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G-Sync: We are BetaCity, USA

Job Opportunity: City by the Grand River seeks to value and retain diverse talent, support budding entrepreneurs, and provide engaging educational opportunities for bright minds. See G-Sync's Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen about the new BetaCity, USA.
There are things a city will experience that will resonate long after the event has left the newsfeed of our lives. After the dust settles, thoughtful residents must continue to ask questions in order to make sense of the past and plan well for the future. This week I want to venture into some choppy waters in the hopes of producing not just some calm but also answers about a recent event.

The exit of Dr. David Rosen, former president of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD, FSU) is one of those events. Insiders and administrators are busy conducting a modern legal game of "shut it down," so we may never know all the details. The silence is deafening.

Two weeks have passed since Dr. Rosen's hasty exit. Facebook -- our modern version of the water cooler -- engaged students, faculty, and members of our West Michigan community, who assembled a piece-it-together dialogue about the April 10, 2014 resignation of Dr. Rosen, including what this departure means for our startup culture.

Over the last two years, our city's startup culture has struggled to find its footing. As new players enter our urban landscape, seeking to discover if we have the life-giving stuff necessary to enable an ecosystem of discovery to truly flourish here, we still tend to favor traditional education over innovative discovery.

Dr. Rosen clearly understood one of our city's missions is to advance opportunity for new ideas to flourish by encouraging a startup culture. He worked from within the halls of KCAD because he knew if this culture were to materialize here in Grand Rapids, the colleges and universities of our region would need to provide the life-giving talent necessary. He sought to ensure KCAD would be ready to fill this emerging need.

Rosen jockeyed like an outsider (and operated like a venture capitalist according to leaders in the startup community), making sure his students, faculty and alumni would fill the pipeline with a diverse array of talent. And then, suddenly, he was gone.

In the days immediately following Dr. Rosen's sudden resignation, KCAD faculty and the college senate cast very symbolic votes of “no confidence” for Interim President Oliver Evans and the Vice President of Administration and Finance Sandy Davison-Wilson. It would be easy to conclude from the outside that the teaching body does not believe that Evans is qualified in this role.

But that would be a false conclusion. The faculty has simply affirmed their approval of the methods and mission the college had enacted under Rosen.

Under Rosen's direction, not only did students flourish, but the faculty did as well. KCAD students garnered many headline-grabbing accomplishments, including winning the top honors in Best Execution at the March 2014 Grand Rapids Startup Weekend competition and -- on the day of the resignation -- a front page story on a KCAD student selling a shoe line to Wolverine World Wide for international distribution. The entrepreneurial pipeline was working.

Rosen, unlike other college and university presidents of our past, set the bar for others in this position. He always seemed to be at various events all over the city and served on design-focused boards and innovative initiatives. Rosen was a new kind of president who understood the challenges of our young startup culture. He understood that in order for a startup community to flourish, we need to adhere to a set of principles that ensure we will have a fighting chance to compete as a region.  

That is beginning to happen here in tiny pockets around Grand Rapids, but we still have a long way to go in sharing what "fail fast" means here, in a region based on a risk-averse game plan for far too long. We need a culture change at every level if the leap is to happen. Failure:Lab began in Grand Rapids a year ago and is already a runaway success on the speaker series circuit. We are beginning to better understand the role of failure and are exporting this knowledge to the world.

In the book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in your City, author Brad Feld identifies four factors in his Boulder Thesis that are necessary for a city to change culture and become an effective talent incubator:

•    Entrepreneurs who are hard-wired to make things happen should be placed in environments where they can dream up and begin to execute ideas beyond the starting board, without getting mired down in policy matters or languishing in a state of constant education without practice. (This is something the artists have understood well as they have been encouraged to experiment for some time now.)
•    Leaders in the entrepreneurial movement of the city must act like one and thus make a commitment to the long term, enabling new ecosystems to flourish.
•    A startup community must be a place where inclusion is the name of the game, welcoming people to the table by actually making more room for them to be seated and contribute to the process.
•    An activated community requires that people at every level of this journey into discovery are truly engaging and collaborating with others to unlock dialogue and discovery, not more solitary confinement.

As FSU takes its next steps in the wake of Rosen's departure, many are asking how our community should move forward now that his voice (and what it represents) has been silenced.

So, if I may be so bold, let me offer a few items to consider in crafting our next steps as a community.

Evans is preparing to return to the KCAD community as interim president, a role he has assumed for other colleges since his departure. He has begun to meet with community members to remind and reassure that his role is not to make big changes. According to folks who have met with Evans, he is pledging to carry on the programs and partnerships that KCAD has enacted here in Grand Rapids, often as Rosen had mapped out.

If this is indeed true (and time will tell), then we can expect as a community that his words are FSU's words. If so, the startup community can rest assured that the FSU community understands and supports an environment where innovative ideas can spring forth. If not, both the KCAD community and the entire startup culture in Grand Rapids stand to lose.

As we move forward, we would do well to look at Philly's thriving startup scene. They have been able to identify three key components necessary for fresh talent to remain in their community. A city will need a very rich cultural environment, a good solid talent pool (something aided by the universities and colleges within Philadelphia's region), and an affordability index where young talent is not out-priced, thus driven from the very environment many agree needs their perspective to thrive.

As KCAD questions continue to reverberate through town, at least one has been partially answered, thanks to the investigative journalism of my colleague Brian McVicar of MLive in his investigative piece, "Former Kendall president gets $100,000 separation pay, request to join faculty rejected." The article provides more revealing details of the culture of KCAD and FSU and confirms that the true cost of this silence is a waxed seal on Rosen's file to the tune of a $100,000 severance package.

This deal will no doubt close off much of what has happened in the final days of Rosen's presidency, but I hope it is not the end of the road for KCAD in their role within our community.

Going forward, we want to be a region where even a bad idea can be tested and fail. We want to be a city that values and retains diverse talent, supports budding entrepreneurs, and provides engaging educational opportunities for bright minds.
We want to be not only a place where families come to "settle" but also a place where the next generation of creators and entrepreneurs can take to beta faster than anywhere else on the planet.

That would be a moniker I could get behind because I know it to be true. Besides, BetaCity, USA just sounds fun when you say it a few times.

So, FSU, it is up to you to honor that path that we have all begun together here. I hope you will take a moment to not just examine what Dr. Rosen helped create here but also continue to be a leader in a movement that is needed and nurtured by so many. I, along with so many in our community, look forward to your next move.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

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