biggest asset we have for creating new economic opportunities in Rockford and building a culture of entrepreneurship support putting that capital to work.
Cities are filled with incredible resources and, frankly, all of the necessary ingredients to “save ourselves.” Federal resources have their place, but we need to solve our local challenges with local assets. Communities like Rockford spend millions of tax dollars annually on public schools, parks and recreation, community colleges, workforce training efforts, public housing and assistance programs, and more. Instead of working in silos, like we did in the past, we’re working to align goals and resources around a shared table. We’re exploring areas where we can work in partnership with our private sector toward new economic enterprises.
Spending money and having the component parts are not enough. We need to act differently. It’s inspiring to think of how much we can accomplish by activating our many community institutions and assets with new, low-cost technology tools and platforms that have already been created like Etsy.
CD: These are really big, challenging problems to solve. What do you tell naysayers who think entrepreneurship is too risky for vulnerable populations, or that our partnership isn’t scalable enough for what your city needs?
LM: If necessity is the so-called mother of invention, we have to become the best inventors in the country. Communities like Rockford have the greatest incentive to shift quickly to a 21st century economy of producers. This is the human economy that Etsy represents.
We have making and creating in our bones. The non-maker, consumer economy is the anomaly. If we can drive entrepreneurship into the American education system and the American social services system, we will see a massive change in economic achievement.
We’re seeing an explosion of new platforms like Etsy that allow people to use their skills and interests to make a living while growing their knowledge and avoiding debt. The maker movement and sharing economy movements offer a pathway for resilience and sustainability that bodes very well for cities like Rockford that support and facilitate community interactions and creativity.
Are you interested in having a Craft Entrepreneurship launch in your town? Let us know. We want to hear your thoughts on where we should expand after the Rockford pilot program!